One ‘Jeopardy’ Player is Flying High
"Jeopardy!" was very good to Air Force Col. Dave Belote.
Belote's $136,801 haul was the largest in 2009 and the 12th highest in the show's 26-year history. His six episodes aired Dec. 2-9, about a month after the last one was taped.
"I had a blast. It was some of the most fun I'd ever imagined," said Belote, 46, commander of the 99th Air Base Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. "I think I did the uniform and my beloved service proud."
By simply appearing on the show, Belote fulfilled a lifelong dream - once, he mailed 65 postcards to the show just for the chance to take the test for potential contestants - and gave his 21-year-old son Drew, who has autism, an experience he'll never forget.
Drew, a rabid fan of "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek and a computer version of the game, almost missed seeing his dad win the big money. He couldn't get out to the first taping of the show, based in Los Angeles, because he and his mom, Pam, are living in the family's Virginia home while Belote is assigned to Nellis.
Belote knew he had to string together four wins - "Jeopardy!" tapes five shows a day - if he wanted to get Drew out to California. And he did.
Armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of such arcane categories as "Polka Your Eyes Out" and "Life in Des Moines," and helped by a little luck and the steel nerves of the fighter pilot he is, Belote took on challenger after challenger.
A "Jeopardy!" game takes about 20 minutes to tape, but it seemed like 20 seconds to Belote. Before he knew it, he was in Final Jeopardy, sitting on $20,000 and facing a competitor only a few thousand dollars behind.
The category: "Phrase Origins." The bet: $19,999.
"I'm either going to win or not, and I don't care what the difference is between first, second and third," Belote recalled thinking to himself as he put up his money.
Then came the clue: Used in 1947's "U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey," this 2-word term became widely used again in NYC on 9/11/01.
Belote, a 24-year Air Force veteran, had read large sections of the survey for a work project about a decade earlier.
"I immediately started scribbling, 'What is Ground Zero?'" he said. "I (was) probably grinning from ear to ear at this point."
Belote ended the day with more than $107,000, a return trip to Los Angeles, and some amazing news for his wife.
"I grabbed my cell phone and walked outside for the funnest phone conversation in a 25-year relationship," Belote said. "I told her the news and there was this stunned silence on the other end of the cell phone. She said, 'Oh. My. God.'"
The best part: Drew could attend the second taping, on Nov. 4.
When the Belote family arrived at the studio, Drew was in awe, thrilled to be "inside 'Jeopardy!,'" as he put it. Belote, however, had a case of nerves. Coming in as a challenger he had felt calm, but the pressure of being the champ weighed on him.
"I knew I wasn't a Ken Jennings," he said, referring to the show's most successful contestant ever, winner of 74 games and more than $3 million. "I thought I might have an outside chance at nine or 10, but I really wanted to be a five-time champion."
In the final round, Belote did all he could, coming up with the right answer to a question on historic Americans. Unfortunately, his competition knew it too, and bet enough to win.
"That was how I wanted to lose," Belote said. "A game where I was just duking it out to the very end and wasn't standing there looking sheepish during Final Jeopardy! I left everything out on the field."
Most contestants leave the studio after they lose, Belote said, but Drew wasn't going anywhere. They stayed for the final three games.
The real payoff that day came when the competition was over and Belote led his son on stage to meet Trebek.
"His eyes are like saucers and he's got a grin from ear to ear," Belote said. "The tears are just welling up in my eyes, my heart is all the way up in my throat. I kind of choke out, 'Drew, who is this?' and he says 'Alex Trebek.'"
Trebek signed a photo of the three men, a keepsake that money can't buy.
With his winnings, the Belotes are thinking about buying a beach house on North Carolina's Outer Banks.
"That one Reagan question was worth $96,800," he marveled. "So if we buy that beach house we'll call it 'Reagan's Dream' or something."