Inside Barton Wong’s not-so-trivial pursuit of game show glory

As the shuttle bus carrying Barton Wong and his fellow Jeopardy contestants neared Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, Calif., what had been a talkative group suddenly grew quiet and introspective.

“We realized that this is where our Jeopardy dream comes true, and we either have the chance to win a lot of money or potentially humiliate ourselves on North American TV,” says Wong.

Fortunately for the Toronto man, it was the former. A senior trading associate at Mindshare Canada, Wong went on to become a two-day Jeopardy champion, winning a total of US$58,000.

Not bad for a day’s work, even if his appearance got off to an inauspicious start. During a non-televised practice game prior to taping, Wong was the only contestant to incorrectly answer a geography question asking for the only country in the western hemisphere bordering just one other country.

Wong’s response: “What is Belize?” The correct response: “What is Canada?” “The entire studio, staff and contestants, all burst out laughing, and I wanted to crawl under a rock,” he says. “I was mortified.”

Wong’s Jeopardy appearance was filmed prior to the recent announcement that fellow Canadian Alex Trebek, who has hosted the game show since 1984, is battling stage four pancreatic cancer.

“He is one of those people you always assume is going to be there,” says Wong. “Sure he’s 78, but he looked fantastic. I’m really grateful to have been on the show and met Alex, and I wish him the very best in his fight.”

Wong credits his professional career for providing him with the mental fortitude required to excel in such a high-pressure situation. He got his start in media in 2013, joining Touché as a media assistant before being promoted to broadcast buyer two years later.

He then resigned, spending a year at the University of Toronto in the Literature and Critical Theory program. In his spare time, Wong is doing the research for an independent study on 20th century British poetry to be submitted to the university.

He returned to media in November, joining Mindshare as part of the team responsible for media buying for Ford and Lincoln, as well as their regional dealer associations. “Working in a media agency has taught me a lot about handling stress and high-pressure situations,” he says. “It was great to discover the skills I developed in advertising really helped in winning a game show.”

His March 12-14 run on Jeopardy was the culmination of more than 10 years trying to get onto the king of the game shows. He appeared at three auditions prior to being selected.

A longtime trivia enthusiast (he was a member of his Toronto high school’s “Reach for the Top” team, which won the city championship three times) Wong started following the show in earnest during Ken Jennings’ record-setting 74-game run in 2004.

Already comfortable in categories like literature and history, Wong spent his time prior to the taping brushing up on Jeopardy mainstays including world and U.S. state capitals, the U.S. Constitution, U.S. history, U.S. presidents and Oscar winners. His one possible Achilles heel, college football, did not feature in the games.

But while general trivia knowledge is key to Jeopardy success, Wong says success also requires mastery of the buzzer. Buzz in before Trebek finishes reading the question, and you’re locked out for a crucial split second.

Every contestant who auditions for the show receives a pen shaped like the Jeopardy buzzer, and is encouraged to watch along with the show at home, clicking the pen at the appropriate moment.

“I did it for a little over a month, and I drove my family completely nuts with the clicking,” says Wong. “In retrospect, I wish I’d done it more because I got beat on the buzzer in my final game. I knew a lot of the answers, but I just wasn’t quick enough.”

Wong taped his three episodes on Jan. 29, two episodes in the morning before breaking for lunch. His afternoon performance confirmed a long held view by Jeopardy staff, that champions tend to lose after lunch.

Wong came from behind to take the lead in the Double Jeopardy round—garnering praise from Trebek for correctly answering four of five questions in a category entitled “The play’s last lines.” However, he was overtaken by eventual winner Lindsey Shultz, a doctor from Pittsburgh who went on to become a four-day champion with winnings of more than US$100,000. “She turned on the afterburners and proceeded to beat me on the buzzer for the rest of the round,” he says.

All contestants are given a paper and pencil prior to the Final Jeopardy so they can work out how much they can safely bet. The category was “State Capitals East of the Mississippi.” Wong wagered everything, $17,600, and correctly answered the question: “The last 2 letters of this city’s name are the U.S. postal abbreviation for the state that it’s the capital of” (The answer: What is Albany?).

Unfortunately, Shultz beat him by the narrowest possible margin, $1. It’s the answer to the question: What is a seemingly trivial amount that can make a world of difference?

Chris Powell