Before Amy Schneider and Matt Amodio delighted Jeopardy! fans, audiences of the show cheered as Debbie Wexler won back-to-back games and qualified for the Tournament of Champions, taking home over $43,000 prize ($85,000 today).
“Believe it or not, I played five games in one day,” said the local grandmother and retired nurse. “We took five outfits to change into. It was quite taxing. They offered us food in between games, but I was too nervous to eat and wanted all the blood flow to stay in my brain, not my stomach!”
Wexler’s winning streak began in 1993 and ended with her loss in 1994. She excelled especially in the medical and scientific categories, but did less well in sports and pop culture, like TV shows. Wexler finds that some questions are simply generational. “Recently a question was about the PT-109 [WWII boat captained by John F. Kennedy] and the younger folks had no idea,” she said.
Jeopardy! first aired back in 1964. In 1984, Alex Trebek took over as host until his death in 2021. Since then, Mayim Bialik, who is Jewish, has landed one of the two primary hosting gigs, second to Ken Jennings.
“Yes, technology has changed, but the game is still the same,” Wexler explained. “In my case, I found success in retrieving much of the things I learned in junior high and high school. I have keen memories of the tryout process, what it was like later in the studio and mingling with the tight group with whom I was sequestered for the championship round.”
After sending in a postcard, Wexler was picked to audition at the downtown Americana Hotel. Flying through the answers, she was slated to appear on the show in Los Angeles, at her own expense. She remembers that in the championship round her expenses were covered.
“When I got the call to head West to tape the show, I immediately called my parents to come stay with the kids. It was also funny that the show was pre-taped and we were sworn to secrecy. In November we had to pretend it was St. Patrick’s Day!”
Wexler’s other strategies: critical clicker timing (not too soon, or one gets shut out, though waiting too late is a disaster) and analyzing calculations on the Daily Double and Final Jeopardy. “You don’t want to lose by $1,” she said, “but calculate a winning wager just over the opponents. Yes, skillful clicking is the hardest part. Very frustrating.”
On set, the contestants were managed by handlers, even escorted to the restroom. They were not allowed to chat with Trebek. Wexler recalled that she shared with Trebek and the audience that she collected earrings and played tennis in Atlanta’s ALTA tennis league.
“We contestants became tight friends. We still send holiday cards and keep in touch. We figured that the only thing we had in common is that we were or are from New England, somehow. Most importantly, we were very supportive of each other.”
Until current Jeopardy! whiz Amy Schneider came along, none of the top champions had been female. As her winning streak progressed, Schneider announced that she was transgender. Is gender a factor? Wexler said, “Stop dwelling on differences. It’s irrelevant. I saw a photo of past winners who were evenly male and female.”
Wexler has a photo from her time on the show displayed in her home. It is indeed a special memory. “After all,” she laughs, “there I was, a floor nurse, when a patient looked up from her TV and cried, ‘How did you get here? I just saw you on the screen!’”