As I listen on the periphery to James Holzhauer chip away at Ken Jenning’s record, I think back to my own experience of trying to make it as a contestant on Jeopardy.

I was a freshman at the University of Illinois (same place James Holzhauer went) and saw the call for participants for the college competition at the end of the show. This was pre-web so you had to send in a self-addressed, stamped envelope (aka a SASE) with your name and college. That was pretty much it. If you wanted more details, you’d have to VCR an episode, and pause it then try read the blurry fine print.

It was 6 months later, and I was now a sophomore when then reply came in. They were holding tryouts for the for Midwest in Dayton, Ohio in a month. I told my folks I got picked and they were thrilled. So my mom booked a hotel, came to Champaign and we drove the 5 hours to Dayton together.

The tryouts were held at the nicest hotel in downtown Dayton, probably a Hyatt or Hilton or something. I just remember a lot of brown and glass.

There were over 200 students. It was a smorgasbord of nerds. While most of us had at least one parent with them, I still felt like one of the coolest guys in the room. And it was mostly guys. This was just one of 5 regional tryouts going on that day.

We were all given slip of paper with a number. Then some show biz looking guy with a clipboard told us how things would work. When our number was called, we’d file into the ballroom and listen to the instructions.

When my number was called, me and and 49 other college students entered the ballroom. There were several televisions and long tables with pens, paper, empty glasses and pitchers of water. It felt like we were about to get a time share pitch.

Clipboard came in said nothing and turned on on all the TVs. Then Alex Trebek came on and gave all the instructions we needed. He said he was going to read 25 questions, and unlike the show, we didn’t have to buzz in, just write the answers on the sheet. We’d get 30 seconds each to answers.

The questions were challenging, but reasonable. It felt like the written portion of a driver’s test. You feel like you got most right, but surely 2 or 3 trick questions will throw you off.

We handed in our sheets as we left the room and went into a waiting area for the results. It couldn’t have been more than 5 minutes when clipboard came out and said he’d like to see the following 5 people. Then he rattled off their names. None of them were mine. Then he said, “everybody else, thanks for coming,” and went back in to ballroom with those 5 people.

The rest of us just looked at each other mouths agape. We were all saying how it was impossible for them to have “graded” all those sheets in such a short time. It felt rigged!

That afternoon, my mom tried to cheer me up as we drove back to Champaign. She said they probably made their decision randomly, which only helped a little.

To this day, I still have this vision in my head of clipboard and his cohorts laughing over donuts saying, “dude, just grave the top 5 off the pile. Any geek that’s willing to spend a weekend in Dayton is easily Jeopardy material.”