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Getting it right, and getting it wrong, on 'Jeopardy!'

The tension for Tim Raetzloff increases as his game moves on


Last updated 2/24/2021 at 12:08pm

Brian Soergel

Tim Raetzloff inside his computer repair shop in Edmonds.

Editor's note: Edmonds resident Tim Raetzloff, who writes the History Files column for the Beacon, was a contestant on a "Jeopardy!" episode that aired in January 1989. (His show was taped late in 1988.) After the death of longtime host Alex Trebek in November – Trebek's last taped show aired Friday, Jan. 8 – the Beacon asked Raetzloff to reflect on his game-show experience. You can read part one at Here is part 2.

Dinner ended, and we went back to the set to tape two more programs. Peggi Malys won twice more, but there was some intrigue in the process.

In the Thursday game, Peggi reached "Final Jeopardy!" in second place. Sue, who was in first place, realized that she had bid incorrectly and tried to change her bid after she had locked it in. A heated argument ensued.

Sue was told that her bid would stand or they would disqualify her and retape the program with someone else in her place. She ultimately relented, and her bid stood. The outcome she feared happened.

Sue and Peggi (a medical student whose four-day haul was $36,000) tied as Thursday champions. I think that had an effect on me. I had believed that I would be in the Friday game, but with two returning champions, I got bumped. Bob Zimmerman was the third contestant in the Friday game.

Bob was an interesting case, representative of many of us "square pegs" who wanted to be on "Jeopardy!" Bob is actually Dr. Robert Zimmerman, a respected geophysicist at Cal Berkeley. I had talked to him couple of times that day. He was brilliant, but clearly rather shy.

Not married, he told me his parents were prouder of him being on "Jeopardy!" than anything else he had done in his life. He said it with a touch of sadness and resignation. This was an opportunity for him to get a little recognition.

Unfortunately, he didn't win.

As Alex and the contestant coordinators had emphasized, the game is one of quick recall, not of overall knowledge or brilliance. I am certain that Bob was the most brilliant person there, but he didn't win.

Peggi won her third game, although she missed the "Final Jeopardy!' question. Bob and Sue missed it, too, and Peggi had gone into the final round with more money. I sat in the audience, quietly frustrated because I knew the "Final Jeopardy!" answer. I was reasonably certain that I would have won four of the five games I watched. I was also certain that I would have lost the other one.

On Tuesday, we all came back to tape five more shows. and we were joined by 10 new contestants. I was surprised that I and the other remaining out-of-town contestant were not chosen for taping the first (Monday) show.

Two new people, one from Seattle, were selected for an all-woman contest. I was disappointed in the Seattle woman. There was a question about the "candy in the pink can" that the company Brown & Haley in Tacoma makes daily. None of the contestants knew "Almond Roca."

Peggi won again, easily, and was now a four-day champion, and could only compete one more time. (She was a medical student whose four-day haul was $36,000)

The game

For the Tuesday show, I was selected to join Peggi and Tanya Palmer from Kansas City. Tanya had not been there for the Monday taping. Our program started differently, and I thought Alex handled it badly.

Tanya had severe difficulty walking, so we started the show at our places instead of walking in as was the custom at that time. Alex started by telling the audience that, yes, this was a different start because one of the contestants had difficulty walking.

Tanya, however, had remarkable eye-hand coordination. She was very fast on the buzzer. Our game also had one built-in advantage for Tanya. There was a "Beatles" category. and Tanya was a big Beatles fan.

We had been told before the game that this was the first time that "Jeopardy!" had tried an audio category. Producers had gone to a great deal of trouble to set it up with technology of the time. We were told that we WOULD play the category, and that we would play it in order.

No problem. Tanya wanted to play the category. She answered on four songs, and Peggi answered one.

I stood and looked silly.

I was having great difficulty getting the timing on the buzzer. Something rarely shown on TV was the neon light surrounding the question board. Contestants may not try to ring in the buzzer until that white neon light was lit.

Ring in too early, and you would be locked out for a quarter-second. That doesn't seem like much time, but it is more than enough for someone else to ring in and get the chance to answer.

When watching games on TV, I recalled seeing contestants pushing the button over and over and continuing to lock themselves out. The technology of 1988 was different than now. At that time a member of the "Jeopardy!" crew would light the neon at the moment she thought that Alex would finish reading the question. They had it down very well, and Tanya's timing was impeccable.

My timing wasn't impeccable. I finally decided that I needed to just get the timing right and blurt something out. That is exactly what happened. We had a category called "Rhinos and Hippos." The answer on the board was something to the effect that if not ground down, these would continue to grow.

I got the timing correct and blurted, what are horns?" Hippos don't have horns. The correct question was teeth. Alex continued to tease me about that throughout the game, but it got me going, and was probably the most important question of the game for me.

After the first commercial break, Alex came over to talk to us. I should maybe explain that the program was taped exactly as it would be run.

The commercial breaks were breathers for us, and they would edit in the commercials when it was actually broadcast. It was also an opportunity for Alex to reread questions that either he or the staff were unhappy with.

That is how he always looked perfect on the program. Our program was the only one while I was there that ran perfectly through the first two rounds. There will be more about this later.

Trebek's embarrassing moment

Before taping, we had been asked to fill out information about ourselves, including embarrassing moments.

I had mentioned an incident at Mount Lassen, when I had closed a car door on my hand. It's a great story, but too long to go fully into at "Jeopardy!" or here. Alex picked up on that story and told one of his own that was similar.

Thirty years before, when he was 19, he had hitchhiked across the country. One driver had graciously gone out of his way to get Alex to where he was headed. Alex had attempted to give an exaggerated thank you by bowing as he left the car.

He didn't get far enough away, and the car door slammed on his own head. The driver then had to go further out of their way to take Alex to a hospital.

Alex said that was probably a reason he could never be a "Jeopardy!" contestant.

By the first round, I was in third place, far behind. Because I was in last place, I started the "Double Jeopardy!" round. I soon hit a Daily Double. I gambled, and bet everything.

The correct question was "Chou En-Lai" (now recognized as "Zhou Enlai"), the late Chinese premier. I was on a roll. A few more questions, and I was in first place.

But that didn't last. Tanya pulled into a commanding lead. Peggi was fuming at her station because she didn't get a chance to answer. Either Tanya or I buzzed in and correctly answered the last 21 questions.

Rough treatment for a four-time champion.

(At this point, I should acknowledge for die-hard "Jeopardy!" fans that we didn't get the correct answers. We got the correct "questions" to the answers that were displayed on the board.)

Double Jeopardy ends

At the end of Double Jeopardy, Tanya had $12,900, I had $7,800, and Peggi had $2,100. I had achieved my goal. I had been able to compete and not embarrass myself. Peggi and Tanya had different goals. It was very important to each of them to win.

That brought us to our first crisis in the game. I previously mentioned that ours had been the first game to go off perfectly through the first two rounds.

At the end of Double Jeopardy, we reached the usual break. During that break, the contestants decide what to bet on Final Jeopardy and lock the bet in. I quickly bet and locked in, as did Peggi. Tanya, though, was having a major problem deciding what to bet.

Stage manager John Lauderdale was leaning on my station. He called out to stop the tape. After a few more minutes, I asked him how long this could take. He said there was no limit – he couldn't hinder the opportunity for a contestant to make their bet. It had taken as long as three hours in the past.

I didn't want to stand there for three hours waiting to play Final Jeopardy. I switched to a stage whisper. I said we had seen Peggi in four games, and she would certainly bet everything. I bet everything because I wouldn't want to lose because I'd withheld $1, or some such, to finish second.

I went over the possibilities.

Peggi was out of contention. She couldn't win unless Tanya and I made some really stupid bets. Either Tanya or I would win. If Tanya got Final Jeopardy! correct and I didn't, she would win. If I got it right and she didn't, I would win.

The only things that Tanya needed to guard against were if we both answered correctly, or if we both got it wrong. If we both got it right, Tanya would want to beat me by at least $1. If we both got it wrong, she wouldn't want to have bet so much that I could win by only betting a little or nothing.

Tanya had $12,900 to work with. I had only $7,800. The most I could get to was $15,600 if I bet everything and got Final Jeopardy! right. Tanya's target should be to get to $15,601.

That also meant that she would still win if we both got it wrong so long as she didn't bet too much. I went over these possibilities and figured she needed to bet $2,701. John Lauderdale had been shaking his head "yes."

He answered, in his own stage whisper, that, yes, everybody in the audience knew her correct bet, and everyone who watched it on TV would know the correct bet. Her correct bet was $2,701 but we couldn't tell her.

Tanya had overheard our entire conversation. A moment later, her bet of $2,701 was locked in and the game could go on.

Final Jeopardy

The Final Jeopardy category? Southeast Asia.

The Final Jeopardy! Answer: "This SE Asian country has four official languages –English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil."

I knew that Singapore had three of those languages, but I didn't know about the fourth. I began to write "Singapore." Then I outsmarted myself. During practice before taping, the staff had emphasized that they put a "pin," a clue, in every answer.

The Tamil Tigers had been active that month in Sri Lanka, and I decided that was the "pin."

I answered "Sri Lanka" and got it wrong. Tanya and Peggi got it wrong, also. Tanya won. I was awarded second place because I had started Final Jeopardy with more money than Peggi.

My "Jeopardy!" story wasn't quite over. I flew home the next day. Our new baby hadn't arrived. Jan suggested that we go buy books to read in the hospital. We went to the Haggen at 196th and 76th, where QFC is now.

Haggen had a rather large book department. I spotted a book that I recognized as the sequel to a book I had read. The previous book was "Duel of Eagles" by Group Captain Peter Townsend. Townsend had been an ace in the RAF during the Battle of Britain, and had written a marvelous book about the battle, in which he included his own memories and the memories of other pilots and aircrew mixed with the basic history.

He had even interviewed men whom he had shot down, and men who had shot him down.

Photo courtesy of Tim Raetzloff

Tim Raetzloff, at right, competed on "Jeopardy!" in 1988. His show aired Jan. 17, 1989.

Townsend had become somewhat notorious in the 1950s because he dated Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth's younger sister. Elizabeth broke up the relationship because she said her sister, as an heir to the throne of the United Kingdom could not marry a divorced commoner.

That he was a war hero didn't improve his status.

"Duel of Eagles was a memorable book. The sequel that I picked up that day, "The Odds Against Us," isn't. I suspect that Townsend had a ghostwriter for the first book and decided he could go it alone for the sequel.

For me, however, the second book had an important message. This was a book about the Blitz that followed the Battle of Britain. For some reason, Townsend began the book in Singapore.

And there on the first page in the second paragraph was the answer to the "Jeopardy!" question that I had gotten wrong less than 24 hours before.


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