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Sunday, September 24, 2023
Sept. 24, 2023

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Vancouver woman wins $51K on TV game show ‘Jeopardy’

By , Columbian staff writer
3 Photos
Courtesy Jeopardy Productions, Inc.
Courtesy Jeopardy Productions, Inc. (Courtesy Jeopardy Productions, Inc.) Photo Gallery

Answer: This sovereign nation has just 33 female citizens. Question: What is the Vatican?

Answer: This Vancouver woman overcame major personal demons to succeed in life — with her recent three-day run on “Jeopardy!” the unlikeliest of all toppers to the tale.

Question: Who is Annie Marggraf?

Marggraf’s $51,000 in winnings will retire her college and personal debt as well as purchase a car that actually fits her family of four, she said. Marggraf won’t have all that hanging over her head when she attends law school this fall. She doesn’t know which school it’ll be yet — she’s still waiting on an answer or two — but the 39-year-old Marggraf said she’s eager to pursue justice for immigrants, Native Americans and people who can’t afford their medical bills.

If you’d asked the teen Marggraf about her prospects for achievements such as “Jeopardy!” and law school, she likely would have laughed at you, she said. Her rough beginnings include getting kicked out of high school after ninth grade because her father was dying and she was acting out — getting into drugs and vandalism, she said. Later on, her brother went to prison for murder.

“I was a total mess, totally off the rails,” Marggraf said. Except for this factor in her favor: Marggraf is a natural-born information sponge. She grew up in a bilingual family — speaking Hebrew as well as English — and her childhood reading was a desktop dictionary and “The Book of Lists.”

That’s where you took unquenchable curiosity before there was an internet, Marggraf said. “The Book of Lists” is where she picked up that tidbit about women citizens of the Vatican, which came in handy in her early 20s, when she first auditioned for “Jeopardy!” None of the other hopefuls she was competing against knew that answer.

But acing the audition still didn’t get her onto “Jeopardy!” Marggraf assumes it’s because she was an obvious drug addict. Just being a trivia whiz isn’t enough, she said; the show tends to avoid people who look like total disasters. That doesn’t make good TV.

“I must have looked like an alien visiting planet Earth,” she said. “I had the chops but I didn’t have the lifestyle.”

So, even though people had been urging the brainy Marggraf to try for “Jeopardy!” all her life, she gave up on that dream. She worked as a bartender and a hairdresser. She drifted around and partied hard. When she married the man of her dreams, she said, the first thing they did together was move away from their usual sources and “get off crystal.” That happened in Spokane.

Then they were back in east Vancouver and starting a family. Margraaf enrolled at Washington State University Vancouver. “I was finally hitting my stride” after age 30, she said — which came to include, simply on a whim, another stab at “Jeopardy!”

Terrible timing

To get on the show these days, you start with a timed internet quiz. Pass that and you’re invited to a regional tryout. Marggraf passed the quiz in October 2015 and the Seattle regional in February 2016.

Meanwhile, her life was overbusy. Her husband worked full time and they had two children; she was graduating from WSUV and applying to law schools; and a dear family friend who was seriously ill moved into their home.

In the middle of all that, her phone rang again. Question: What is “Jeopardy!”? Answer: It’s the additional insanity — “the chance of a lifetime” — that Marggraf could not refuse, she said.

She asked the show to schedule her for late December 2016 — after she was scheduled to take a crucial law-school entrance exam, the LSAT, and officially graduate from WSUV. Her request was “totally ignored”; Marggraf was warmly invited to be down at the “Jeopardy!” studio in Hollywood on Nov. 30, the same week as her LSAT. The timing could not have been worse.

“I couldn’t catch a break. It was pure insanity,” she said.

Now add the fact that “Jeopardy!” does not provide travel expenses. It was entirely up to Marggraf to get to Hollywood. She needed financial help to make that happen; her mother and an uncle provided it. And Grantie, the ailing friend, insisted she go.

Thumb power

The way Marggraf describes it, the “Jeopardy!” greenroom sounds like a preselection jury room: stuffed full of nervous, friendly people. There’s no sense of suspicion or competition between them, she said — but there is a whole lot of rule-announcing by officials and oversight by a watchful attorney whose job is to make sure everything is fair and random. Contestants cannot make or take phone calls or visit with family members.

An exception was made for Marggraff, as Grantie had been admitted to the hospital before the trip. A call from that hospital with questions and treatment schedules threw off Marggraf’s concentration just moments before the taping of her third show in a single day.

By then she’d already won handsomely, she said. Her first show was a “runaway” where she easily prevailed; the second show was “super scary and tight, but everything still went OK.”

What’s the secret to success, in addition to being a trivia geek? Don’t listen to Alex Trebek; don’t wait out his clear, steady reading of the “answer,” Marggraf said. Keep your thumb on the buzzer and hit it the moment it’s legal to do so. A bank of lights, unseen by the TV audience, tells contestants when pressing the buzzer is allowed. Hit it too soon and you’re docked a quarter-second — an eternity in “Jeopardy! time.

But after that phone call from reality about Grantie’s treatment schedule, Marggraf’s brain could take no more. She choked in “Final Jeopardy!”

Answer: This TV character’s name also means “to improvise” or find an alternate use. Question: Marggraf should have known it, she said, but couldn’t quite grab it at the time. Who is MacGyver?

“I knew that! I knew the answer! I was angry at myself for so long,” she said.

But when her telephone blackout lifted and she called husband Steve with the final results — winnings of $51,000 — she realized there was nothing to complain about. And anyway, Marggraf had that LSAT, Grantie’s medical needs and her own graduation coming right up. One look at her planner, she said, and she knew this was the right outcome. She needed to be home.

Grantie died in February, she said. Marggraf, degree in history from WSUV in hand, has heard good news from a couple of law schools so far, she said. Her three appearances on “Jeopardy!” screened earlier this week — and Marggraf has the following advice for brainy people who always hear that they belong on the show:

“Go for it,” she said. “Just look at where I’ve been and where I’m going. Don’t hold yourself back. Just go for it.”