Riverside resident Kathy May got to live out a long held dream this summer, appearing on the TV game show “Jeopardy.” Although the show was recorded on Aug. 2, it did not air until Sept. 12.
It was the first show of the new season and the first show taped before a live audience since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
May, 42, who moved to Riverside from Oak Park in 2020, finished third, losing to defending champion Luigi de Guzman, an attorney from Arlington, Virginia, who went on to win three more games in row before losing.
She ended up with a total score of $1,400, far behind de Guzman’s winning total of $42,400. As the third-place finisher May received $1,000, which just about covered the cost of the trip.
“It was probably the most fun I’ve had in my life,” May said. “The other contestants were just joys to meet; everyone was real supportive.”
Growing up in the tiny village of Lee Center, New York, a small town in upstate New York just west of Adirondack State Park, watching “Jeopardy” every night was a tradition in May’s family.
“It was such a cultural like family icon in our house,” May said. “It was dinner, news, ‘Jeopardy’ almost every night.”
To become a contestant is a multistage process. First you have to take an online test. If you do well enough, you are contacted by the show and asked to take another online test that is proctored and observed.
If you score high enough on that test, you and other potential contestants do a mock game taped by the show’s producers to see how you do under pressure. If you do well enough in the mock game, you are then put on a list of potential contestants.
May, who works as a senior manager for operational non-financial risk for BMO Harris Bank, took the second online test in late winter. She was put on the callback list in May. She thought she would have to wait a long time before appearing on the show.
“I was shocked in July when they called and said come to a taping in three weeks, so I had three weeks to prepare,” May said.
Without much time to prepare, she reviewed frequent categories such as state capitals, world capitals and American presidents. On Aug. 1, she flew out to California, took a COVID test, and hoped for the best.
Jeopardy tapes five shows a day, and May’s show was the first taping. She had very limited interaction with host Ken Jennings and the rest of the “Jeopardy” crew.
“There were still a lot of COVID protocols so you kept your distance, and they would shuttle you and the [other] contestants back and forth a lot, very segregated from the cast and crew,” May said.
Before going on air, contestants are asked to list some interesting facts about themselves for the brief interviews that take place after the first commercial break. May, who graduated from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester New York, was an oboist in the U.S. Army, playing in the West Point Band in the early 2000s before earning a master’s degree in oboe performance from Yale University.
Jennings asked her about the West Point Band playing the National Anthem at Yankee Stadium before a 2003 World Series game.
Jeopardy is game of reflexes as well as knowledge. You cannot buzz in to answer a question until the host finishes reading the question. If you hit the buzzer too early, you are locked out for a short period.
“You have to react to that light,” May said. “There were some [answers] that I did know, but I couldn’t even get in on because I just didn’t hit the buzzer in time.”
May answered 11 questions before Final Jeopardy, getting seven correct. She incorrectly answered the Final Jeopardy question.
All in all, May said that it was great experience.
“I was just so blessed to have been part of that,” May said. “It’s like an iconic thing in our country, in our culture.”
May had to keep quiet about her appearance in the nearly six weeks between the taping of the show and the Sept. 12 broadcast. Since Jeopardy airs at 3:30 p.m. in Chicago, she didn’t have a watch party and instead just watched the show with her family.
“You can’t really have big party on Monday afternoon to watch the show,” May said.