In explaining his most recent appearance on the trivia game show “Jeopardy!,” Kalispell resident Stuart Crane puts it in terms of the NCAA Tournament.
In 2021, Crane appeared on the show, won one match, and then lost his second. He had some success, but didn’t take the game show world by storm. It’s kind of like how basketball teams at smaller schools might be good enough to make the March Madness tournament, but still only have an underdog’s chance at making a memorable run.
Typically, it takes at least five wins to get an invite back to “Jeopardy!,” but a new show format, called the Jeopardy! Champions Wildcard Competition, is bringing back competitors who took home wins in one, two, or three games, with a chance at a berth in the next Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions on the line.
“I’m out there in Dayton, playing against North Carolina A&T or whatever,” Crane said, referring to the NCAA Men’s Tournament’s First Four play-in tournament for the lowest seeded March Madness teams, which takes place in Dayton, Ohio. “I’m still a champion, but trying to make my way to (playing) Duke or North Carolina.”
It’s a humble comparison, but that is more or less how Crane, a product line manager at Applied Materials, approaches his brush with celebrity and his status as a talented trivia competitor. He doesn’t think his chemical engineering degree from Montana State has a lot of use in Jeopardy! but he did say he thinks his dad’s longtime work at Montana newspapers — including one in Helena, where Crane graduated high school — kept him aware of current events of which he’s also retained some memories.
Crane downplayed the possibility that he could shine as a ringer at a local trivia night (“If you give me too much time, I’m an overthinker,” he said), and described his success, in part, as grounded in a simple set of facts.
“I know stuff, because I’ve learned stuff, and I remember stuff,” he said.
For his wife and self-appointed press agent, Becky Crane, Stuart’s unassuming way of carrying on despite having been on “Jeopardy!” multiple times now is endearing, and a source of humor.
“He’s definitely gotten recognized a couple times,” she said of their life around the Flathead after his last time on the show. “We were at dinner one night at Backslope Brewing and a gentleman walked up and said ‘Hey, excuse me, were you on Jeopardy!?’ and Stuart said ‘Yes,” and he said ‘Is it okay if I take a selfie with you? My mom is a huge fan, and she would love it.’”
Becky teaches seventh grade math at Kalispell Middle School, and her students, historically, have been huge fans of Stuart when they find out he’s been on Jeopardy!, with some even asking for autographs.
Their sons, Bryce, a sophomore at Montana State University, and Drew, a junior at Glacier High School, tend to think it’s cool, too. Bryce, who takes more after his mom, enjoys playing it up, whereas Drew, like his dad, is a little more low key about it all, according to Becky.
The Crane family typically cooks and eats dinner together around the time “Jeopardy!” is coming on TV, and so back in about 2019, Stuart and Becky finally decided to take the contestant test that the show frequently advertises.
The first time they both didn’t make the cut. The second time, Stuart got a call back that began the process which resulted in his appearance.
Amid pandemic precautions it was a bit of an odd time to show up on “Jeopardy!,” which is filmed in the Los Angeles area, and so it wasn’t quite the full Jeopardy! experience. This time around, contestants could interact more freely, restaurants in the area were open, and people were generally out and about.
Crane said that contestants waiting to appear got to hang out in the green room, and “some immediate nerd bonds formed.” It was a supportive environment, and he said they got to watch the other shows being taped, and couldn’t resist yelling out answers like they might at home in front of their own TVs.
“It was the best watch party,” he said.
The return invitation came by email in September, and Becky said they got wide-eyed and giddy with excitement.
For Stuart, the preparation was fairly straightforward. He said he enjoys reading a book series called “The Intellectual Devotional,” which is modeled on a faith reader, but instead has brief daily entries about different subjects, like American history, or general knowledge.
“It’s the kind of thing you can read while you’re brushing your teeth,” Crane said. His preparation for the show involved turning it up a notch and reading about a month’s worth of material from his history and general knowledge devotionals a day.
Becky also tried to brainstorm areas he might need to brush up on.
“I knew math, science, geography, sports — he doesn’t need any help with any of those categories,” Becky said. “I’m definitely the pop culture person in the family. He thought there could be some Royal Family questions, and he knows I like the Royal Family, so we talked about that a little bit.”
Stuart also spent a lot of time looking at lists of Academy Award-winning movies, and reviewing the order of U.S. presidents.
Some contestants go much further, including by pulling up archives of past Jeopardy! questions to review, or using a handheld buzzer that resembles those used on “Jeopardy!” Those buzzers come with a USB attachment which allows them to connect to an app designed to help people train their buzzer skills.
Preparation also meant getting his outfits in order to meet the dress code guidelines put forth by “Jeopardy!,” which are very specific and include fabric patterns to avoid because they don’t show up well on camera. Similarly, they had to spend some time brainstorming interesting anecdotes to submit, which the show host then references or asks contestants about.
Of host Ken Jennings, Crane said he’s “a wonderful human being.”
“And he makes it look easy, but his job is very hard.”
Jennings rose to stardom in the early 2000s when he won a record 74 consecutive games. It’s an impressive run, which becomes even more noteworthy given the realities of how the show comes together.
Five episodes are taped in a day, which can make sustained winning something of an endurance feat.
“I was just wired the whole day,” Crane said of his first appearance on the show. After he won his first game, which included a strong run at the category “Science Words That Start With D,” much of the adrenaline wore off by the time the next game started.
“I was pretty much just happy to be there,” Crane said. “My timing was off, I wasn’t getting in, I was competing with intelligent people, and I was not super competitive.”
Of his own upcoming appearance, Crane can only say so much because it’s yet to air, but what he did tease sounded intriguing.
“I think people will enjoy the show. There’s a lot of points, a lot of scoring, a lot of drama.”
Crane will appear on Jeopardy! on Monday, Nov. 13. on CBS at 6 p.m. MST.
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