'Jeopardy!' star quick on the buzzer
October 27, 1995, 5:00 am·
The freshman came in third in tournament As 4-foot-11-inch Deborah Sager tried to concentrate on host Alex Trebek's rapid questions, all she could think about were the two boxes piled under her feet. Throughout all of last year's "Jeopardy!" Teen Tournament, Sager was the only contestant who had to embellish her height for the cameras by climbing on top of wooden crates to even out camera angles. But what the College freshman lacked in height, she made up for in knowledge. She finished in the top three of the 1995 "Jeopardy!" Teen Tournament and walked away with $17,300 in prize money. From an early age, Sager had always spent her spare time reading. When she was 13, her older sister Lauren appeared on the game show's teen tournament. A friend of the family, Mark Lowenthal, competed in the $100,000 Tournament of the Champions and eventually wrote a book about his experiences. Sager followed in her sister's footsteps, becoming the third person from Reston, Va. to appear on "Jeopardy!". Her parents were also very supportive. Sager's father made her a makeshift buzzer out of a long block of wood, several wires, a button, a light and a plastic bicycle handlebar. "The biggest challenge with being on a quiz show is the timing," Sager said. "If you ring in too early, before Alex finishes reading the question, then the control booth automatically blocks you out for a second. "Of course you need to be first, so if you ring in too early you will be blocked out and someone else can ring in before you are unblocked," she added. Sager worked on her timing by spending hours playing along with "Jeopardy!" games on television using her practice buzzer. And during high school, Sager began sending postcards to the show, hoping to be selected for the tryouts. She was not selected until her senior year in high school. Tryouts were held in Philadelphia last November, and one hundred students were taken into a room and given a 50-question test. Those who received a score of at least 35 advanced to the mock game round. Usually, only two students out of the 100 are selected. "They wanted to see if you had interesting personal things to talk about on television and if you could handle the pressure of it," Sager explained. Trebek, the host of the most popular game show in television syndication, attended the Philadelphia tryout to answer any questions about the show. After four weeks, Sager found out she was chosen to compete in the teen tournament, and in early January, Sager and her parents flew to Los Angeles for the taping of the show. "Jeopardy!" paid the airfare for Sager and one parent, and also provided hotel rooms for all three. Sager finished first in her first-round game, and began making new friends among the other contestants. "We all bonded with each other," she said. "I still keep in contact with them." Sager also finished first in the semi-finals, and qualified to advance to the final game. "I wasn't nervous before the first two games, but before the final I was very scared," she said. Sager was especially nervous for this round because of competitor Matt Zielensky and his timing ability. "Everyone in the tournament knew basically all the answers to the questions, it was just a question of getting the timing right," she said. "Zielensky had the best timing." Sager performed well in the first day of the final round, but by the closing minutes Zielensky had pulled away from the other two competitors. In the "Final Jeopardy" round, he risked his entire day's earnings of $12,000 on the last question and doubled his money. The following day, the teen tournament continued and all three competitors earned new record-setting dollar figures, but Zielensky proved himself impossible to beat. Still, Sager went home a winner. "I knew that I had the answer right so I would be adding to my score," she said. "It wasn't until the numbers flashed on the screen that I realized I just won $17,300. I had a big goofy grin on my face." In mid-May, Sager received a check for $16,600 after California taxes had been taken out. She said she used $3,000 to attend a music camp last summer and the rest for college bills. Sager said the hardest part of the tournament was the three weeks after the final round during which -- according to "Jeopardy!" regulations -- she could not tell anyone about the outcome of the game. Sager said even though her "Jeopardy!" experience was fun, she no longer watches the show on television. "I've found better things to do at 7:30 in the evening," she explained.