Five-time winner Dan Katz returns for Tournament of Champions


October 21, 1990|By Randi Henderson

There's a phrase, Dan Katz feels, that aptly sums up his life right now.

"The expression 'Never in my wildest dreams' is applicable here," says the 34-year-old Baltimore attorney who describes himself as "boring" and readily admits that one of the thrills of his youth was appearing three times on "It's Academic."

If "It's Academic" was a thrill, winning five straight games -- and $48,803 -- on "Jeopardy!" earlier this year was a thrill and a half. As a five-game winner, Mr. Katz is eligible to compete in Jeopardy's Tournament of Champions, where he could win $100,000.

The tournament will be taped in Los Angeles tomorrow and Tuesday and broadcast for two weeks beginning Nov. 5. It features 15 Jeopardy high scorers and five-time winners like Mr. Katz.

"Sure I'm nervous," Mr. Katz says of the upcoming tournament.

Mr. Katz -- who lives in Owings Mills, is married to a Social Security Administration contract specialist and is the father of a 19-month-old daughter -- has been a fan of the answer-and-question quiz show since he was a kid growing up in Northwest Baltimore.

A graduate of Arlington Elementary School, Pimlico Junior High and Northwestern High, he characterizes himself as "always a good student but not the best in the class." He remembers watching the first incarnation of "Jeopardy!" (which was on at noon) during summer vacations and when he was home sick from school.

"I thought it was an intelligent game show with good questions," he remembers. He also thought it would be fun to be a contestant but was too young to think about it seriously.

"Jeopardy!" was on from 1964 until 1975, made a brief reappearance in 1978, then returned in its present form with host Alex Trebek in 1984. Syndicated nationally, it is carried in Baltimore by WMAR-TV (Channel 2) at 7:30 p.m.

By the time the show came back on the air in the evening, Mr. Katz had graduated from the University of Maryland undergraduate and law schools and was working for Kaplan, Heyman, Greenberg, Engelman and Belgrad, a downtown law firm where he had begun as a 17-year-old messenger. He became a regular viewer with something more than just watching definitely in mind.

"I was watching again and waiting to hear an announcement about tryouts," he says.

Pitting himself against the contestants on TV, he found, "I often knew the answers." But he adds a quick and modest disclaimer: "I know a lot, but there's a lot that I don't know. To some degree the game is a measure of smarts, but a lot of it is having a fairly broad background of knowledge. And you can come up with a lot of the answers without actually knowing them, but just figuring them out from the way the question is phrased."

His favorite categories, Mr. Katz says, are baseball, rock music, TV and movies, with science and math other areas where he feels competent. "I like the fun stuff," he says.

When "Jeopardy!" recruiters were in town in the summer of 1988, Mr. Katz was away on vacation and didn't get a chance to compete. But he was ready when they returned in July 1989, and sent in about $10 worth of postcards for a drawing that would select prospective contestants.

Along with about 200 other prospects, he got the call to take a qualifying test at the Channel 2 studios. "I was real surprised that I passed the test," he recalls.

Step two of the tryout was a brief practice game -- "They're looking to see how you come across, how you look playing the game" -- and a short interview. "They explain that just because you passed doesn't mean you'll get on," Mr. Katz says. "They'll call you if they want you. They also make it very clear that you have to pay your own way."

He didn't expect to get called, Mr. Katz says, because "there were so many other lawyers in the group." And, in fact, the call didn't come until January, six months after the test.

Mr. Katz was asked to be at the L.A. studios where the show is taped Feb. 12 and 13. He was told to bring three changes of clothing; five shows a day are taped, and if he were to win he'd have to change for the next show.

"I didn't go out there thinking I'd win," he says. "I just didn't want to embarrass myself."

In Los Angeles with his wife, Marcia, Mr. Katz lay awake in his hotel room the night before the taping, going over names of presidents and state capitals in his mind. At the studio with the other contestants, he filled out some forms, had doughnuts and coffee and listened to a speech outlining the rules and explaining how the buzzers work. He was called for the second game of the day.

"It went real fast," he remembers. "I knew most of the answers right away, but I was getting beat." A key, he soon discovered, was a neon light around the game board (not visible to watchers at home) that goes on as Mr. Trebek is finishing reading the question, signaling that contestants can ring in. If they ring in before the light goes on, they are locked out for two-tenths of a second.

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