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Neither Big nor Easy

“Greatest Living American Writer” Neal Pollack Talks About His ‘Jeopardy!’ Victory

Neal Pollack used to be a literary celebrity thanks to Dave Eggers and a penchant for weird stunts, but recently he achieved a new kind of fame by being one of Alex Trebek's playthings for three nights.
Michael Patrick Welch
Κείμενο Michael Patrick Welch

When I first met Neal Pollack back in 2000, he was riding high as the first author to publish a book with Dave Eggers’s hip and ambitious McSweeney’s Books imprint. Touring behind The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, he at times played his aggressively egotistical “greatest living American writer” character a little too realistically while pulling stunts such as reading “fake poetry” in front of 800 people in Amsterdam with David Byrne accompanying him on the bongos, and eventually got cast out by Eggers.

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Following that bad breakup with McSweeny's—but before breaking up with his own persona—Pollack published a fictional rock ’n’ memoir, Never Mind the Pollacks, then hit the road with his real but not particularly good punk band, the Neal Pollack Invasion. He went on to write Alternadad, a child-rearing memoir that, for better or worse, helped kick off the media-fed “hipster parenting” craze, and followed that up with the excellent Jewball, a noir-ish work of historical fiction pitting Jews against Nazis and gangsters on the basketball court in the late 1930s. Today he’s a yoga teacher who writes detective novels about “yoga crimes”—the first one was titled Downward Facing Death and the second, Open Your Heart, came out this summer.

But I called Pollack recently to discuss instead his recent three-game winning streak on Jeopardy! and the boatload of cash he won.

VICE: I watched all four episodes of Jeopardy! you were on and I kept wanting to correct Alex Trebek when he called you a writer—“He’s an author, damn it!” The word writer sounds much less important.
Neal Pollack: That’s my fault, I should have called myself that. They just read what’s on the card. I had way more problems than that.

What problems did you have?
The buzzer. It was a nightmare trying to chime in on those questions. I have 43-year-old-stoner reflexes that weren’t that good before I started smoking weed. I’m really bad at video games. I have bad hand/eye coordination. And then the pressure of being quizzed on national television with flashing lights, plus this weird Canadian man passing judgment on you… I was so tired, I didn’t sleep, then I sat in the studio audience and watched six games before I got to play—they tape multiple games a day. All four of my appearances were taped in a five-hour period. It’s a game of knowledge, but it’s also a test of mental and physical endurance. You have to have decent handwriting, you have to know how to gamble, and at the end of the game after all that nonsense, you have to do a complicated math problem to try and calculate your Final Jeopardy wager.

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How did you get on the show in the first place?
I took the online test and I did pretty well, so a few weeks later I got an email inviting me to a regional audition in San Antonio. They gave me a written test of like 50 questions. I got booked for the show and they gave me a mock-contestant interview. About 100,000 people take that test, then they pick about 2,000 to audition. So you’re up there in pretty good company. Then they pick about 400 people a year to be on the show.

How did you prepare for the tests and the game?
I didn’t study for the audition, I just breezed through it. But as soon as I was called [to go on the show] I knew I had to pick up the pace. There’s a website that has Jeopardy! clues from the last 30 years archived, and I pored over the material, how the questions were worded, the patterns. Categories where I didn’t know stuff I would find information online and study: botany, geology, history… keeping in mind that you can be up against someone who knows the exact same things that you do but is faster on the buzzer, and it won’t fucking matter anyway, and then your entire existence will depend on knowing a lot about David Hasselhoff. Which I do!

You did, actually! I was surprised. How the hell did people study for Jeopardy! before the internet?
In the past I think people just had to read encyclopedias and use mnemonic devices. But I don’t think it’s an easier game now; it’s the same as it used to be. It is more geometric in a way though, you can deduce patterns and types of questions that you just simply couldn’t before.

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I don’t want to make you feel bad but what was up with flubbing that Daily Double in the Authors on Authors category?
Yeah tell me about it! I missed a Mark Twain question! Mark Twain! I said Thor Heyerdahl, who wrote the book Kon-Tiki, which is about his travels on a raft. They mentioned the raft in in the clue, so that’s what I went with.

You knew too much. The other moment I felt for you was when they came back from the commercial and took that $1,600 away from you because you added a d onto the end of fatigue.
That pretty much sums up my Jeopardy! experience right there. Some people go in there and are champions and just win easily, they’re ahead by like $20,000 and don’t have to bet shit on Final Jeopardy. But I had to scratch and claw and club my way for every dollar I won. But yeah, there are a lot of semantic quibbles. Yesterday this Latino poet guy lost money because Alex didn’t think he pronounced Elaine right on a Seinfeld question. But he totally pronounced it right, so I don’t know what that was about. The woman who beat me, she called him, “That inscrutable Canadian wizard, Trebeck.”

So how much money did you win over the course of four games?
I walked away with $62,000-plus. Some people win like a grand or two, and then they have that memory of having suffered a defeat on national television [laughs].

How does that compare to your book advances?
I was in Hollywood for a few years and I received a couple decent-sized checks while I was there but Jeopardy! is certainly up there among the largest checks I’ve ever received for anything. It’s really going to help my family reset our lives, even after they take the taxes out.

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And that’s after you take your son to South Korea to the video-game championships like you told Alex you were?
Yeah, I don’t think we are going to do that. I have this gig where I [test-drive cars](http:// http://autos.yahoo.com/news/continental-drifter.html?page=all) and South Korea actually comes up a lot because of Hyundai and Kia. So there are opportunities to go drive cars in Korea sometimes, and if that ever happens, maybe I’ll have a free plane ticket over there and I can use my frequent-flyer miles to bring my son. It’s not an impossible dream. But our main goal is to use that money to put a little down payment on a house, and to essentially reset our lives—because our lives were just so tumultuous there for so many years. We’ve been trying to claw our way back into the middle class and Jeopardy! may be the lever that pushes us there. So it’s a really nice bonus.

Going back to Alex for a moment—he seemed surprised, or maybe even freaked out, at your reaction to winning that first game.
I pumped my fist, I raised my arms to the sky, I celebrated. I didn’t do a victory dance but I was really going for it there. It was an exciting win! And it was a miracle that I came back from $10,000 down. Some people when they win Jeopardy! they’re like a deer in headlights. Stoicism is considered the social norm. But I was like, Fuck yeah, I did it! I trained hard and I actually accomplished it.

Did Trebek do anything out of character?
No, he never breaks character. He’s sort of like the Old Testament God: he praises you if you do good and scolds you if you do badly; he’s sometimes kind, sometimes cruel. His judgments can be random. He never lets you forget it’s his show and it’s not your show—the contestants are just sausage.

I liked how, when you were talking about the Korean video-game championships you blurted out, “Those prizes are much bigger than in this game!”
Yeah I don’t think he liked that much. That was a stupid fucking thing to say [laughs]. At that point he turned to the producer and he’s like, Send that one done the chute. We’re done with him. Flip the switch; his streak is over. And sure enough, that was the end for me.

Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans musician, journalist, and author of books including The Donkey Show and New Orleans: the Underground Guide. His work has appeared at McSweeney's, Oxford American, Newsweek,Salon, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter here.

Update: An earlier version of this piece misquoted Neal about how he got on the show. He didn't receive any assistance or advice from any producer.

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