What is a shot at Jeopardy?

About 120 hopefuls passed an online screening test and gathered in Pittsburgh yesterday to chase this dream.

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After listening to Jeff Tripodi yell at the television every night when contestants on "Jeopardy" missed questions, his wife insisted that he just go try out himself.

And so Mr. Tripodi, a social studies teacher at Blackhawk High School, found himself among 18 other aspiring Jeopardy contestants yesterday morning, attending the first session of Pittsburgh tryouts in about 3 1/2 years.

Mr. Tripodi, of Stowe, hadn't studied, and was perhaps subconsciously starting to regret that decision. Several days ago, the 32-year-old woke up in a cold sweat after dreaming about being on Jeopardy and seeing the categories, Opera, Nutrition and The Bible.

He was one of several Pittsburghers there yesterday, but there also were people who had driven from as far away as Toronto and Charleston, W.Va. There also would be two more sessions yesterday and three today, for a total of about 120 people trying out, culled from thousands who had taken an online screening test.

So what does it take to get on "Jeopardy"?

Well, before they made it to the "in-person" audition yesterday at the Westin Convention Center hotel, the contestants took the online test in January and were notified this fall that they had passed.

The in-person portion began with a 50-question written test with just seven seconds per question.

The contestant coordinators then went over a few insider "Jeopardy" facts that even the most ardent watcher might not know.

For example, grammar doesn't matter. An answer of "Who is the Brooklyn Bridge?" would sound goofy but would be perfectly acceptable.

Also, contestants on Jeopardy have to pay their own way for airfare to Los Angeles and a hotel for the show's taping. If they are a returning champion and have to fly back out to California, they get airfare paid for but not the hotel.

And while the runners-up in Jeopardy used to get prizes, the third-place finisher now gets $1,000 and second place gets $2,000.

The contestants yesterday finished with a practice Jeopardy game (with buzzers) and then a personality interview. They were being judged less on how many questions they answered correctly than on their ability to speak loudly, take direction and carry on a conversation.

During those conversations, the aspiring contestants got to show off beyond just their passions for random trivia. One man from the Cleveland area, when asked what he would do with any money that he won, said that "if the brochure on my coffee table is to be any indication, I'm buying an engagement ring."

Others displayed a range of ages, occupations and interests that was, frankly, fascinating.

Ross Thompson is a 26-year-old equipment loader who does work for the Steelers but hopes someday to work at the Smithsonian.

Neal Slavkin, of Allegheny West, makes artificial limbs and has seen people ride into his office in a wheelchair and walk themselves out.

Eileen Church, of Harrisburg, does medical billing and is a competitive walker. When she turned 50, she also took up belly dancing.

"I'm the world's worst belly dancer," she said sheepishly. It didn't seem to matter -- this isn't "So You Think You Can Dance." And it sure sounded like a good factoid for the chat with Jeopardy's television host, Alex Trebek.

There is another online test scheduled for next month, said Jimmy McGuire, a Squirrel Hill native and member of the Jeopardy "Clue Crew" who also was attending the try-outs.

Thousands of people try to make it onto "Jeopardy" every year, despite the fact that they can now win much more money on other shows just by pointing to the right briefcase, or knowing the theme to "Gilligan's Island."

"It isn't about the dough," said Mr. McGuire, who graduated from Pittsburgh Allderdice High School. "We've had champions leave with less than $1,000."

What it's about is the satisfaction of mastering some amount of knowledge. " 'Jeopardy' is a staple in our lives," said Mr. McGuire. "To answer questions correctly on 'Jeopardy' is such a great feeling."

Contestants yesterday weren't told whether they made it onto the show, or even whether they passed the written test. They'll only find out if they get a call in the next 18 months telling them to buy plane tickets and reserve a hotel room in Los Angeles.

Anya Sostek can be reached at 412-263-1308 or asostek@post-gazette.com . First Published December 8, 2007 5:00 AM


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