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Thinking Man's Cop : 'Jeopardy' Winner Plays by the Book--the Encyclopedia


The TV was glowing and the Budweiser was flowing Tuesday night when off-duty police officers piled into their favorite Los Angeles cop bar to unwind.

But the boys over at the Short Stop tavern on Sunset Boulevard weren't watching Olympic highlights or hockey or any of the evening's three basketball games.

They were glued to a television game show, agonizing over questions about religious literature, particle accelerators and the identity of a city founded in 1565.

The officers were cheering one of their own. Street cop Frank Epstein was about to become one of the all-time richest winners on the "Jeopardy" show.

Epstein is a 40-year-old officer who patrols South-Central Los Angeles between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m. But if mornings are for chasing gang-bangers and robbers, afternoons are for pursuing trivia.

"I relax by reading and petting my cat," said Epstein, who can remember snippets of information--such as the name of Alexander the Great's horse--from books he read 30 years ago.

By the time the cheering died down at the Short Stop, Epstein had remembered enough to defeat 10 other players and win $73,400. He also won an invitation to be one of 15 contestants in a $100,000 championship round later this year.

A spokesman for the show said Epstein's earnings make him one of the top 10 winners in the 20-year history of the game.

Although the five "Jeopardy" episodes he captured were taped late last year, Epstein had pledged to keep the outcome secret until they aired before a national audience of some 17 million.

Tuesday night's victory came as Epstein correctly named Richmond, Va., as the headquarters of the firm that makes Dixie Cups. His challenger picked another city.

"Hey, I knew the answer to that one!" joked Officer Richard Blue, Epstein's patrol car partner, from the end of the bar.

Despite a memory like a sponge, Epstein admits that it took two tries before he was selected to be a contestant on the show. Potential players have to pass a 50-question written test before producers will consider them.

"The second time, I boned up with an atlas to learn the capitals," he said. "I went over the names of all the Presidents--I'd forgotten some of them since high school."

Quipped Blue: "Sure, that's the only thing he read up on. Except for those encyclopedias he was carrying around in the patrol car."

Epstein studied political science at UC Santa Barbara before joining a brokerage firm. He joined the Police Department when a recession hit 10 years ago. "I had to find another job; I was a terrible stockbroker," he said.

He was an audience pleaser on the show, however. He drew laughs by making jokes about lawyers and communists during several of his early episodes.

"You don't have to wear a white collar to have something between your ears," Epstein explained Tuesday--noting that the all-time top "Jeopardy" winner is New York transit cop Frank Spangenberg, who won $102,000 two years ago. "Cops aren't flat-footed and dim-witted."

A wry sense of humor and an occasional streak of outspokenness have made Epstein a popular figure among the 250 officers at the 77th Street Station.

On Tuesday night, cops crowded into the detectives' office to watch their friend on the lone station house TV set that could be tuned to an outside channel. "No, normally we don't watch "Jeopardy,' " stressed Officer Michael Morisseau.

"We all have ideas of how Frank can spend that money," Officer Russ Freeman said.

Back at the Short Stop, Epstein said he had ideas of his own.

"I'm either going use it to end world hunger. Or to buy a condo.'

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