Alex Trebek sounded like a recording.
"Jerome," he intoned.
It seemed like every time he read a clue during Thursday night's "Jeopardy!", contestant Jerome Vered hit the buzzer first.
And Vered would respond correctly. "What is Mongolia?" he replied to a clue about the Khalkha dialect.
"You have been performing like a buzz saw," Trebek said.
The Studio City screenwriter won $34,000 Thursday night, the most anyone has ever won on a single evening of "Jeopardy!", the game show of choice among bookworms, history-mongers and info-fanatics. General science, the Bible, national anthems--Vered plowed through nearly every category, listening to "answers" and supplying the correct questions. He nailed 22 of 30 Double Jeopardy! clues and hit on all three Daily Doubles. He even cracked a joke.
"They'll take back my film degree," he quipped after missing a clue about the focal length of cameras.
The record-setting performance--a conspicuous display of encyclopedic memory and rapid buzzer finger--marked Vered's fourth straight triumph and boosted his winnings to $81,401. Those rare "Jeopardy!" contestants who win five consecutive games are mandatorily retired. So Vered has but one chance, on tonight's game, to break the all-time total of $102,594 accumulated by a New York City transit police officer.
The record is irrelevant, Vered insists. This graduate of Harvard and the USC film school--a 34-year-old who has yet to sell a screenplay, still lives at home and whose only paying job has been jury duty--swears that he fulfilled his own expectations merely by playing.
"Remember the original Art Fleming show? I wrote them a letter," Vered said. "They wrote back and said there wasn't a show for little kids. Well, I wasn't really interested in a kids show. I wanted to be on the adult show. I was only 6, but I knew some of the categories pretty well."
As an adult, he auditioned for four years running before being selected as a contestant.
"Even if I had lost my first game or had ended up in the minus column, I wouldn't have been humiliated," he said. "I would rather win Lee Press-On Nails on 'Jeopardy!' than $50,000 on some other game show."
When the program's synthesizer-saccharin theme song plays at 7:30 tonight and Trebek steps before the electronic-blue clue board, Vered will be watching from a West Hollywood sushi bar, surrounded by friends. The games were videotaped in January, all five in one day, but Vered won't say in advance how tonight's game turns out. The show's producers made him sign a contract promising not to.
Indeed, the game is serious stuff at the "Jeopardy!" offices in Hollywood. Potential contestants take written and oral tests and are photographed. Those who survive the screening process are kept on file. If not chosen within a year, they must reapply. Vered took his first test in 1987.
"It became this thing I did every year for fun," he said.
The call came in 1991: Vered was told to report on March 13, his 33rd birthday. "I thought 'How great.' I went out and bought all these nice clothes."
But, slated as an alternate, Vered merely watched from the audience. It was the end of the season, so he waited a year before being summoned again. He was confident enough to bring five ties in anticipation of sticking around for a few games.
"It's like anyone who buys a lottery ticket," he said. "They think in the back of their mind that they can win."
Several minutes into his first game, he appeared to have a better chance at Lotto than at "Jeopardy!" The defending champion, a New York advertising executive named Don, had amassed $1,800 before Vered responded to a single clue.
"I wasn't hitting the buzzer on time," Vered said. "When I finally hit the buzzer first, I forgot what the clue was. I had to look at it again quickly."
His response--"What are Zimbabwe and Zaire?"--was correct. A flurry of correct responses ensued, delivered in strikingly calm voice. After Final Jeopardy!, his winnings totaled $24,000, more than twice that of the nearest competitor. He grinned sheepishly.
"That was a moment of sheer pleasure and joy," he recalled.
Over the next three games, the winnings multiplied as competitors fell by the wayside: Susan, the civil engineering technician from Indiana; Mike, the Washington tax accountant; Hank, an actor from New Jersey. Fodder.
Vered showed uncanny luck at unearthing the Daily Doubles, hidden clues that allow the contestant to double his or her score. "He bet big on them and got them right," a spokesman for the show said. And, for unusual stretches, he buzzed first on every clue.
"You don't hear the audience. It's just you and Alex," he said. "Like a call-and-response chant."