Game One Recap...  Kathy Cassity

I arrived home from my regular season games on September 8, 2001, so the memories of my first Jeopardy taping are always connected with September 11th. It was a crazy time in the news business and I worked long, stressful hours for a couple of weeks. Oddly enough, the Iraq war would break out as I was flying home from the Tournament of Champions, so once again I would associate returning from Jeopardy with major world crises and crazy days at work. My husband said to me later, "Have you noticed that every time you play Jeopardy, the world blows up?"

For a time, I kept halfhearted count of how many five-time and four-time winners there were, but after awhile there seemed to be too many people, so I gave up hope, closed the Jeopardy chapter in my life and moved on. In summer 2002, we moved to Reno when my husband got a job there, and it occurred to me a few weeks after we arrived that I should send updated contact info to Maggie, though I didn't really expect to hear from Jeopardy ever again.

Flash forward to February 2003. I'm now living in the desert, raising our son, captioning, and teaching part-time at the Reno community college. Nobody I meet in this new town knows I was on Jeopardy. The few people who come to our house --- babysitters, mostly --- never even comment on the Alex Trebek picture. I find out later they all thought it was a cardboard cutout from the county fair. (This became my Tourney interview anecdote, unfortunately the high point of my game for me.)

Then one day my phone rings and I see a strange area code on the caller I.D. that is nevertheless vaguely familiar. "This is Susanne Thurber from Jeopardy," says a voice from somewhere in my past. "You missed the tournament by one! But we'd love to have you come and be our alternate." She explains that I'll get to hang out in the green room all day and I'll get to play if one of the other contestants dies or something. On the plus side, I'll get a free trip, per diem, and $500 for hanging around. So close, yet so far --- but maybe it's better this way, because I haven't exactly been studying for the past year and a half.

About a week later, my cell phone rings while I'm driving my son to preschool, winding through a particularly brown section of Nevada desert. I see that "310" area code and nearly drive off a cliff. When I say "Hello," Susanne says, "You're in!", and I pull off the road to make sure I don't hit anything --- not that there's much in Nevada to hit (beware the killer sagebrush). Susanne explains that Vinita, one of the college champs, has finals at Stanford and will be invited next year. I call my husband the minute his morning class lets out, then I call my brother and my sister and spend the rest of the morning sending out massive emails to all my friends when I am supposed to be grading papers.

Trouble is, two or three weeks isn't a lot of time to prepare for a tournament of champions, either for absorbing information or, perhaps more importantly, for psyching yourself up.

The Tournament, Pre-Game: My first contestant sighting was Max Levaren in the elevator on Monday. Her episodes had aired fairly recently, and she's so immediately recognizable, so friendly and upbeat. That was the first time it really dawned on me why I was there. My second sighting was in the coffee shop on Tuesday morning around 7, when I saw Jason McCune sitting in a booth drinking coffee. I had been impressed with what a gutsy player he was.

One of the trippier moments was walking into the lobby and seeing all these faces that had previously appeared at home on my television. I think I managed to catch at least one of everybody's games, so it was like a massive celebrity sighting. The only person I didn't remember seeing before was this tall blond guy with glasses who introduced himself as Brian. Of course that is a face I will now never forget.

When I met Faith, I felt for her in her thankless alternate role, especially since until a few days prior, that had been my spot. So I knew it had to be tough. I joked with her later that if I'd had a crystal ball, I would've traded places with her.

For some reason Brian and I were called first into the makeup chair, and then hauled out of the room for Internet interviews before everybody else. Brian went first.

So I'm standing there listening to the interview: "Anything special about your shows?" "Well," says Brian, "I set the all-time record for total earnings..." Oh. "And I set the record for one-day earnings," he continues, uttering an amount that is eerily close to my four-day total. When my turn comes, I give an earnings total that's like $100,000 less than his. Then the first question is something like, "I understand you'd like to clarify a mistake you made in your previous game?" My confidence at this point is shrinking by the second, and it's starting to get almost comical, in a Monty Python-esque sort of way --- or at least it would be, provided it were happening to someone other than myself.

Next we find out why we were pulled for makeup and interviews so early. Brian and I have our own "crews" --- camera people and reporters who flew down to "follow" us. I've never had my own crew before, and I utter some unintelligible garbage to this reporter, Vicky, who I see on the news all the time. I'm now beginning to realize that I have not fully understood how much more intense the pressure would be this time around. It's hard to act normal with a "crew" following you around; no wonder the Real World people are always fighting.

Rehearsal. I can't buzz in first to state my own name, and when I do, I miss easy things. I can't get a rhythm going, and I'm starting to worry I will make an ass of myself. This after telling the interviewer, "Oh, I'm not nervous. I haven't had time to get nervous." Goes to show you, don't always believe what people say. By this time I am starting to feel like I do not belong there, and my presence is thoroughly accidental. And I am starting to berate myself for the flaws in my first 5-game run, believing that a guaranteed berth would have given me more time to prepare as well as a different attitude. I do still believe that to be the case, but I realize now I should not have been pummeling myself like I was--I was only making things worse.

I need to emphasize, none of this is Brian's doing. He couldn't have been more gracious, and he's a collegial competitor. I think he knew I was psyching myself out, and while we were walking back to the Green Room together, he did all he could to encourage me not to do so. But I was careening down that path already, and that was my own doing. Brian didn't psyche me out; I did. By the time we got to the Green Room, I had only two hopes: (a) don't make me go first, and (b) don't make me play against Brian.

Well, you all know how well my pleas were received by the universe. I got nabbed with the double whammy. Make that triple whammy --- I was wowed by Ben Tritle when I watched him on TV, so I was just as afraid of playing against him as I was of playing against Brian.

At the time, I thought it was good that at least I wasn't jet lagged this time around. In retrospect, though, I think jet lag helped my original performance. Feeling "fuzzy" seemed to turn off some kind of conscious worrying mechanism that often gets in my way. And it didn't sound right to hear myself introduced as a "closed captioner and teacher from Reno, Nevada." I am not from Reno, Nevada, and the move was not really "taking" (you may have deduced that already). I had this almost surreal sense that Johnny Gilbert was talking about a person who didn't even exist.

My So-Called Game: I wish the story I have to tell were different, but I know I won't be alone in that regard over the next two weeks.

The categories weren't particularly well tailored to my strengths, but they weren?t awful either. Problem was, Brian and Ben are two of the all-time buzzer meisters, and whenever I was certain I knew something, so did they. I actually hung in there for awhile, and even managed to land a Daily Double in First Ladies, a category I thought I knew pretty well. My strategy on DD?s is similar to my retirement investment strategy: be aggressive when there?s time to make up your losses, become more conservative as the day of reckoning approaches. Since it was early in the game, I decided to be bold and bet $1000 of my $1400.

But I'd neglected to consider two factors: (1) When you're playing against Brian Weikle and Ben Tritle, it's never early in the game. (2) I'm susceptible to DD freeze phenomenon. This time, I locked on the Lincoln association with Illinois, forgetting about Kentucky completely. (And why I thought Grace Coolidge had Kentucky connections, I will never know. Hey, it was a wild guess.) Had I taken my Achilles tendon into account, I'd have hedged that bet.

Meanwhile, my US History professor husband is sitting in the studio audience with five of our friends, cringing as his wife massacres multiple history questions. I blurt out Civil War battles in a Revolutionary War category (lots of good it did me to caption History Book TV on Cspan 2!) I forget that Michael Bay directed Pearl Harbor, even though I was living in Hawaii when it premiered and the headline that day was "Director Michael Bay Arrives at Pearl Harbor." I mean, where does this knowledge go when you are under pressure? I can?t remember the names of any hard candies. I buzz in on a $2,000 word puzzle clue, forgetting the word I intended to say as soon as Alex calls my name (probably because I was so shocked to hear my name, it was so rarely spoken). I try to re-read the clue, but at this point my head is buzzing and my ears are ringing and my vision is so blurry that I can hardly make out the letters on the board. On World Lit, my field, I know all five questions but can't even get to the buzzer on a single one --- not even Canterbury Tales, which I teach. (Hard to believe that was a $2,000 clue!)

At one point I realize it's not mathematically possible to pull out of negative territory, and I just want it to end soon so I can sit down and get off my wobbly legs.

I remember giving my husband and our five friends a "thumbs-down" as I approached what I now call the Seat of Shame (the director type chair where those who don't make it to FJ must sit). And I remember the look on my husband's face --- after twenty-four years of marriage, a look says it all between us. I knew he was feeling bad for me, and I felt bad that he felt bad, and I just wanted to be with him at that point, but it was like five hours before I finally got to talk to him. I think that was the hardest part.

The kicker is that I would have gotten the Final Jeopardy right. We were living in England when the Chunnel construction commenced, so that, I would have remembered.

And I felt bad for Ben --- to play so well under challenging circumstances and then get one of those FJ brain locks that I am all too familiar with. It's a terrible feeling.

I think the worst part of not making it to Final is not getting to schmooze at the end. There's that conspicuous hole where a third person should be, and I think that's not fun for anybody.

And then "my crew" from KOLO TV asks me if I can do a "post-game interview." At first I say "no," but then I think, you can do this. You see athletes who lose the big one do it all the time. I decide to think of myself as the Jeopardy equivalent of the figure skater who misses her first triple jump and can't land anything after that ...I mean, where would they get that "Agony of Defeat" film footage without people like us? I would have preferred a different role, of course, but if this is the way the chips have fallen, then I may as well play that role with as much class as I can muster.

So I did the interview, but I have no idea what I said. I was still feeling dizzy. Guess I will find out tonight when, I am told, I will appear on the TV news twice and also in the newspaper. Ugh. I always thought publicity would be fun, but I would have preferred to get it for something at which I had succeeded.

I said in my regular season play that you should view your competitors as an impetus to take yourself to a higher level of personal performance. I still believe that; I think this is what the truly greats, like Tiger Woods, manage to do. Somehow I was able to do that the first time when I played against Frank in game #1. In his own way he was as intimidating as Ben and Brian, yet that time, I refused to get psyched out. This time, I let myself fall. Same setup; different self-concept; much sadder result.

Another thing that upset me was my failure to learn from my own game #5 loss. Once again, I under-performed because I forgot to have fun. I clenched and tried to force myself instead of relaxing and letting it happen. Call it "Zen and the Art of Jeopardy."

I believe the real competition is always with some aspect of ourselves. The way the tournament is structured, it was possible for all three of us to advance to the next round. Ben and Brian are both awesome players, and the boards weren't particularly well tailored to me, but I was still capable of holding my own, and it's my own fault I didn't. Ben and Brian didn't defeat me; I defeated myself, and that was the hardest part to accept. I also don't think they took any pleasure in my self-immolation; they are each the type of contestant who would have preferred a real game, and certainly the viewing audience would rather have seen one. I feel like I let a lot of people down that day, and it's not indicative of my true capabilities. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I wasn't able to capitalize on it.

Fortunately, I?ve been bouncing back in the past six weeks, and I'm finding I've come out of it a winner in ways that I hadn't imagined. There is the five grand, of course --- always good to have that. Even better than that was meeting such terrific people, with qualities that go beyond mere brains and speed. I'm still in touch with many of them and I hope to see everyone again someday, under less pressured circumstances.

Our biggest news stems from a realization I had a few days after the TOC: The things you fantasize about doing if you win a bunch of money are the things you should be doing. We'd talked about moving back to Hawaii if I did well, and after the tournament, we realized we don?t need $250,000 to do that. So we decided to go back, and at first we thought we'd stick it out here for another year to set ourselves up for the move. Then during an Easter vacation in San Francisco, we both realized that life is way too short for marking time. So, we're going back to Hawaii this August. The way things turned out, my husband resigned from his job today --- my air date. I guess there's some poetic symmetry in that.

(Come to think of it, I?m not sure which made me look less intelligent --- the way I performed at the tournament, or the fact that I would move from Hawaii to Nevada in the first place. You gotta wonder.)

Oh, yeah, and yesterday I braced for tonight's show by buying myself a new car. No, not a Jag, but it will do--it's an electric-blue PT Cruiser. I consider it a kind of a present to myself for going through this whole experience; I didn't win a car, but I earned one. (Plus, I did get to ride in Ben's Jag the next day, so I didn't miss out on the experience entirely.)

More life changes are sure to follow from this experience; this story is still unfolding. No, it '?s not the story I would have chosen --- but I have a feeling in the long run, it might end up pretty interesting anyway. Only one person can win the big prize, but I don't think any of us came out of there as total losers. Nope, not even me.

And hey, maybe since I can't play Jeopardy anymore, we can finally have peace on earth.

     KATHY CASSITY' S

  TOP TEN REASONS WHY I WENT IN THE HOLE AT THE TOC

1. Martha Stewart told me it would look tasteful if the color of my dollar total matched my sweater.

2. In my previous life, I was Napoleon Bonaparte. (Beware of that karma thing.)

3. My second grade Sunday School teacher told me that girls should always let boys win, so that the boys will not be intimidated. I thought this was excellent advice.

4. See, I was planning this dramatic comeback in Triple Jeopardy ...

5. Buzzer? What buzzer? I've been politely waiting all this time for that guy Alex up there to call on me!

6. I sought to achieve spiritual enlightenment by identifying with the downtrodden and oppressed.

7. But I enjoy public humiliation! Whip me! Whip me!

8. I was testing my friends to see if they love me for who I am, or if they were just hoping I'd pick up all the restaurant tabs for the next ten years.

9. I figured Ben and Brian would need a lot of money to pay for the maintenance on their Jaguars, and I wanted to be nice to them.

10. I was distracted because Ben wasn't wearing any pants.