Who is Erin Rhode?

A Wayzata High grad’s shot on ‘Jeopardy!’   

“Jeopardy!” contestant, and Wayzata High School grad, Erin Rhode with host Alex Trebek following a taping of the show Jan. 21 in Los Angeles. (Submitted photo)
“Jeopardy!” contestant, and Wayzata High School grad, Erin Rhode with host Alex Trebek following a taping of the show Jan. 21 in Los Angeles. (Submitted photo)

Erin Rhode remembers the fateful phone call made to her San Francisco office. It was a call she almost didn’t take after not recognizing the number that flashed across her phone’s display. Rhode said she remembers a coworker looking perplexed after she had begun quietly jumping up and down.

“I was trying to mouth to him who was on the phone, and he wasn’t able to read my lips,” Rhode said. “Finally, I just wrote it on a white board, ‘It’s ‘Jeopardy!’”

The 2000 Wayzata High School grad said she had auditioned nearly a year and a half earlier, which made the news all the more exciting.

“As soon as I hung up on the phone, we jumped up and down and cheered,” Rhode said.

Once a year, 100,000 people take the online test to appear on the popular game show. From that, the field is narrowed to around 3,000 who are called in to audition to take another test and compete in live quizzes. The pool is then trimmed to 400 people who will appear on the show throughout the season. This equals an overall acceptance rate of .4 percent for “Jeopardy!” hopefuls.

Rhode’s March 2013 audition was in Sacramento. Having auditioned once before in Boston, where she was attending school at MIT, Rhode said she sort of knew what to expect.

“It was an all-day audition. There was a written test, and then they have you play mock-games of ‘Jeopardy!’ and they do a little interview with you to make sure that you’re OK on camera,” Rhode said.

After the fateful call to her San Francisco office, Rhode said she used her six weeks before the taping to tighten up her trivia game.

“There’s a website called J-Archive.com that has every game of ‘Jeopardy!’ going back 20-some odd years with all of the questions that were asked and the answers,” Rhode said. “I think I read through every game of the most recent season and most of the previous season to get a sense of the style of questions and topics that came up a lot. ‘Jeopardy!’ really likes Willa Cather.”

Rhode said she rememorized all of the capital cities in the world and studied a list of famous works of literature and their authors.

When it came time for the Jan. 21 taping, Rhode said she went in confident yet nervous. She said she was one of 12 contestants who competed that day. The show tapes a week’s worth of episodes in one day, so for most of the afternoon, Rhode was left sitting and waiting for her name to be called.

“It was nerve-racking,” Rhode said.

After she was called and began to head into the studio, Rhode said her nerves quickly took a back seat.

“The game itself goes so fast you don’t really have time to be nervous … You’re too busy trying to remember the name of the person who captained the first nuclear-powered submarine,” Rhode said.

Kafkaesque

Despite an education from MIT, where she studied physics and math, and her computer science studies in grad school at the University of Michigan, Rhode ended up unsuccessful in her Jeopardy appearance.   

“I was in second place going into Final Jeopardy, but I didn’t get the question right and the other two did, so I wound up in third,” she said.

Before the final round, Rhode hadn’t answered a single question wrong. But the trick to competing on “Jeopardy!”, Rhode learned, is to be the quickest on the buzzer.

The guy who amassed the top dollar amount, he was standing right next to me and I could feel his arm flinch every time he buzzed in,” Rhode said. “And every time he buzzed in, he won the race.”

The one question that stumped Rhode ended up being an answer on a list of literature questions that Rhode had overlooked.

“I unfortunately did not study short stories. I only studied novels, and that would end up being my downfall because for the final Jeopardy question, the answer was the short story ‘Metamorphosis’ by Franz Kafka … That’s the thing, you can study and study, but you have no idea what they’re going to ask.”

Stray observations from Rhode’s time on the set of ‘Jeopardy!’:

• Any contact with host Alex Trebek before the taping starts is strictly prohibited as it is against the show’s standards and practices.

• The show is taped in real time, so commercial-break time is used to rerecord misread lines or make any other corrections. If no fixes are needed, Trebek fields questions from the audience.

“He’s really sharp,” Rhode said. “Questions ranged from how things worked backstage to his favorite hockey team to the really inane like who would win in a fight, a silverback gorilla or a grizzly bear?” (Trebek would put his money on the grizzly bear.)

• Much to Rhode’s chagrin, there’s nothing exciting behind the big blue “Jeopardy!” board – just a narrow, empty hallway.

• Rhode felt like she connected with Trebek over their shared love for the sport of curling. Trebek was a curling commentator in Canada in the ‘60s.

“Curlers know these things about Alex,” Rhode said.

• “Jeopardy!” viewers aren’t afraid to share their opinions on Twitter over who the contestants resemble.

“It turns out I look like Jan Brady. That’s not a fact I ever knew about myself … When you go on national television, you can search for your name on Twitter and find out what people think of you. It’s slightly terrifying but amusing if you have a good attitude about it.”

Contact Jason Jenkins at [email protected]