What it was like to compete on "Jeopardy!"

I was a contestant on "Jeopardy!" The show aired Monday (July 26), so now I can write about what it was like.

If you have recorded the show but haven't watched yet, I warn you that this post is one big spoiler.

First, I didn't win $20,000. That was my score at the end of the game, but because I came in second, I will receive $2,000. The show used to give prizes for second and third place, but, as contestant producer Maggie Speak told the contestant group that I was in, the producers decided to give cash to help contestants defray travel costs.

That brings me to my second point: I, like every other contestant, paid for my own travel and hotel accommodations. My husband and I flew to Los Angeles in March for the taping. We stayed at a hotel in Culver City that had a special rate for "Jeopardy!" contestants. In my group were about a dozen people from all walks of life and from across the country. I was the oldest in the group.

The show is taped in a studio in Culver City, and on the day I was there, six shows were being taped — a Friday show with a returning champion and the shows for the following Monday through Friday. It was the last taping of the season.

The third thing people want to know is what is Alex Trebek like. The contestants have only limited interaction with Alex because of the rules, but during the taping I attended, he was gracious and patient in answering questions from the studio audience. And he is extremely good at his job, keeping up the fast pace and keeping the show moving.

I will backtrack a bit to explain how a contestant gets on "Jeopardy!" The show offers an online contestant test from time to time. I have taken the 50-question general knowledge test twice, and both times I was called for auditions — first in Atlanta in 2006, then in Washington, D.C., in 2009.

If you are interested in trying out for "Jeopardy!," you should go to the website and register for an e-mail alert for the next online test.

The contestant coordinators travel around the country for the auditions. Maggie Speak was in charge of the one I attended in Washington. Potential contestants take another 50-question test, which draws from a broad spectrum of subjects — pop culture, history, science — just like the online test.

Then the contestants play a mock game with signaling devices just like the ones used on the real game. As the coordinators told us during both auditions I attended, we are trying out for a quiz show so we should have fun. And I did. Even if I never had been called to be on the show, the auditions were a blast.

I tried out May 31, 2009. The rule is that auditioners are eligible to be called to the show for 18 months after the audition. I got the call in late February and went to the taping March 16.

We contestants were to show up at the studio (I took a shuttle along with others from the hotel) in the clothes we were going to wear on air and to bring along three extra outfits. They suggested business attire (no jeans, T-shirts or sneakers). I wore a pantsuit and carried along other tops that would go with the black pants.

The contestant coordinators greeted the other contestants and me at the studio gate and led us to the green room, which really is green, to prepare us for the taping. Preparation included our getting made up by one of the show's staff makeup artists, Sandy Reimer, who was nice and did a great job on my makeup. We were to show up with "camera-ready" hair.

We also heard from Maggie about how the show tapings would go and talked to another coordinator, Robert James, about our personal stories. Before going to the taping, we had written one-liners and short anecdotes about ourselves and e-mailed them to the staff. Robert's job was to interview us quickly to find the best three stories to put on an index card for Alex to use during the on-air contestant chat. I don't remember my three stories, but the first fact was that I am an award-winning headline writer. That ended up being the one used on air. (In my original note, I told them that I had once competed in a goat-roping at a rodeo in Nebraska and that I have had at least one spectacular fall in every newspaper office where I have worked.) The on-air chat took a bit of an unexpected turn for me when Alex asked about newspapers' financial troubles. I tried to answer as honestly and positively as I could.

Back to the preshow preparations. After we were all made up, we got our first look at the set. It looks much bigger on TV than it is. John Lauderdale, the gentlemanly and experienced stage manager, showed us the contestants' stands and the big answer board and explained all the technology. Contestants' totals show on a display to our left and above the cameras. That's why you see contestants looking up when it comes time to bet on a Daily Double.

We got to play practice games with contestant coordinator Glenn Kagan filling the role of Alex. That signaling device is tricky. You have to wait until Alex finishes reading the question before you can ring in to answer. Also, when Alex is finished, lights that the home audience can't see around the big question board come on. If you ring in too soon, you are locked out for a fraction of a second, and if another contestant rings in first, you are locked out while that player gets a chance to answer. The key is to be quick and persistent. You need to keep pressing the button on the signaling device. If you are first, Alex will call on you and a light will appear on your stand. During the practice, there is no studio audience.

After the practice, we went back to the green room for a bit. We were told we would go back to the studio and sit in a special section in the audience. Our family members who were at the taping would also be in a special section. They told us not to wave or acknowledge our family members at all when we filed into the studio. That way there would be no hint of cheating.

The first two contestants were called to compete against the returning champion, Alison Stone Roberg from Kansas City, Mo. She won again. Then it was my turn. I would be going against Alison and John Cunningham from Chicago.

I am very short (barely 5 feet tall), so I stood on an adjustable riser at my player's stand. Everyone on the set was concerned about people tripping, and since I had shared the story of my clumsiness perhaps they were especially concerned about me. John and the others were careful to provide me a helping hand when I had to step up or down. I was pleased and a little amused by their solicitous attention.

If you have watched the show I was on, you know that I had a slow start. My timing on the signaling device was off, and I was even in the negative after missing a couple of questions. At the first break, I was rattled. Contestant coordinator Glenn helped me work on my timing during the break.

I was able to come back and get some of the high-dollar answers. I knew a lot of the answers but was beaten to the buzzer often by Alison and John, who were good players and fast. I am just as amazed as anyone that I got answers in the Bible category. I reckon Sunday school paid off.

When I hit a Daily Double, I was cautious in my wager, and that was probably my biggest mistake. Alison, on the other hand, bet big on a Daily Double and pulled far ahead.

In Double Jeopardy, we had one terribly difficult category about cryogenics. I had control of the board at that point, so I stuck with the category. My thinking was that none of us were any good at this one, so it gave me a chance to slow the pace. I was sure that we had time to clear the board because we were all good players.

At the end of Double Jeopardy, Alison was ahead with $17,800. I was second with $15,000, and John had $4,400.

The Final Jeopardy category was Literary Brawls. Contestants get the time and scratch paper to do the math for the Final Jeopardy wager, which we write on the magic screen at our stands.

I was sure that Alison, who had done well on literature questions, would do well on this category. I was fairly certain that I would, too. Even if I bet all I had, I couldn't bet enough to beat her if she also bet big, so I wagered against John. Alison would have to bet against me, so if by some fluke she missed the Final Jeopardy question, I could win. More likely, I thought, I would come in second. I went for a round number, $5,000.

The Final Jeopardy answer turned out to be a fairly easy one, so we all got it right. I was gratified to have finished in second place.

The experience was wonderful, and everyone associated with the show was welcoming and worked hard to set us at ease. I am glad that I won enough to pay for my trip and a little extra.

Contestants are sworn to secrecy about the outcomes until after the shows they were on air. Let me tell you, it was hard keeping a secret around professional journalists whose job it is to get people to tell them things. But I kept my secret from family and friends. That made the broadcast even more fun. Everyone was in suspense.

I had wanted to be a "Jeopardy!" contestant since I was a girl and watched the show with Art Fleming. But my real motivation to try the online test for an audition was my son, Jake, who was intensely interested in game shows and quiz shows, especially "Jeopardy!" Jake was an expert in the history and formats of television game shows. He memorized game show facts the way some boys memorize baseball stats. He and I watched "Jeopardy!" together, and we played a home game on our computer. He started beating me when he was a teenager, and I was bursting with pride that he was good at the show. He tried the college test, but didn't get called for an audition. He encouraged me to take the test and try out, and we went to Washington together for my audition.

Jake died in August last year of complications after surgery for Crohn's disease. He was just a month shy of his 21st birthday. (Here is an obituary from the Clayton News-Star, where Jake worked.) My husband, Chris, and I were devastated. My heart was and still is broken.

When I got the call to be on the show, I hesitated a bit because I didn't know whether I could do this without Jake. My first feeling was that it was wrong somehow to go on because he wasn't here — because he wouldn't get the chance to enjoy it. So many times in the past 11 months I have thought about the things that Jake is missing.

I decided to take the opportunity, though, because I think Jake would have wanted me to and because I needed to close this chapter. It is a part of coming to terms with losing Jake.

And now the chapter is closed.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.