We first met Eddie Timanus in 1999, when the 31-year-old Reston man not only became the first blind contestant in the history of the game show “Jeopardy!” but while he was demolishing all opponents for five straight days and winning $70,000. Back in those days, winners were limited to a five-day run, but Timanus was brought back in 2000 for the Tournament of Champions, where he reached the semifinals. His celebrity in the trivia (and real) world has only grown since then, and in January he returned to The Land of Trebek for a tournament pitting past champions in the “Battle of the Decades,” which is airing this week on ABC 7.
But before we get to all that, here is the pivotal Final Jeopardy answer from Timanus’s game in the first round. See if you can get the question, and NO GOOGLING. Category — Presidents:
“He is the only 19th Century president to serve two complete terms with the same vice president.”
While you’re pondering that, we’ll briefly recap Timanus’s rise to trivia stardom, mostly unhindered by complete blindness due to retinal tumors since the age of 3. He grew up in Reston, graduated from South Lakes High School, was on the “It’s Academic” team there, even answered a question on the local quiz show involving a photograph (!!). He then attended Wake Forest University, where he earned a degree in economics with a music minor, because he plays the piano. After college, he landed a job on the sports desk at USA Today, where he remains to this day, not only compiling the coaches’ hugely influential Top 25 polls in college basketball, football and baseball, but also writing previews of the weekend’s college games, covering college lacrosse games and assorted other articles for the Nation’s Newspaper. Here’s my 1999 profile of Timanus, which had the unique distinction of also being published in The Washington Times, who saw it on the AP wire and didn’t realize it was from The Post.
Timanus’s five-day run in 1999, which netted his father a new Chevrolet Camaro as part of the winnings, was the start of his side career as a titan in the world of trivia fanatics, now presided over partly by Ken Jennings, who won 74 straight Jeopardy! matches in 2004 after the five-win limit was lifted. He returned to Jeopardy! for the “Million Dollar Masters” in 2002 and the “Ultimate Tournament of Champions” in 2005. That one was billed as “The Quest for Ken,” because former five-time-only champs were brought back with a chance to take down the renowned Jennings. Jennings did not win the tournament, and Timanus said he was bounced in the first round.
[Side note: Timanus is baffled by all the attention given to current Jeopardy! champion Arthur Chu’s practice of skipping around the board in search of Daily Doubles. He said Jennings did it, and that other contestants have done it dating back to the early days of the Trebek Era.)
He also played “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” in 2004, winning $50,000, and then served as a “lifeline” on that show twice: once for a college pal, and once for some guy who just wanted Eddie Timanus as his lifeline.
Meanwhile, in 2000 Timanus struck up a friendship with a social studies teacher from Minnesota whom he met in an online chat room. They met in person later that year, and married in 2002. They had a son in 2004, and now live in Oak Hill, near Herndon in Fairfax County. Timanus commutes by bus to USA Today’s headquarters in Tysons Corner, and his wife and son accompanied him to Culver City, Calif., for this year’s Jeopardy! battle.
So how does a blind guy play Jeopardy!? The show made a couple of accomodations: It provided Timanus with a listing in braille of the categories before each round, and it agreed not to use any video answers for games he’s in. He cannot see how much money his opponents have, but he noted that Trebek announces that during Daily Doubles (for his wagering purposes) and he is told how much they have before Final Jeopardy. And one more, new for this competition: a quiet audio cue, a “ding,” that lets Timanus know when the buzzer may be pressed. On stage, a light goes on which the other contestants could see, and after the last masters tournament, Timanus told the producers that gave the sighted contestants and advantage. The producers agreed, and created the audio cue.
So on to the first night of the Battle of the Decades — 1990s. Though taped in January, the contestants are sworn to secrecy on the outcomes. But after Monday night, we now know this much: for most of the show, Timanus was destroying his opponents. He raced through a ’90s Music category. Midway through Double Jeopardy, he was ahead of Rachael Schwartz, another former champion, $11,200 to $2,100. Towards the end of the round, when Schwartz had made a run to $9,500, she found the last Daily Double and got it right. [A: Happy 400th Anniversary to this interracial couple who tied the knot in Jamestown. Q: Who are Pocahontas and John Rolfe?] Schwartz only bet $1,000, which lifted her to $10,500, but Timanus said he would have bet enough to put the game out of reach before Final Jeopardy. Instead, he finished with another run, giving him $14,400 to Schwartz’s $10,500 entering Final Jeopardy.
The strategy of Final Jeopardy wagering can get complicated. Timanus had to consider what Schwartz would bet. Would she bet the whole $10,500, for a possible total of $21,000 if she got the question right? Then he would have to bet $6,700, for a total of $21,100.
But what if Schwartz only bet a little, a thousand or two, instead of trying to double her total? If Timanus bet $6,700, he would fall below her if he got it wrong. He said he was aware of this strategy, “but not a lot of people do it. If more people played it that way, that would change the strategy for the people in the lead. There’s a lot more that goes into it than people realize.” But Timanus also said, “If I get it right, it doesn’t matter.” So, presuming that Schwartz would get the last question right and bet her whole bundle, Timanus bet $6,700.
The category was Presidents. The answer again: “He is the only 19th Century president to serve two complete terms with the same vice president.” Do you know it?
Third-place finisher Babu Srinivasan answered U.S. Grant. Wrong, and he was down to $0. Then came Schwartz. She wrote “Grover Cleveland.” Wrong. Her wager? Only $2,600, taking her down to $7,900.
Now Timanus, given a keyboard to type his final answer. He typed “Andrew Jackson.” Wrong. His wager? $6,700, taking him down to $7,700. Everyone had gotten it wrong, but Schwartz had outmaneuvered him on the wagering strategy and won by $200, $7,900 to $7,700.
[The correct question: Who is James Monroe?, whose two-term vice president was Daniel D. Tompkins, a former governor of New York who apparently had problems with alcohol while serving as vice president. Now you know.]
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed,” Timanus, now 45, said this week. “As well as I played, it would have been great to make it further” in the tournament. But he and his family did get a nice trip to California in January, during one of Northern Virginia’s many snow storms, and he has handled the airing of his loss gracefully on Twitter. He also collected $5,000 as a first-round contestant, with the eventual winner getting $1 million. The rest of the “1990s” battle was filmed the same day as Timanus’s episode, but as usual, he’s not disclosing who won the decade, and advanced to play the other decade winners. Doesn’t matter. If Timanus isn’t in, I’m not watching. That week.