Jeopardy! juggernaut Roger Craig had won five straight games, including a record-setting $77,000 in one day, when Mary Keating was called to the stage for her once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to respond to Alex Trebek’s answers with questions.
The task ahead temporarily numbed her, but then Keating felt a kind of calm.
“It’s like when you walk into court and you don’t know how things are going to play,” the Baltimore lawyer said in an interview last week.
And sure enough, by Final Jeopardy!, after the blur of the two rapid-fire buzz-in rounds of the trivia show, Keating had Craig in her sights. He had $35,200; she had $18,000. The category: “The Western Hemisphere.”
“I thought, ‘Well, I came here to win,’” Keating said. Of course, if the prodigious Delaware computer science graduate student knew the correct answer, the game was his; “and if he doesn’t, it’s mine.”
Keating, 53, had been watching Jeopardy!, now in its 27th season, since childhood.
“When I was a kid, I used to come home for lunch, and I’m sure it was on at something like 12:30, back in the Art Fleming days,” Keating said, referring to Trebek’s predecessor as host. “And I think the lowest-point question was 10 bucks.”
So when her brother told her about an upcoming online test to become a contestant, the solo practitioner, who also serves as part-time director of the Women’s Law Center’s employment law hot line, eagerly sat for the 10-minute, 50-question quiz. A few months after that, in May 2009, the show invited her down to a Washington, D.C., hotel to audition. There was a paper test, and trios of would-be contestants played mock games in front of the producers.
“That’s when you make sure you have a game-show personality and you’re not going to throw up because you’re too nervous,” Keating said.
They said they would call. A year went by. Keating lost hope and stopped playing her Jeopardy! computer game.
The call finally came in early June:
July 28. Culver City, Calif. Be there.
Time to prepare.
“Mostly I looked at the almanac. I tried to study up on stuff like the space program,” Keating said. “And geography. I tried to master the African capitals, for example. I read through…the presidents just to see it again, so you don’t forget — ‘Oh yeah, Tyler.’”
On the big day, the first round went “really fast,” Keating said, but by the first commercial break, she was in the lead, ahead of Craig by $600.
It didn’t hurt that one of the categories was “Your Honor, I Object!” She got three out of five, including the $1,000 question, “asked and answered.” (That the other two contestants also scored in that category led to some good-natured ribbing from Keating’s lawyer friends at her Sept. 20 viewing party.)
“It made me feel like I could compete,” Keating said.
But by the end of the first round, Craig had $10,000 to Keating’s $4,400, a ratio that remained at the end of Double Jeopardy!, thanks in large part to Craig’s correct answers to a pair of true Daily Doubles.
And so, with her husband, children and parents in the studio audience looking on, Keating went all-in on the final question. (The third contestant, a Minneapolis librarian, had a distant $6,400, so Keating would finish either first, and bank $36,000, or third, and receive $1,000 to help cover her trip to Southern California.)
The “answer” appeared in all caps on the blue screen: “Made up of 1 large & many smaller islands, it’s the most populous of Britain’s remaining overseas territories.”
“I know that I don’t know it but I know that it’s the Western Hemisphere and I know that it’s islands,” Keating thought as Merv Griffin’s “Think” played in the background.
Over the next 30 seconds, she considered the Falkland Islands, the archipelago off the coast of South America that was the subject of a brief 1982 war between the United Kingdom and Argentina, “but nobody lives there,” according to Keating. And she remembered the police officers’ British-style uniforms during a trip to the Bahamas, so she went with that commonwealth chain just east of Florida.
Marisa, the librarian, had guessed the British Virgin Islands. Nope. Keating was closer but still incorrect and lost everything. The Bahamas is independent, Trebek informed her (and has been since 1973, for those keeping score at home).
Craig blew it too, guessing the Falklands. But it cost him just $801 and he escaped with the victory. He would lose the next game — on a sports question, to a sports reporter — leaving the show with winnings of $231,200, the third-highest total in the history of the show.)
The correct response: the other British-settled Atlantic island group off the U.S. East Coast that begins with a “B” and has seven letters.
“I had no clue that Bermuda is multiple islands,” Keating said.
Keating said her experience on the show, including a bit of banter with Trebek about his divorce, was “an awful lot of fun,” even if the show’s efforts to ensure the integrity of the game — such as a ban on solo trips to the bathroom — were sometimes intrusively thorough.
“I had always wanted to do it and I did it,” she said of playing.
But there was an unmistakable tinge of disappointment in her voice:
“If they had given me a really sweet law question, I might’ve beat him.”