Wilson High teacher checks Jeopardy off his bucket list
Wilson High School social studies teacher Scott Montanaro has watched Jeopardy since his youth. He considers himself a trivia buff and has spent many nights matching wits with fellow mavens at The Conquistador Lounge's trivia night. And when he watches Jeopardy on television, he says he answers the majority of questions correctly.
But as Montanaro learned in March, answering questions is much easier from his couch than in a Hollywood studio surroudned by an audience and face-to-face with Alex Trabek. Still, Montanaro delivered a respectable performance during his time on Jeopardy and won some money to boot.
Montanaro was selected to compete against 14 other teachers from across the United States in the Jeopardy Teachers Tournament. He reached the semifinals, won $10,000 personally and received a $2,500 for his classroom. The tournament aired in mid-May.
"My heart was racing," Montanaro says. "It was a surreal experience."
Montanaro took an online Jeopardy contestant test last year and was selected to attend an audition in Seattle last summer. The audition included a written quiz, a mock round of Jeopardy and a mock interview.
Montanaro says the central point of the audition wasn't to determine which prospective contestants were the most knowledgeable.
"They told us at that point that they are trying to see if you are at all comfortable on camera and with the spotlight shining on you, not the smartest but who would make decent TV, who would feel comfortable playing the game and talking about themselves," he says.
Montanaro left the audition not expecting to be one of the few hundred people selected out of the thousands of auditioners.
But sure enough, one day during class, he received a coy voicemail from a Jeopardy employee. And after a 10-minute conversation, Montanaro learned that he would be headed to Los Angeles for the teacher's tournament.
"I was excited," Montanaro says. "It's sort of been a bucket list goal of mine."
During the competition, Montanaro found out that many of the contestants prepared vigorously for their 15 minutes of fame. But with a 7-month-old baby at home, Montanaro's studying consisted of watching a couple episodes of Jeopardy per week.
"It was not the most opportune time to learn that you are going to be a contestant on Jeopardy," Montanaro says.
Nevertheless, Montanaro did well in his quarterfinal round, dominating the Spanish literature category and taking a lead late in the round. But he was unable to pull the trigger on a question about opera, even though the answer came to him moments later.
He wound up placing second out of three competitors, but still earned a spot in the semifinals by accumulating one of the highest totals of second place finishers.
But in the semifinals, he fell behind quickly. And after betting substantially on a daily double, he did not answer the question correctly — nullifying any chance of a comeback.
"I didn't get in a groove with the buzzer," Montanaro says of his semifinals performance. "So much of it is getting in the right time for when to buzz in."
Montanaro teaches world history and psychology but did not receive any questions in his areas of expertise, though his previous role as a Spanish teacher helped him considerably in the Spanish literature category.
Each episode takes 40 minutes to film, and Montanaro says it flies by quickly and he's since forgotten much of the experience. But he enjoyed his time behind the contestant panel.
"The whole time I thought 'This is fun. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. This is cool and if I win some money that's icing on the cake,'" he says.
The experience also gave Montanaro a behind-the-scenes look at the production of Jeopardy. He learned that a consulting firm determines which questions will be asked during a round — and that contestants are doused with makeup before airings.
"I was completely unprepared as far as face wash or makeup remover," Montanaro says. "So I had this thick layer of makeup on and no way to get it off."
Montanaro says he didn't interact much with Trabek off-air, but enjoyed talking with him in person and watching him interact with the audience in between episodes.
"He's a Hollywood guy. Jeopardy is his personal fiefdom," Montanaro says. "He runs the show. It's pretty interesting to see him in person."
Montanaro says he will use the $10,000 check to contribute to his child's college and daycare funds, and he's considering using the $2,500 to pay for podcast equipment for his world history class.
Montanaro was contractually obligated to keep information about the tournament under wraps until the showings aired. So in the weeks after returning from Los Angeles and leading up to the airing, he had to stay mum even as students and fellow teachers tried to prod him into divulging how he performed.
"It's a big joke that I can't tell them how I did," he says.
Mantanaro recommends the experience to other Jeopardy-aficionados.
"If there are people out there who watch the show and think it would be fun to be a contestant, they should take the online test," he says. "I never thought that I'd get on, and I got on."