It Happened To Me Contest Entry: I Crashed And Burned On Two Game Shows

I spent most of my life convinced that my prodigious trivia brain was going to one day make me famous.
Publish date:
February 8, 2013
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By Jessica Liese

I spent my childhood believing that someday, someone out there would recognize my particular talents and reward them with accolades and money, and the world would know that I was special. Didn't you? Didn't everybody?

Of course, most of the world gets over this idea before it has time to damage them on a grander scale. Not me. I spent most of my life convinced that my prodigious trivia brain was going to one day make me famous.

My ability to retain and produce useless information has always been unparalleled, no matter who I'm hanging out with. And it hasn't been totally useless. I've parlayed my talent into a job at a reference publisher and a two-year stint writing questions for bar trivia. When you play bar trivia with me, you're virtually guaranteed to drink for free.

The fact that there was an entire television show devoted to my exact special talent made my dream seem slightly less ridiculous. From the time I was a kindergartener crushing on that cool guy with the mustache and impeccable French pronunciation, my singular life goal was to win on "Jeopardy."

I sent in a postcard every year as soon as I was old enough to qualify for any of the special tournaments, but it wasn't until I was 25 that the Clue Crew finally granted me a chance to take The Test.

See, they don't just let any old rando off the street be on Jeopardy, even though it sometimes seems that way. Everyone on any trivia-based game show has had to take a fairly extensive written test with roughly a 5-10% pass rate. The vast majority of those who pass could give Ken Jennings a competitive game of Trivial Pursuit.

What you're seeing when you see a person do poorly on a game show is not a lack of skill, but a lack of luck, and barring a very, very small subset of people like Jennings (who wrote quiz bowl questions for years before going on Jeopardy), most people who win a lot of money have at least a little bit of luck on their side.

Hell, getting a chance to take that test in the first place takes some luck, as my decade-long postcard campaign demonstrates. But I aced The Test, as I knew I would, and luck was on my side when they called me a few months later. Watch out, Ken, I thought. There's a new sheriff in town.

My luck ran out the instant my game started. In Douglas Coupland's "Microserfs," he describes characters by listing their ideal Jeopardy categories. This particular day, the game board consisted of what amounted to the bizarro opposite version of my Coupland categories.

Although it wasn't just me, it seemed. All three of us sat numbly while six or seven ridiculously impossible questions came and went. Legal terms? Famous Jasons? Finland? Finland? Was this a Jeopardy game or a Monty Python sketch?

I wrestled my way to a thoroughly acceptable, if slightly disappointing, second-place finish, and consoled myself with the fact that it wasn't a blowout. I'd made new friends and had a great story to tell, plus I got 2,000 bucks and a photo of myself and Alex Trebek in a nice frame for my troubles.

Just getting to play was fun in itself. Meeting Trebek was a lifelong dream realized. Maybe I should have taken this as a sign that I was not meant to win money on television.

Over time, though, it gnawed at me. Given a second chance, I thought, I'd surely have better questions and better luck.

Five years later, the second chance came when I decided to take a swing at the other TV trivia juggernaut, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" It wasn't hard to wrangle an audition, since they tape the show right across town from my apartment and hold tryouts regularly at the studio. All you have to do is show up. I aced it as easily as I aced Jeopardy's test. It was time, I thought, to avenge my Jeopardy loss.

This, of course, is not what actually happened. My second run at game-show glory is readily available on YouTube, because it was so devastating that game-show superfans apparently hold it up as some kind of example.

I didn't blow it per se. I might have had an easier time taking that. No, like "Jeopardy," I just got stuck with some seriously bad questions, coupled this time with some seriously bad randomized dollar amounts and the fact that there were no other contestants onstage to share the misery with me.

Finland and legal terms seemed like a sweet dream compared with using my lifelines to "jump" the two highest-dollar-value questions on the board. I tried to keep a sense of humor about the whole thing, but it was obvious to everyone that it just wasn't my day.

Eventually I was put out of my misery (thanks to my "ask the audience" lifeline, in which 75 percent of the audience voted for the wrong answer, because of course they did) and escorted off the set to where my boyfriend, who'd been my designated "loved one," was waiting backstage.

I stumbled through some final paperwork and followed him out the studio door and across the street to Ollie's Noodle Shop, where he ordered me a glass of chardonnay and a plate of chicken with broccoli while I checked my phone for belated good-luck messages to delete.

Instead, the first thing I saw was an ex-coworker's Facebook note expressing her condolences about the massive layoffs that were evidently happening at my company that day. At this point, I could have been hit with a falling piano and I wouldn't have been surprised.

Getting laid off on the same day I humiliated myself for national television? Seemed about right.

I called my boss, who assured me I still had a job, as long as I wasn't preparing to quit because I'd just won a million dollars. She added that I should probably not blow off the rest of the day as I'd been planning.

Back at the office, tension settled heavily around the empty desks of my now ex-coworkers. Everyone who remained was so shell-shocked that nobody asked me how the show had gone, and this, of course, was fine with me. There was really only one thing I could do -– get back to work and forget the whole thing ever happened for six months, until a handful of poorly spelled indictments of my character from assorted Internet strangers let me know that my episode had finally made it to air.

Self-deprecating humor, as it turns out, translates poorly to Millionaire's devoted fans, several of whom felt the need to contact me directly regarding my bad attitude and "scary" personality.

For the second time in my life, I'd failed to wow the world with my trivia prowess. More to the point, for the second time in my life, dumb luck had kept me from leveraging my trivia skills into a life-changing windfall.

But if I hadn't realized it before, coming back to work that afternoon hammered the point home -– my life did not actually need changing. Whether or not the world at large was made aware of my prodigious trivia brain, all of these things are still true: I still have a job I love. I have an awesome boyfriend (who is now an awesome fiancé), great friends, and a wonderful family.

A million dollars might have been nice, but if the worst problem in my life is that I don't have a million dollars and a few strangers didn't like me when they saw me on television, I'm doing OK by anybody's measure.

So the only place you'll see my trivia skills in the near future is in the bar. Winning free drinks instead of cash basically amounts to cutting out the middleman anyway.