UC Berkeley News


"I'll take 'UC Berkeley Jeopardy contestants' for $400, Alex."
Answer: In 1998, this associate professor of rhetoric and Celtic studies won a cool car and a bundle of cash. Question: Who is Daniel Melia?

| 16 February 2005

Daniel Melia (right, with Alex Trebek) is one of several Berkeley faculty and staff who have appeared on Jeopardy during its long run. (Photo courtesy Jeopardy! Productions)
Following his appearance on Jeopardy seven years ago, Professor Daniel Melia walked away with a cool $75,000 in pre-tax cash and a silver Corvette. He is one of 135 previous winners invited to compete in what the show's producers have dubbed the Ultimate Tournament of Champions - and tomorrow night, through the miracle of videotape, he returns to the studio to face the competition.

Once upon a time, in keeping with a rule that dated back to the very dawn of Jeopardy, champions would "term out" after a five-game winning streak. But in 2003, the game show's producers decreed that a winner could continue playing until he or she was defeated. Thus, in November 2004, Ken Jennings famously became the biggest winner in the show's history, racking up $2.52 million over a 75-show run. Jennings' streak led the show's producers to wonder how he might fare in competition against other Jeopardy greats.

To answer that question, on Feb. 9 the program kicked off a 15-week tournament that will shuffle previous champions through three rounds and a semi-finals contest until two players reach the finals. Those two will then be pitted against Jennings for a three-day total-point match to be broadcast May 23-25. The victor will receive a $2-million cash prize.

To prepare for the competition, Melia, an associate professor of rhetoric and Celtic studies, hit the books - an atlas, the World Almanac, and the Bible. He memorized key facts: the biggest and smallest islands, volcanic explosions, past Oscar winners, Biblical names such as Orpah - not Oprah - that pop up in the Biblical Anagrams category, and a jambalaya of American history trivia.

"They expect you to know a lot about U.S. history," explains Melia. He offers a past example: "Which president had five attorneys general?" And the answer - well, actually, the question: Who was Ulysses S. Grant?

When Melia traveled to Southern California earlier this month to tape the show that airs Friday night, he observed what has become a pre-game ritual. "I always go to Disneyland before appearing on Jeopardy," reveals the professor, who has made several separate trips south to appear on the program. Visiting the theme park leaves him tired, essentially guaranteeing a good night's sleep.

"If you're not alert enough to buzz in on time, you're going to lose." Since most of the contestants know the answers, Melia says, "the person who buzzes the fastest wins."

Like any good academic, Melia arrived at that conclusion through careful research - analyzing his previous Jeopardy performances by reviewing old videotapes. "I didn't get better results if I missed fewer than 10 percent of the questions," he says. "In other words, playing more cautiously didn't help me." In fact, he says, missing more than one out of 10 questions produced his two poorest games.

They coulda been contenders

Melia isn't the only person on campus to have appeared on Jeopardy. Barbara Gross Davis, assistant vice provost for undergraduate education, was a contestant in the '70s, back when the program was taped in New York and Art Fleming was the host.
"I had finished my B.A. at Berkeley and had completed a year of grad work at Stanford - I was feeling pretty confident," confides Davis, who was taking a break from school and working on the East Coast at the time. Per the producers' instructions, she dutifully brought five outfits to the studio, so that if she won, she could make wardrobe changes for each subsequent game to maintain the illusion that the episodes are shot on different days. "Boy, was that overly optimistic," laughs Davis.

Davis quickly learned that easily answering the questions in the comfort of one's home is one thing, but that actually being a contestant is something else altogether. "It was so much harder with the audience and the lights," she says.

Her goal was a reasonably modest one. "The only thing I wanted was to get into Final Jeopardy," she says, "so I wouldn't be totally humiliated and embarrassed." Davis got her wish, though she missed the Final Jeopardy question. (The category was Fables, and while she doesn't remember the answer provided, the question she didn't ask was "What is Aladdin's Lamp?") She does recall that the experience was "fun," but she also "vowed never to go on a game show again."

Maggie Sokolik, a lecturer in College Writing Programs (which, by coincidence, is directed by Daniel Melia), was a contestant in 1986 after the show moved to Los Angeles and Alex Trebek had assumed the hosting duties. She was a game-show veteran, having already appeared on Name That Tune and Sale of the Century.

"I was more nervous on Jeopardy. I think it had to do with the whole aura of the show," says Sokolik. She was also facing a formidable opponent, one of that year's top winners. Like Davis, she wanted to avoid "the ultimate embarrassment" of not making it to Final Jeopardy.

Sokolik, too, succeeded on that score. Nearly 20 years later, she can recall the question that proved her downfall. "It's etched in my memory forever -'the most expensive corundum gem'," she says, using Jeopardy phrasing in expressing the question as an answer. Arriving at the correct response ("What is a ruby?") hinged on being familiar with something she didn't know - the definition of corundum.

To add insult to injury, the 5'1" Sokolik, who was positioned atop three apple crates so as not to be dwarfed by the other two (very tall male) contestants, almost fell off her perch at the end of the show. Fortunately, Alex Trebek happened to be passing behind her podium and caught her, preventing further bruising to her ego. (And of course, she got a copy of the home game.)

Since Melia last appeared on the show eight years ago, Jeopardy's set has been updated and lights now alert contestants when the buzzers are activated and in play. In the current tournament the program's producers have allowed players ample time to become accustomed again to the surroundings, since some previous champions haven't been on the set in 20 years. Initially, Melia says, he was "nervous about buzzing in, but then I settled down."

Melia competed in round one on Feb. 1, though he is contractually prohibited from revealing the game's outcome. While allowing that "the game is fun to play even if you lose," he adds: "I think I can beat Ken Jennings, and I would like the opportunity."

Melia's round-one appearance on Jeopardy's Ultimate Tournament of Champions will be broadcast on Friday, Feb. 18, at 7 p.m. on KGO-TV.

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