Like many people of a certain generation, Vince Bacani has fond memories of watching TV with his family. In particular, they loved JEOPARDY!, the iconic U.S.-based quiz show.
“It was a real family thing. We always watched it together,” he says.
Bacani has now seen the show from a whole different perspective – as a contestant. While he can’t disclose how he fared (shows are pre-recorded), if people tune in tonight, January 17, they can watch the McGill Engineering grad (B.Eng ’93, M.Eng ’95) in action.
Originally, Bacani didn’t consider trying to become a contestant on his favourite game show. “For the longest time, Canadians were not eligible to compete,” he says. “I never dreamt of going.”
However, in 2016, producers of the show opened its doors to its northern neighbours and everything changed. “For the last seven years I’ve been trying,” he says in a phone interview with the Reporter. “It’s been a long road, but it’s been lots of fun.”
Skill, luck and camera presence
Qualifying for JEOPARDY! is an involved process that is equal parts skill, luck and casting call.
It begins with an online quiz that people can complete on their own at any time. If that goes well, aspiring contestants may be invited to take a written test under the watchful eyes of JEOPARDY! staffers.
But doing well on the test is no guarantee of moving on. “Not everyone gets picked,” says Bacani. “Once you pass a certain threshold, everyone is equal. If your name gets selected [randomly], you move on.”
Next, people play a mock game, in front of cameras, complete with a short interview – just like they do on TV. “It’s not so much to see how well you play,” says Bacani. “They want to see how well you speak and how well you present in front of the cameras. It’s an audition.”
After finally making it through to the auditions in 2021, he was told his name would be on file for 18 months. If he didn’t hear anything by then, he was free to start the lengthy qualifying process once again.
Nineteen months later, Bacani says he “had given up.” Then, one day, he got a call inviting him to fly to L.A. and appear on JEOPARDY!
Shoring up the weak spots
Many JEOPARDY! contestants hone their knowledge in trivia leagues, quiz bowls and highly competitive tournaments. “I play the JEOPARDY! app and some other informal things, but I’ve never done a tournament in my life,” says Bacani.
Once he got the word that he passed the audition, Bacani put together “an informal learning plan.”
“I’m an engineer, so I’m strong in science and math. I’m also pretty good in literature, art and sports,” he says. “But I’m not very strong in geography, pop culture, technology or things like video games. And history. That’s my real weakness.”
“Traditionally, Canadians on JEOPARDY! get hammered by American history, so I really concentrated on that. I bought all kinds of History for Dummies books, says Bacani with a chuckle. “Now I know all the Amendments to the Constitution, the Civil War, how the U.S. government works.”
“But,” he says ruefully, “once I passed the 12-month mark, I stopped studying.”
Behind the scenes
Bacani can’t divulge any details about his JEOPARDY! appearance, but he does offer some behind-the-scenes insights.
He says the set is “a lot smaller” than it appears on TV, and that playing in front of a live audience is quite different than writing a test. “I was pretty nervous,” he says.
A huge fan of beloved host Alex Trebek, Bacani says it was touching to learn that the studio where the show is taped is called the Alex Trebek Stage. Trebek hosted JEOPARDY! from 1984 until his death from pancreatic cancer in 2020. “We’re Canadians. We have an affinity for Alex Trebek,” he says.
Host Ken Jennings, considered the greatest JEOPARDY! champion of all time, is “really nice,” says Bacani. “He really wants everyone to do well. When I missed a few questions, I could tell he was pulling for me.”
Finally, he says the whole experience was well worth the seven-year wait. “It was so much fun and the people were great,” says Bacani. “It really was a dream.”
To watch Vince Bacani play, tune into JEOPARDY! at 7 p.m. tonight. In Montreal, JEOPARDY! is aired by the NBC affiliate WPTZ-5 out of Plattsburgh on weeknights at 7 p.m., or check your local listings.