While Bill Schantz's five older brothers worked on the family farm, Bill dreamed of being a game-show host. At Schantz family gatherings, Bill, the youngest of ten, hosted versions of his favorite TV game shows or introduced games he'd created using the family's collection of Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers standards.
Schantz helped his high school's trivia-bowl team take top honors the first year it ever competed, and in 1995, five of his siblings flew with him to Los Angeles when he landed a contestant spot on Jeopardy! That appearance earned Schantz $8,099 and refueled his desire for involvement in the production side of knowledge-based entertainment.
When he got back to Denver, where he works as a computer programmer, Schantz began to design a Jeopardy! simulator to coach folks who dream of telling Alex Trebek to "make it a true Daily Double." He created the simulator using push-buttons from Radio Shack, PVC pipe and a dismantled keyboard.
"It took a couple of tries to get the kinks out," Schantz says, but before long he was ready to invite three friends to become Jeopardy! contestants in his living room. The simulator turned Schantz's television into a miniature Jeopardy! display board. Players rang in on buzzers wired to communicate with the screen, and, just like on the show, buzzing in early locked a contestant out for two-tenths of a second, and a "time's up" signal sounded if contestants failed to produce a correct response in five seconds.
The group's members met every other month for two years, practicing their buzzer and wagering skills and familiarizing themselves with Jeopardy! categories and question styles. This January, all that practice paid off when group member Luis Corchado graduated from Schantz's living room to a live studio audience in Los Angeles. Corchado waged a strong fight against a contestant who eventually became Jeopardy!'s first seven-time winner. Another of Schantz's friends, Russ Schumacher of Fort Collins, became a four-day Jeopardy! champion after training on the simulator for twelve solid hours before flying to California for a taping. Schumacher's one-day practice session helped him win almost $65,000 in four victories and earn a spot on the season's Tournament of Champions, which aired two weeks ago. Schumacher advanced to the final round, where he trumped the tournament favorite to win the $250,000 top prize.
At the same time Schantz was developing his simulator, Boulder resident Paul Bailey was living another game-show-related dream. Bailey had participated as a player and organizer for the University of Colorado at Boulder's Trivia Bowl team. During that time, he met several people who went on to win big on televised game shows, and he envisioned a kind of game-show trade association that would bring them together with industry insiders. In 2002, the Game Show Congress made its debut.
The first Congress was a humble event that took place during a break in one of the CU Trivia Bowl matches, but by the time the third one convened this August in Burbank, California, such luminaries as Bob Barker, Dick Clark and Betty White were in the house. Delegates enjoyed a backstage tour of The Price Is Right set, seminars on auditioning for shows and writing trivia questions, and a star-studded luncheon honoring game-show hosts Ralph Edwards and Bill Cullen. Wannabe producers shared their original ideas with a panel of industry leaders at an American Idol-style pitch session.
Bailey comes by his avocation naturally. His parents participated in sports-car rallies, which require competitors to interpret an elaborate set of instructions and report to several checkpoints en route to a final destination. His father was president of the local chapter of the U.S. Chess Federation and acted as liaison when Bobby Fischer passed through Boulder in the early '70s; a young Bailey shagged tennis balls while his father and Fischer hit the court as a diversion from chess. Bailey competed at chess, too, and recalls playing word games with his family as they drove to tournaments.
Despite his immersion in the genre, however, the closest Bailey has come to competing on a televised game show is serving on Phone-a-Friend teams for contestants on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Although he's passed game-show auditions, he hasn't been called to compete. "I'm in a demographic that's over-represented," he says. "Middle forties, Caucasian, male, slightly balding. They've got plenty of people in that pool."
While Bailey says he would enjoy testing his mettle on a televised show, he's equally interested in writing questions for trivia competitions. An account representative for a geographic information systems firm, Bailey remains active as an organizer and question-writer for CU's Trivia Bowl. "Game shows are a great pulse on the times," Bailey says. "The types of questions being asked are a reflection of the news of the day and mimic how people are thinking."
In fact, industry representatives told delegates of the first Game Show Congress that in order to attract audiences, they have a formula for the questions: Sixty percent are common knowledge, 30 percent are somewhat difficult, and 10 percent make you amazed that anyone knows the answer. "There's a balance between shouting out to the television and being amazed," Bailey says.
To keep that balance in his own question-writing, Bailey frequents websites such as Salon.com and reads books with such titles as Measure for Measure: The Story of Imperial, Metric and Other Units and Almost History: Close Calls, Plan B's and Twists of Fate in America's Past. He describes himself and his wife as "the kind of people who stay for the credits at the end of a movie."
Schantz, who met Bailey last year at CU's general-public Trivia Bowl, is also trying his hand at questions, coming up with 500 of them a week to feed Buzzer Battle and Barroom Brawl, two game shows he created and hosts at the Iliff Park Saloon, Draft Sports Grill and Eck's Saloon. "I write pretty much anytime I'm not at work," he says.
He has a sense of what works and what doesn't, having appeared on not one, but two game shows. In addition to winning on Jeopardy!, he recently earned a trip to Jamaica on Trivia Unwrapped. Schantz, who also describes himself as a "middle-aged white guy," suspects he overcame that demographic handicap by being a native of North Dakota.
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"You hardly ever see people from North Dakota on Jeopardy!" he says. "I'm sure in California it's pretty much every day that someone is on a game show. In North Dakota it was big news."
As it would be for New Mexico if Bailey fulfills a second dream of establishing a game-show hall of fame in Truth or Consequences, the only city known to have adopted the name of a game show. The site will include interactive exhibits, a theater and a media vault. "The Congress gets inundated with requests for help finding tapes of old shows," Bailey says. "The vault will be a repository for all that stuff." Bailey also hopes to preserve pieces of game-show sets that he says are "sitting moldering in basements in California."
"I'm not a jump-up-and-scream-and-go-crazy kind of person, and maybe I haven't been quite as smart as some of the other folks that have been on these shows," Bailey says. "But I want to build something that will be robust and actually significant."