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Jerome Vered: the great Jeopardy asterisk

On the very last show of 2003-04 season, Ken Jennings finally broke a record he had tied three times, the one-day total of $52,000 earned by Brian Wiekle on April 13, 2003.

But in the process, he also broke a record analogous to Roger Maris's 61 homers, the 52 grand won by Wiekle in the two seasons of doubled money values. Way back in 1992, in the eighth season, Hollywood writer Jerome Vered set a one-day record of $34,000. Double that and you see why Vered's record was almost unassailable. (Tellingly, when the money values were doubled, Vered's record fell soon after—in a kids' tournament.)

To his credit, Vered isn't bitter. When told that Jennings had earned $75,000, he said, "To be fair, I am a little sad, but I'll be fine in about 30 minutes," adding, "Part of me is jealous of the opportunity to win twice as much money or to keep going after five games, but it's just a TV show."

Vered wasn't even upset about not being invited to the Super Millionaire or Million Dollar Masters tournaments. "They picked a geographically and ethnically mixed group of favourites. I would have liked to have been on, but they went in a different direction. I used to work in TV. That happens a lot." (But see below for our update!)

Vered joins the ranks of Jeopardy superstars

The one-day record itself came on Vered's fourth show, when he hit a Daily Double in the dying moments of the game, won big and brought his score to about $25,000. At the time, Jeopardy legend Frank Spangenberg, a New York City transit cop, held the one-day record at $30,600. Vered realized he was within range of the record and decided to go for it. The question that put him over required him to know the first line of Rip Van Winkle.

Spangenberg, however, held on to his five-day record, of $102,597, which Vered missed by just $5800. However, when Spangenberg won his money, anything over $75,000 had to be donated to charity. "Mine was the largest cheque they'd ever written to a single individual, up until that time. My joke is that I spent all the money on really nice shoes."

However, Vered doesn't think much of Jeopardy records. "At the Tour de France, they don't keep records because it's a different course every time."

Nor does he think there is much special about Ken Jennings, who now holds several records. "Many of us from the earlier seasons could have gone on at least as long."

Giving Jennings full credit for his speed, Vered notes that he often uses that speed simply to take educated guesses at the answer, often getting it wrong, but prevailing over weaker competition.

Although Vered was recognized as late as three years after the show aired, his one-day record didn't earn him the "cult following" that grew up around Spangenberg or Chuck Forrest, who set records in season three. Says Vered: "I don't mind. I prefer to let somebody like Frank have the publicity if I can have my privacy."

Why is Vered the Roger Maris to the older champs' Babe Ruths (or to Ken Jennings' Barry Bonds)? "People care about the major record, which was the 5-day. The 1-day is like pitchers' records as opposed to hitters' records. If I could have beaten Spangenberg's record without endangering my win, I know I would have done it without thinking twice."

Interestingly, neither Vered nor Spangenberg won their year's Tournament of Champions, despite having been the heavy favourite. In fact, arguably, Vered's Tournament of Champions offered a slate of the strongest players Jeopardy had ever seen, and the final two-day game was one of the toughest the show had ever seen.

The eventual winner, Leszek Pawlowicz (depicted left of Vered in this picture, taken at Game Show Congress 2004) went on to become "the Michael Jordan of game shows," in the words of the New York Times. "At one point, and this will tell you what a class-act Leszek is, he sent me a handwritten note to say, 'You know, at one point, I felt any one of the three of us could have won that game.'"

Why a superstar nearly never was

As it happens, Vered indirectly credits Forrest with leading him to Jeopardy. While still in film school, his friends were editing some of the tape of Forrest's Tournament of Champions appearance, and Vered would mumble the answers. "I realized I knew more of the answers than Chuck Forrest did. The editors told me I had to go and try out but it took me a few months to get up the gumption/courage/whatever to get up and call the Jeopardy office"

Even so, he passed the test four times before he got on. After the first few times he passed, he realized that he wasn't been picked because he didn't show enough telegenic enthusiasm. He also had demographics working against him. "A lot of men from Southern California pass the test, and they want geographic and gender diversity."

Ironically, Vered nearly didn't win his first game. The incoming champ was quick on the buzzer and by the time of the first commercial break, Vered had only rung in once. "I then started ringing in on anything, just to see how I could get in. I got a question in the category 'XYZ' asking for the two countries in Africa, other than Zambia, that start with the letter Z. I managed to get that and then I got a rhythm."

From then on, to use a cliché of the 1990s, Vered opened a huge can of whup-ass and stomped the competition. "That was the biggest shocker, that first game, more even than setting the record in Game Four."

Five years after Jeopardy, Vered appeared on the first season of Win Ben Stein's Money, and he was one of the first people to actually win all of Ben Stein's money. The show was still working the kinks out, and while in the isolation booth, a problem with the clock led to a stop-tape and a conference with Standards & Practices to decide what to do. "It took five minutes and Ben was in his booth the whole time, with no idea what was going on."

Vered moves behind the camera on Ben Stein

Not that it mattered. Vered won 8 to 5. In fact, he was so impressive that for the next couple of seasons, he was called in to be Stein's "sparring partner," helping him to warm up by playing mock games in the pre-season. When he heard that the show needed writers and researchers, he applied and worked as a researcher for five months, alongside comedy writers and veteran writers from Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

“They’d do a question and send it to research to be double checked,” recalls Vered. “Meanwhile, the writers would get together for a roundtable and pitch jokes to be used for the category names.”

One of the complications of the show is that the questions used for the second round, in which Stein played, couldn't be recycled from other games, as he may have seen those. Likewise, the questions used for the isolation booths had to be fresh as well.

Unlike most game shows, the writers on Ben Stein “knew” the strengths and weaknesses of the star “contestant.” Vered says that they kept anything they knew Stein would know out of his round and the writers were kept far from Stein.

“But you know, we didn’t want Ben to win. Screw Ben! He made ten times what we made, so why would we want him to win,” jokes Vered. “Disney isn’t famous for paying its people well, and we were way out on their cable arm, so you can imagine what we got paid.”

Nevertheless, Stein very much wanted to win, and he would be quite vocal when he felt the question was wrong, even stopping tape to have questions fact checked. "There was a budget for the prizes, and if the prizes were below the budget, Ben got to keep the difference, so a few hundred every show can really add up."

After Ben Stein, Vered went on to other game show projects, including one that was a cross between Beat the Geeks and The Weakest Link. That show would have put Vered in front of the cameras as part of the cast. "The premise was flawed, because they didn't realize that, no matter how smart somebody is, nobody knows everything."

Even so, Vered has managed to parlay his game show experiences into a career behind the scenes at game shows. He may not know "everything," but he's quietly made a name for himself with what he does know.

UPDATE: Jerome finishes #3 in UToC

It might be overly dramatic to say that Jerome Vered was an underdog with something to prove. But even so, he was an underdog with something to prove. Going into the tournament, he was dismissed as being too old, and his one-day record was called a fluke.

“I had said that I wasn’t sure I could play at that level anymore, because I hadn’t played in 12 years. But that got out as ‘he says he can’t play at that level anymore,’ which isn’t what I said at all. People had this idea of me and adjusted their perceptions accordingly”

He was also surprised not to get a bye; many of the nine players given byes were billed as "record holders" but in fact were fan favourites who were either legendary in the fan community, or who had played recently. "Of the nine, only two advanced, which is less than the statistical probability. But it actually worked out well for me. Since I kept my winnings from every game I played, I won almost $400,000."

Dozens of equally matched champs

Even so, the round-two upsets among the nifty nine illustrate how evenly matched the games were. "Hardly any of the games were lock-outs, and at this level, if it's not a lock-out, it comes down to Final Jeopardy."

And here, anything can happen. Jerome was watching the games with Leah Grunewald, and was stumped by a Final Jeopardy that required you to know that Alexander Selkirk inspired Robinson Cruesoe. "I couldn't remember Selkirk's name. As soon as Leah had said it, I knew she was right. And we played each other. If that had been our game, she could have won."

For Jerome, there is an element of luck involved, not so much in terms of the categories that come up, but of your state of mind and that of the people you're playing against. A number of players, for example, experienced adrenalin rushes the night before their games, even in the later rounds. One heavily favoured player was ill in a later-round game.

“Sometimes, you’re on your game and sometimes you’re not,” he says. “There are a lot of factors, and a certain point, it comes down to the buzzer.”

An under-appreciated element of the game is that the buzzer is only activated when the system is "armed" by a person backstage. Sometimes, the lag between Alex finishing the question and the system being armed will vary, even within a game. Some players had observed that a significant lag had opened up between when they had played in the 1990s and today.

“But that’s part of the game,” says Jerome. “You figure out the timing and you adjust.”

Backstage at the UToC

Like many of the players, Jerome was mostly having fun, staying focused on his game and not thinking about the money. "There was a lot of camaraderie backstage, because when you're watching the games with other players, you never know with whom you'll be playing. When Maggie [a contestant coordinator] called out me and Leah, I thought she was asking us to be quiet. Instead, she told us we were up."

During the three-game final, for example, he and Brad Rutter joked that they should play without their pants. Somehow, Alex Trebek got wind of it, and emerged from behind the scenes … without his pants. (To enhance security, the last three rounds were played in a closed studio, with only Jeopardy staff and alternate players in the audience. Frank Spangenberg was the alternate for the final three-game round.)

For Jerome, who was not invited to any of the many tournaments, being back on the show was a chance to see a lot of old friends. "About a dozen people from my season, from my Tournament of Champions, were in the tournament and I got to see most of them."

And the LA-based writer also made a lot of new friends. Many players have mentioned his little touches, leaving a message of congratulations or condolence on their hotel phone, showing them Venice Beach or going out for dinner with them.

“For me, it’s my Norma Desmond moment,” he says. “Nobody has recognized me on the street in years, and now people are coming up to me in the studio and welcoming me. And later, I was being recognized on the street, at the airport, at the TKTS booth in Times Square. All very fun and very odd.”

One Jeopardy fan predicted that the final three would be Ken Jennings, Leszek
Pawlowicz and Jerome Vered. It turned out he was 19. "This kid would have been five years old when Leszek and I were on the show. He would never have seen us, but he knew us from our stats."

And now, as a finalist at the UToC, he has another impressive stat and another contribution to Jeopardy lore.

July 2004

updated June 2004