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Alex Trebek remembered by Times reporter and 'Jeopardy!' champion
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Alex Trebek remembered by Times reporter and 'Jeopardy!' champion

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Times reporter will be 'Jeopardy!' contestant on April 2

"Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek, left, and Times reporter Dan Carden pose on the set of the popular television game show in 2018. Trebek died Sunday at age 80.

It's perhaps not widely known that "Jeopardy!" contestants got very little time to personally interact with host Alex Trebek outside of game play or the interviews after the first commercial break.

Yet for many former contestants, myself included, those brief moments with Trebek, who died Sunday at age 80, are among the most memorable parts of the "Jeopardy!" experience.

When I went from third place to first on April 2, 2018, to win $25,600 by correctly answering a Final Jeopardy! question about Robert F. Kennedy's leadership of the U.S. Justice Department, Trebek walked over to my lectern, shook my hand and congratulated me on my come from behind victory over a three-day champion.

As the credits rolled, he seemed as surprised as I was that both of my opponents got Final Jeopardy! wrong, and the guy who botched the first clue in the game about the Reese Witherspoon movie "Walk the Line," and then didn't answer another for seemingly forever, would end up a Jeopardy! champion.

But that's just who Trebek was. He rooted for every contestant to do well on every episode of the show he hosted for 37 seasons.

That certainly came through in the contestant interviews when Trebek would look into your eyes and ask you about one of the three, often quirky, biographical facts you provided and were listed on his cards.

For a moment — amid the studio lights and audience, "Jeopardy!" staffers and TV cameras — it was just you and Alex, a multimillionaire international celebrity, talking about something from your otherwise pedestrian life he thought was interesting.

If you watch closely, contestants will smile and nod when they recognize the topic Trebek selected and where he was taking the conversation, since it typically was a different direction than what the player practiced during rehearsal with the contestant coordinators.

In my case, Trebek seemed utterly fascinated that one of my most read stories in The Times the prior year was an "interview" with Henry Holcomb, the first dog of Indiana, and his life as the beloved pet of Gov. Eric Holcomb and Janet Holcomb.

Of course, it makes for good TV for the host of any game show to seem to care about the contestants.

But Trebek didn't just "seem" to care for us. Instead, he demonstrated a type of kindness that only could be extended by a man who recognized that every contestant, whether on for one episode or 75, leaves "Jeopardy!" a loser.

In that same vein, when Trebek casually referred to me as "champ" on the next day's program — in real time about 30 minutes later, since "Jeopardy!" tapes a week's work of shows in a single day — it made real something wholly unbelievable that had actually happened.

There's a simple reason why Trebek stayed away from contestants before their shows: He had all the answers (and the questions) and didn't want to risk letting anything slip that might influence the outcome of a game.

He didn't have to worry about that with the studio audience, though. In between each round of the show, and between each show taping, Trebek cheerfully would answer questions from audience members who he no doubt had answered hundreds, or thousands, of times before.

In an interview prior to his death, Trebek said he did so because he wanted to make the experience of watching "Jeopardy!" from the audience as memorable as being on the show, since so few people (about 400 a year) ever make it on the program.

The outpouring of grief following his death, however, suggests it wasn't just the "Jeopardy!" contestants or studio audience members who made that personal connection with Trebek.

For millions of people, myself included, Trebek was a daily part of their lives, a welcome visitor on their television and in their home, always there no matter what was going on in their life or in the world.

His presence reinforced the importance of learning for learning's sake, that there are right and wrong answers to things, and a reminder simply to have fun and enjoy the game.

So while I may have a souvenir photo of me standing next to Trebek on the "Jeopardy!" set, I believe anyone who ever has played along with "Jeopardy!" at home has a memory of Trebek in their lives that's just as real as mine.

Gallery: The Times Photos of the Week

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LOS ANGELES — Alex Trebek, who presided over the beloved quiz show “Jeopardy!” for more than 30 years with dapper charm and a touch of schoolmaster strictness, died Sunday. He was 80.

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