I could describe every part of the Tournament of Champions in exhaustive detail, or I could finish in time for Thanksgiving dinner with my family, so. It was largely the same experience as the first time around, except this time instead of crashing at Arthur’s mom’s house we stayed in the Universal Hilton and ate overpriced theme restaurant food and room service. This time Arthur wasn’t the only “celebrity”. This time all the contestants – fifteen in all, plus the alternate guy who was very nice but never got to play – orbited each other anxiously in the hotel lobby before game time.
Some made friends easier than others. A ridiculously tall clade of men hung out together – I know this included Ben Ingram, might have also included Mark Japinga, certainly looped in Keith Williams, the Final Wager guy, who was there only to observe. I saw Julia Collins many times before I finally said hi (at the afterparty, with everything already over!). Arthur was in the Zone, pacing and muttering and mostly ignoring everyone. I felt like he was being rude, but also like everyone probably understood.
The documentary crew was new. Jeopardy has given them a great deal of access, for which I suppose I’m grateful. The cameras stress me out, will stress me out forever, but I know that if someone’s going to make a film about Arthur, it should be the best film it can possibly be. They weren’t allowed to film in the studio, but they got a bunch of footage at the hotel and after each day of games. I had a great conversation with Sandie’s husband. Everyone we spoke to was so nice! Not a jerk in the bunch, as far as I could tell. I wonder if the Tournament ever gets some real weirdos who storm off when they lose or yell at Alex or treat the other contestants like crap?
It was a new experience for me to camp out in the hotel for a whole day with nothing to do and nowhere to be. Arthur studied, the cameras filmed; perhaps unsurprisingly, I got a bunch of writing done, with no absolutely necessary chores pressing on my consciousness. This story is complicated and I’m still not sure I have the right angle.
Arthur slaughtered his first game on Day One. The upset of Julia losing her game had everyone biting their nails to see whether her wildcard score might still give the world the Arthur-Julia matchup the fans demanded. (Spoiler: It did.) We took the chartered contestant limo-bus back to the hotel during rush hour with a severe accident or bomb threat or something blocking a major highway. Lots of time to chat. I got to know Maggie, the contestant handler. She pointed out a store that has a real Gort costume from The Day the Earth Stood Still in the front window. Arthur studied flash cards on his phone. We ordered room service. They had gluten-free rolls – ah, Los Angeles.
Arthur’s second game the next morning was harder, not a runaway, but he continued to dominate. Ben Ingram won his handily, again, nailing the final jeopardy clue with what appeared to be a total guess. Julia won her game thanks to (being awesome and) some flamboyant betting by one of the other contestants that didn’t work out well. Going into the finals, Arthur knew he’d proven he was worthy to compete, as if there was ever any doubt. He fought hard, bet extravagantly, dominated the board going into both final jeopardy segments of the two-part championship game – but was ultimately defeated. Julia seemed mostly happy to be there by that point, and accepted her third-place finish with smiling equanimity. Ben never seemed to break a sweat through most of the tournament, and certainly never broke character as a ridiculously nice person. All three players ran the board controls ragged with their rapid-fire play; all the glitches and resets they caused were, of course, edited out of what ultimately aired. I mocked Arthur for looking so mad at himself when he’d just won a hundred grand for two days of work. (His expression, too, vanished in the cutting room, for which I’m grateful. He collected himself quickly.)
I feel like, given different boards, it could easily have gone a different way. If Julia hadn’t been fighting a virus, if Arthur hadn’t lost both final jeopardies (Shakespeare! He’s never missed a Shakespeare question!), if Ben hadn’t been so goddamn good…But the Monday quarterback in me concedes that this was a great tournament, with a lot of great players, and good lord was it great TV. I called it the nerd Olympics: An arbitrary competition performed by consummate specialists at the top of their game. Though Alex laughed at Arthur when he insisted Jeopardy is a sport, so who knows.
The afterparty was full of congratulations and relief. I got to meet Rani Peffer, whose entire run Arthur and I watched during his own preparation for his first game ever. I finally shook hands with Julia, and Rebecca, and Sarah, people with whom I hope to remain Twitter friends. There was cake & chicken fingers (which I couldn’t eat). I was so tired I thought I might die. I think I mispronounced Rani’s name. Many group photos were had.
Arthur and I went to a group dinner of Asian fans (journalists? I’m not sure everyone was a journo but everyone was media in some capacity). I couldn’t eat anything and was tired out of my mind, so I basically don’t remember it. I hope it went well. Everyone was nice. Afterward we went to O’Brien’s pub, a traditional hangout of Jeopardy players post-game, and joined a team halfway through. I think we did well, with zero contribution from me, but again, I don’t remember. I wasn’t even drinking! We shook off the cameras & cabbed back to the hotel, which was beginning to feel a little like home, which meant it was time to leave.
Arthur flew out to San Jose to deliver a talk at the Techmanity conference the next morning. I don’t know where his energy comes from. I wish I could steal even a tenth of it and become a superhero. I flew home. My mom had been over and left us some champagne on the counter, which I just now realize I forgot to bring to our finals viewing party. It was good to see the cats again.
We threw a party at The Boneyard, a cavernous local institution, for the last half of the finals. Arthur invited all of Cleveland and it somehow worked out to just the right amount of people, mostly friends, a few strangers. Some roommates brought Arthur a photo of the kitten they’d named after him. He called me over to see as he autographed it. The best.
So I think it’s pretty obvious what I’m thankful for: This whole miracle of a year. Arthur finished recording his original run a little over a week before Thanksgiving 2013, so this has been our lives for twelve bizarre, hilarious, stressful, profoundly blessed months. We couldn’t have predicted Arthur’s domination of a relic of a game show would lead to infamy, then to TV, then to fans, then to writing gigs and nerd punditry and so many new friends and so many wonderful things yet to come. I am thankful. I am thankful. I am thankful.