Lemont native Jim Virtel has been a "Jeopardy!" fan for as long as he can remember, and has always wanted to appear on the show.
"I would watch the show when I was really young, even though I didn't know most of the questions," Virtel said. "When I was in high school and college and living with my parents, we would watch it daily. My whole family is really into it."
Last year, Virtel's dream finally came true when he passed an online exam and was selected to compete on an episode taped in January. The show will finally air Friday, May 25, at 3:30 p.m. on ABC 7 Chicago.
"It's been such a long process, so I'm excited for people to finally see the episode," he said.
Virtel, 28, graduated from Lemont High School in 2002. He earned a bachelor's degree in computer science and French from Marquette University in 2006, and a master's degree in philosophy from the University of Missouri-St. Louis in 2010.
He is currently living in Chicago with his wife, Raquel Frisardi, who he married in January. In the coming weeks the couple will move to Boston, where Virtel hopes to find work as a philosophy or sports writer.
Patch caught up with Virtel on Wednesday to discuss his experience on "Jeopardy!" and what fans can expect to see during his episode.
PATCH: How did you become a contestant on the show?
VIRTEL: It was kind of a long process, actually. First, there’s an online test that’s available to everyone once each year. I took the test in January 2011. I had taken it a few other times, but I never did well enough to qualify.
Basically, there are 50 questions and you have 30 seconds to answer each question. You have to get a certain percentage right, but they don’t tell you the results. I thought I did well, but I really had no idea. About four months went by, and I finally got an email inviting me to an in-person interview with other prospective players in Kansas City.
So I flew out there (to Kansas City) in June, and I had to dress up like I would if I was on the show. I had to take another 50-question test so they could make sure I wasn't cheating the first time, and then I did a mock game with all the candidates.
In December—I think it was my first day of finals—I got a call saying that I qualified to be on the show, and that the producers wanted me to fly out to Los Angeles in January to do the taping.
PATCH: So when did you actually film the show?
VIRTEL: I flew out to Los Angeles on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and taped the show on Tuesday.
PATCH: How did you prepare?
VIRTEL: "Jeopardy!" tends to bring up certain categories over and over again, so you have to know what to study. They're big on geography, for example. I know that pretty well, so I didn't study. I tried to concentrate on the subjects I knew I was weak on, like opera, classical music and Broadway.
There's also a fan website called "J! Archive" that has an archive of all the past questions and answers. I don't have cable, so I used that a lot. It's how I caught up on the latest shows and tested myself. I just tried to study as much as possible.
PATCH: What was the experience like filming?
VIRTEL: It was a lot of fun, but very taxing. I got to the studio around 8 a.m. and spent the first couple of hours trying to figure out what I was going to say for my intro video. Then you have to fill out a bunch of forms.
They brought in 12 people for that day's taping. They tape five shows a day, so 20 minutes before each show they choose a couple of people at random. I sat through four rounds before it was my turn. It's like having an adrenaline rush for eight hours.
PATCH: Was it what you expected?
VIRTEL: It was cool to see how it's all done in person. The set is a lot smaller than it looks on TV. My game went by quickly, but I really enjoyed being up there.
All the people are really nice and helpful, but it was kind of stressful to be there all day. I don't know how someone like Ken Jennings can do that many shows in a row.
PATCH: What was it like meeting Alex Trebek?
VIRTEL: They keep him away from the contestants for the most part, so I didn't really interact with him. But he seems like a nice guy, and was great during filming.
PATCH: I know you and your family are big fans of the show. What was their reaction to hearing you made it?
VIRTEL: They were all really excited for me. They've all been fans of the show for a long time. My mom's side in particular is really devoted. My brother, Louis, is a big fan, so I think he's a little envious. But overall, everyone is just excited.
PATCH: Do you have any advice for people who want to be contestants on the show?
VIRTEL: J! Archive is really helpful, and you should study the topics you don't know well. When you're in person, you have to speak loudly, look at the producers and be calm. Just be confident and try to have a good time. The experience goes really quickly, and it's something you should savor.
PATCH: Where do you plan to watch the show?
VIRTEL: I'll be at a bar in Little Italy called Little Joe's. They're actually opening early for me. The owner is a big fan of the show and knows me, so he wanted to have something. A bunch of friends and family members will be there to watch.
PATCH: Are you happy with how you did on the show?
VIRTEL: It was an exciting show. That's all I can really say. It was exciting, and that's all I hoped for. I'm happy with how I did.
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