Having interviewed many quiz show champions, I'm always struck by how hard they take their losses, no matter how much they had won. It seems to be human nature to dwell on the small defect in the greater glory.
But despite two heartbreaking upset losses, former Jeopardy record holder Brian Weikle remains sanguine. "Sure, I beat myself up a bit and asked all the 'what if' questions, but you know, at the end of the day I'm pretty blessed. I've won more than a quarter of a million bucks for knowing some odd facts. That's pretty lucky."
In his run in 2003, he set both of Jeopardy’s main records: highest one-day total and highest five-day total. Yet, it very nearly didn’t happen. “I played the fourth game taped that day, and in some of the earlier games, the categories just weren’t to my liking, so I don’t know if I would have won.”
In fact, while he thought he would do well, he never thought he would break records. And he was a little surprised to get on at all. "Shows with contestant coordinators and screening usually look for people who are telegenic and interesting, and since I'm not telegenic or interesting, I never expected them to call!" (Weikle is depicted, left, in a picture taken at Game Show Congress 2003 with this writer, right, who is also neither telegenic nor interesting.)
Moreover, the man who became one of the game's most dominating players only barely passed the Jeopardy 50-question audition test. "The pass was 35 and when I counted the ones I knew I had wrong, there were at least 12."
Yet, four of his five games were lock outs, in which he had more than double the next best score. By the time he got to his third game, he realized he had a shot at the one-day record. He had roughly $37,000 and the record was about $50,000, set by one-day champ (and fellow Minnesota) Myron Meyer. "I knew Myron and I knew he wouldn't mind me breaking the record. I was in position, so I decided to go for it."
Generally a conservative player, his decision still surprises him. "Looking back, that was an unusually reckless thing for me to do, because when you have a locked game, you're basically gambling with your own money."
That game also caused him to break Frank Spangenburg's five-day record. "I didn't even realize that was happening until Alex mentioned it at the end of the show."
Technically, both of Weikle's records were only possible because the show doubled the dollar values of the clues, and until Ken Jennings came along, some argued that Weikle's marks deserved Roger Maris style asterisks. However, as Weikle sees it, "A record is a record and each one is a great achievement. You have to realize that wagering is based on the situation at hand, so every time a record is set, the situation is different."
Even so, he knew that it was "inevitable" that Jennings would break his record, even though he tied it three times before breaking it on the last show of the 2003-04 season. "That was very classy of him, but Alex kept needling him to break my record," jokes Weikle. "Except he couldn't remember my name, so I was just this number floating out there."
In 2005, he got a shot at Jennings, and had six months to get ready. "I studied Shakespeare, art, classic music, but it didn't really do me any good."
In fact, despite getting a first-round bye and dominating his second-round game, he ended up in close race with Grace Veach, who found two Daily Double late in the game and essentially quadrupled her money. Weikle was leading in Final Jeopardy, but none of the players got the last answer right, and Veach ended up with a shocking upset.
“I played the best I could play and that’s just the way the game goes,” says Weikle. “A really good player can eventually control the board, but in tournaments, all of the players are really good, so an element of luck enters into it. I thought if I could have found even one of those Daily Doubles, I could have put the game away, because my strategy was to bet aggressively on the Daily Doubles and go for the throat, which was different from the careful way I’d played in my five games.”
Amazingly enough, even as the game began to turn against him, Weikle kept his head and fought on. The great players, in fact, are able to stay focussed and not be rattled by the stress of play.
Even more heartbreaking was his loss in his Tournament of Champions in 2003. At Final Jeopardy after two games, his opponent, Mark Dawson, was leading based on the two-day total, but Weikle had enough money to turn the game around. "What you don't realize in the abstract, and never realize until you're there in the studio, is that sometimes you can be ahead and still be losing. It was the only time I used pencil and paper to work out my bet, but I misread a 6 as an 8, so I didn't bet enough and lost by $199."
But he was grateful just to be there. "There were some incredible fortuitous events that got me as far as I got in that tournament. If it hadn't have been for some poor wagering in my semi-final game, I would have been eliminated then. And the Final Jeopardy I got right that day was actually just a wild guess."
For Weikle, a 1989 College Bowl champ at the University of Minnesota, the secret to quiz show success is concentration and focus. "Ken Jennings is able to banter with Alex but that's not me. I don't get distracted or worry about how stupid my last answer was. I'm very competitive. When Grace pulled ahead, there was a moment of helplessness, but then it was 'game on' and I put my nose to the grindstone."
In fact, concentration is something he regrets a little during the UToC. "I wish I had been more social. I was so focussed on my game that I didn't spend as much time as I wish I had getting to know the other players. I don't know if there is some correlation between being a great person and winning on Jeopardy, but everyone I've met on that show I've liked. Collectively, it's a pretty cool thing we have in common. That's the best part of the whole thing. Even if they didn't give me the money, I'd treasure that."