South Portland woman's 'Jeopardy' episode 'a gas'

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SOUTH PORTLAND — A city woman who competed on “Jeopardy” described her experience on the popular quiz show as “surreal.” 

Vicky Smith, a children’s book editor for Kirkus Reviews and former library director and children’s librarian, competed on the show that aired July 14.

Smith finished in second place but, ironically, was tripped up by a question about a children’s literary classic.

The Portland native competed against an academic adviser from San Diego and the returning champion, Gavin Borchert, a writer and editor from Seattle.

When the board lit up with the categories at the start of the first round, Smith said she did a double take when she saw one of the categories was children’s literature.

Later in the show, host Alex Trebek told Smith that the category was purely coincidental, but naturally, Smith jumped on the Kid Lit category when she controlled the board.

The first two clues she sailed through, and when Smith chose Kid Lit for $800, the Daily Double appeared.

She had $1,200 and risked all of it. 

“Let’s make it a true Daily Double, please,” she replied to Trebek about her wager. 

“Had it been a different category I wouldn’t have wagered everything I had,” Smith said in an interview July 18.

But the question was about a book she had never read – although it had been her brother’s favorite.

“Milo of ‘Phantom Tollbooth’ fame learns you can only get to the Isle of Conclusions by doing this,” Trebek hinted.

“What is, being logical?” Smith ventured.

The correct answer was jumping – as in jumping to conclusions.

Smith said she has since read “The Phantom Tollbooth.”

She answered enough clues correctly during the second round to take back the lead, but in the latter stages of the game, Borchert pulled ahead. 

In Final Jeopardy, Borchert was in first place with $15,800, while Smith was in second with $9,800 and the third player had $3,000. Trebek’s Final Jeopardy answer: “This Pulitzer winner changed his first name to that of an Irish king, avoiding associations with a famous ventriloquist’s dummy.”

Smith bet everthing she had, and knew the answer, and finished with $19,600.

Unfortunately, Borchert also answered correctly with “Who is McCarthy?” and bet enough to win, leaving him with $20,800.

Smith, who planned to install solar panels at her home if she had won, said she will use the $2,000 second-place prize to help her daughter, Lucy Weaver, study abroad. 

Smith said she has watched the show on and off for decades, but didn’t think about competing until Weaver saw tryouts were being held and persuaded her to give it a go.

So in January 2016, Smith took an online test of 50 questions that she had to answer as fast as she could. She got an offer via email to audition for the show in New York in June.

Smith compared the experience to a cattle call, where groups of three played a simulated, abbreviated version of the game, minus Trebek.

She also had to prepare five interesting facts about herself. Smith chose to reveal that she is a beekeeper; she rode in the Goodyear blimp to celebrate the country’s bicentennial; she dyed her hair fuchsia to encourage children to read more, and she holds a Guinness World record for reading for 105 hours straight.

In February she received the news that she made the show and taping would be in March.

Smith didn’t study, but practiced answering in the form of a question.

“I just coasted with what I knew and hoped it would be enough,” she said.

The taping “was surreal,” she said, and very different than playing at home.

“The board is further away and you have to squint to read it,” Smith said. “It’s unnerving, bright lights, you have to direct your attention in a few places.”

Fortunately, she said, Trebek reads the questions slower than most people read.

Smith said the show is taped two days a week; contestants are asked to bring five changes of clothes so if they win, it looks like they returned another day.

Contestants also stand on hydraulic boxes so they appear to be similar heights, and there are cheerleaders to help competitors play well and keep the audience energy high.

Although she didn’t win, Smith said, “It was a gas. It was an experience not many people have.” 

 Melanie Sochan can be reached at 781-3661 ext.106 or msochan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @melaniesochan.

Vicky Smith of South Portland, right, was the runner-up when she competed on “Jeopardy.” The show aired July 14; Smith is shown with host Alex Trebek.

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