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For the first time ever, Jeopardy! is giving past contestants a second chance

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

We now have a story about persistence, an iconic game show and the power of second chances. ALL THINGS CONSIDERED Michael Levitt reports.

MICHAEL LEVITT, BYLINE: Sometimes life doesn't give you a second chance. That's something that Nikkee Porcaro knows all too well. And it was a lesson she learned in front of millions when she competed on the game show "Jeopardy!", something that she had fantasized about for decades.

NIKKEE PORCARO: I have been into "Jeopardy!" since I was about 7. If you remember the old Nintendo consoles, they made a "Jeopardy!" game for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID WISE'S "JEOPARDY THEME")

PORCARO: Of course everyone's like, yeah, the 7-year-old, this should be a joke. But I'm a speed reader. So the minute the question flashed on the screen, I hit the button and started typing the answer, which I'd memorized. Everyone realized really quickly that I was hustling them.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID WISE'S "JEOPARDY THEME")

PORCARO: A lot of people will tell you you can't prep for "Jeopardy!" That is utter nonsense. My fiancee built me, like, a little platform, and we had, like, a little buzzer system so I could practice.

LEVITT: She read about game theory, stopped drinking alcohol, even used hand strengtheners so she could buzz in faster.

PORCARO: I felt like an Olympic athlete.

LEVITT: And when she finally stepped on the "Jeopardy!" stage last year, all that training seemed to be paying off.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

PORCARO: What is perfect pitch?

What is a kickoff?

What is sunshine?

What is base?

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: That's right.

LEVITT: By the end of the first two rounds, she was in first place with a healthy lead of almost $6,000.

PORCARO: And then we get to Final Jeopardy!

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

GUTHRIE: Here's the clue.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

GUTHRIE: Bright new lighting installed in 1880 on a street that crosses Manhattan diagonally led to this three-word nickname.

PORCARO: If you've ever had a marble just rattling around in your brain like it's there, but you can't catch it, and that's what I - I knew it. I knew if I had 10 to 15 more seconds, I could have pulled out the answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MERV GRIFFIN'S "THINK!")

LEVITT: Nikkee did not catch the marble. And in the end...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

GUTHRIE: You, Austin Weiss, are our new "Jeopardy!" champion.

LEVITT: Her dream of winning "Jeopardy!" slipped through her incredibly buff fingers, and she didn't take it well.

PORCARO: I promptly vomited in a trash can, which they cut out. So that was really good. And I was really devastated. I felt that I had worked 30 years for nothing.

LEVITT: OK. Maybe you think Nikkee's reaction was a bit intense, but this really was her one and only shot because the rule was that if you competed on "Jeopardy!" and lost, you weren't allowed to come back.

PORCARO: You know, we're fed all these things in the media of, OK, you don't reach your goal, try, try again. But with "Jeopardy!", you were done. That was it.

LEVITT: At least, that's what it seemed like because next week, something special is happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

JOHNNY GILBERT: This is "Jeopardy!" Second Chance.

LEVITT: A second chance competition. And guess who's playing?

PORCARO: I am just utterly grateful, utterly amazed and really just hoping I can do it the honor that it deserves.

LEVITT: Also returning to the "Jeopardy!" stage is Rowan Ward, who fans lovingly remember for their eccentric personality and their odd line of work.

ROWAN WARD: I'm a chart caller and horse racing writer and editor. I write and edit words about horses running around in circles very fast, and it makes me happy.

LEVITT: Rowan, who identifies as nonbinary, also grew up as a "Jeopardy!" superfan. Their dad, on the other hand, not so much.

WARD: When "Jeopardy!" would come on, Johnny Gilbert would be like, this is "Jeopardy!" And my father would be like, no, it's not.

LEVITT: When Rowan first appeared on "Jeopardy!", they had the misfortune of playing against one of "Jeopardy!'s" all-time greats.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

GILBERT: Whose 17-day cash winnings total $547,600.

WARD: In my brain, I'm like, no, you're not going to get here and hear that you're up against a super champ and just deflate.

LEVITT: And although Rowan certainly did not deflate, they were not able to unseat the returning champion. So, like Nikkee, Rowan is eager for the competition to kick off. However, for Rowan, the stakes are even bigger because when they first appeared on "Jeopardy!", they competed under the name they went by before they came out publicly as nonbinary, a decision they now regret.

WARD: It felt like the right decision at the time, but then when it aired, I was very excited that it happened. But I was also kind of sad because I know that this name isn't long for the world, but it's going to follow me around in this context forever because I was on "Jeopardy!" under it. And to get a second chance to play "Jeopardy!" as Rowan Ward means everything to me.

LEVITT: So for Rowan, Nikkee and 16 others, this competition will mean something special - maybe a second shot at a childhood dream or a chance to reintroduce yourself to the world. But for us watching at home, this is a chance to see what happens when a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity comes twice. Michael Levitt, NPR News, Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
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