I HAD BEEN wanting to go on Jeopardy! for as long as I can remember, and that desire never had much to do with money. I held (and still hold) Jeopardy! in unmatched esteem among TV programs for the same reasons heartlanders love Roseanne and dweebs love The Big Bang Theory—the show reflects my people and my principles. Where else on television can one witness ill-dressed and ill-at-ease rule-followers thriving?
When former SPORTS ILLUSTRATED senior writer Franz Lidz wrote about Jeopardy! in 1989, the show, then five years into its current Alex Trebek--hosted incarnation, was already a cultural phenomenon. It has had such staying power for the nearly three decades since because it strikes several valuable balances: It is scholarly but not snobby; rigorous but not barbaric; traditional but not fusty.
This past November, after years of trying, I got the call that I'd be appearing on the show. We would tape in January; it'd air in April. As the date approached, I panicked over my opera illiteracy and the Biblical quotes I'd missed out on because my family attended a Unitarian Universalist church.
The night before the taping, I hardly slept. At first, all I had wanted was to play well enough, and to do absolutely nothing the Internet could turn into a meme. But once out in L.A., I changed my mind: What I really wanted was a win, and my great fear was returning to New York City without one. I had confessed this to my girlfriend as though it were a dark secret. She laughed. "Of course you want to win!"
And I did win—on my first show, and then again on the next. In my third appearance I entered Final Jeopardy tied for the lead with another contestant. We each had $18,200. The category was Films of the 1990s. I bet it all. I figured, if this 1990 baby lost despite knowing the answer, I would have been woulda coulda shoulda-ing myself forever. Then the clue came: "Tommy Lee Jones won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this movie based on a TV series that premiered in 1963." 30 seconds. Good luck.
When time was up and the camera panned to me, I barely bothered with a poker face, instead shaking my head and trying to look exceedingly forlorn. I guessed Men in Black; I had never heard of The Fugitive. "You're going to finish in third place today, but you've won a lot of money already," Trebek said.
Indeed I had. What I thought of in that moment, and continued to think of once I got in the car back to the hotel, was just how happy I was that the information-hound habits I'd had all my life had finally paid off. I no longer felt guilty for skipping calc homework to trawl Wikipedia, for passing up an assigned monograph to read a magazine. Had I venerated trivia any less, I wouldn't have known what I knew. How serendipitous life can be!
My flight back home was the next day, and though in my bag I had a monograph I had been assigned to read for work, I decided to go with an in-flight movie, letting the serendipity ride. I scrolled through the first couple of pages of offerings, then saw a poster featuring Harrison Ford in a dead sprint: The Fugitive. I began to laugh uncontrollably, and then reached for that book.