I’ve always taken comfort in the fact that there’s a sport out there for non-sports fans. You know, the people who were picked last for volleyball in sixth grade. People who don’t know a jump shot from a jump seat. People who like to scream random trivia at the TV screen: Treaty of Ghent! Frankie Goes to Hollywood! Salamanders!
That sport is, of course, the game show Jeopardy! This week, as millions were investing their hearts in the Toronto Raptors’ losing effort against the Philadelphia 76ers, I was sitting in front of the TV barking answers at categories like European Literature and This Singer’s Country of Birth. Mostly I was wrong, but it hardly mattered because you know who was right 93 per cent of the time? Mattea Roach, the 23-year-old Nova Scotian Jeopardy! champion.
As I write this, Ms. Roach is on a very hot streak. If she were in Vegas, the casino managers would be sending her trays of Mai Tais. She’s won US$271,282 during 12 games, a consecutive run that puts her in the top 10 Jeopardy! champions. Her 12th win was “a momentous milestone,” according to the show’s interim host Ken Jennings, whose own record-breaking 74-game streak was dashed on the rocks of a question about H&R Block.
I’m not sure Ms. Roach will ever get a parade in Toronto, where she lives, because we’re not as good at celebrating the life of the mind as we are the life of the bicep (which muscle, by the way, she correctly identified in the category We Are Swolemates). But we probably should recognize trivia, and not hockey, as our national sport: It was a team of Canadians who created Trivial Pursuit, and the late, beloved host of Jeopardy!, Alex Trebek, was a proud son of Sudbury.
There is something quintessentially Canadian about Ms. Roach, from her chill, funny Twitter bio (“lesbian, Nova Scotian, 12x Jeopardy champ”) to the way she plays the game. She is not, like former champ James Holzhauer, dashing around the board in search of the most money, and spitting out answers like a robot. She cocks her head, and frames her responses in a quizzical way as if she’s not entirely sure she’s correct. Some people find this annoying; I find it endearing. It is a very Canadian way of fending off accusations of big-headedness. (Whether this is a noble national trait or just a sly deception is a matter for further study.)
Then there is Ms. Roach’s strategic embrace, not of the three Rs, but the two Fs: Fun and Failure. Having decided that anything beyond one win was gravy, she tells fellow contestants to have a good time when they go on stage: “Like, have fun up there,” she said in an interview on the Jeopardy! website. “You’ll play better and this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Why would you not want to have fun?”
Failure is not something you’d associate with a game-show champion, but when Ms. Roach was interviewed by the CBC, she had some very interesting advice for young people who are struggling, based on her own challenging years as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. “For people who feel like they may be flopping their way through high school or their early years of undergraduate studies … there’s ways to pick it up, and there’s plenty of smart people who do not have the most shining transcripts.” When her winning streak comes to an end, I hope people remember those words.
Other households may gather around to watch hockey or basketball, but on every night of Ms. Roach’s streak, my family has eaten dinner in front of the television to watch Jeopardy! (My son, a few years younger than Ms. Roach, was particularly happy when she said she’d be using her winnings to pay off student loans.) It feels like time travel. An actual family in front of an actual television set – paging Norman Rockwell! At 7:30 p.m., as we switch from war and plague on the news channel to questions about 19th-century poetry, there is a sense of slipping outside of time in the best possible way.
Recently, having spent years on a sofa shouting wrong answers at a screen, I felt my training was complete. I decided to take the online Jeopardy! test to see whether I could be a contestant. I might never sink a three-point shot from the middle of the court, but I could name all of Blondie’s Top 10 hits. Surely this was a strength, even if it was not one recognized with a scholarship to a major university.
I opened up the Jeopardy! contestant page, filled out the form, cracked my buzzer-ringing fingers, and started the test. I have a shocking finding for you all: It’s not as easy as it looks. In true Jeopardy! fashion, you must provide 50 questions to match with 50 answers in rapid succession, with only 15 seconds to provide the correct response for each. I won’t go into the specific questions – they’re meant to be kept confidential – but let’s just say your chances will be greatly improved if you’re a scientist-theologian with a keen interest in Egyptian history, beekeeping and British pop music. Who also knows how to spell.
I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll never be called to the Alex Trebek Stage by 93-year-old Jeopardy! announcer Johnny Gilbert. But that’s okay, because I’ve got a champion to watch, gently mowing down the competition on Canada’s national game.
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