I Fought ‘The Chase’ and ‘The Chase’ Won

I almost won a lot of money on TV’s toughest quiz show

Last May, I went to Los Angeles to tape an episode of the ABC game show The Chase. Now I can finally tell the story, since the network aired my episode last night and I’ve cleared the terms of my Non-Disclosure Agreement. I went one-on-one with James Holzhauer, the greatest TV quiz brain in history, in Round 2 of the show, taking him to the rack and banking $250,000 for my team. In the final round, only a Tom Brady-esque performance at the end by Holzhauer prevented me and my teammate, Nellie Kuh from Dallas, from splitting a huge $310,000 prize. But, in the end, we fell a couple of questions and six seconds short. I played really well. But in the end, I fought The Chase, and The Chase won.

The Chase
photo and TV courtesy of Jason Franz

Everyone in my small but lively world of semi-pro trivia hustlers knows what The Chase is, and the show certainly has many fans, but doesn’t exist as an immutable part of the public brain like its forerunner, Jeopardy! The Chase comes from the U.K., where it airs almost every day. The U.S. has aired a few iterations, including a popular one on the Game Show Network. The current version features four “chasers”: Holzhauer, Ken Jennings, and Brad Rutter, Jeopardy’s “Greatest of All Time” competitors, and Mark Labett, “The Beast,” who appears in the British edition and was the “Chaser” in the Game Show Network version.

The show has three rounds: In the first, a contestant has to answer some questions. This builds their bank, and then the Chaser makes that contestant an offer to either raise or lower the bank, and the contestant has to play head-to-head against the Chaser, answering some multiple choice questions. Then if they survive, they go to the “Final Chase,” a timed barrage of questions and…look, the rules are kind of complicated. And unless you’re going to be on the show, they don’t really matter that much. Just know that in the trivia world, The Chase is considered the third leg of a TV trivia triple crown. Jeopardy! is the king, of course, and the current off-air Who Wants To Be A Millionaire offers plenty of prestige. The Chase offers bragging rights for the true trivia lover, because it gives us a chance to go up against the best.

Training Montage

So how did I get on the show? Well, I was on Jeopardy! in 2013, and I’ve stayed active in the scene. I belong to several online trivia groups. Word began circulating, at the beginning of the pandemic, that The Chase was coming back and would be holding Zoom auditions. I took a quick online quiz, passed it, and found myself in a Zoom room with the usual assortment of hopefuls, many of whom I recognized from the trivia circuit. While I certainly know a lot of trivia, my real edge, when it comes to getting on TV, is boundless self-confidence, a wacky personality, and having a lot of good personal stories. Just get me into the room with a producer, and they’ll cast me.

Unfortunately, because of COVID, I got in a little too late, and the producers decided to only cast people from California for the bulk of Season One. But rumors abounded for Season Two, and I didn’t have much else to do. So I drilled down hard.

For months, I quizzed myself relentlessly. I took endless online tests, drilling down into obscure corners of European and African history, memorizing TV show cast lists, reading books of science facts, studying recipes and blogs about global cuisine, watching as many movies as possible, and playing live quizzes, with some of the best players in the world, several times a week. I went deep into the trivia dojo.

Basically, I refused to let the pandemic melt my brain. I was going to be ready, mentally and physically. I ramped up my yoga practice and began meditating a half-hour a day. My COVID legacy was going to be complete world knowledge; I was hellbound to learn about everything.

Then came vaccines, and TV hope, and another round of casting. And since I’d already been through the process, I knew what to expect. I breezed through the first few rounds, and then stood by for further instructions. They informed me that the show had chosen me, maybe. I met on a Zoom with wardrobe consultants; I did endless rounds of personal introductions to random people on random calls.

And getting on The Chase was a huge deal. Jeopardy! is the greatest trivia honor, but the show cycles through nearly 200 contestants a year. The Chase casts barely more than a tenth that number. There’s some overlap, but not total overlap. This is a network show, and a “team” game, so the producers are looking for more than just someone who can answer quiz questions and isn’t totally vile. There’s some sort of secret sauce. For one episode at least, I was a key ingredient.

The long and winding Chase

Me and Sara Haines, host of ‘The Chase,’ in simpler times.

Even then, it wasn’t easy. I kept grinding on the trivia, trying to fill in gaps where they appeared. When it comes to Complete World Knowledge, where Charli D’Amelio is last year’s news, the gaps are always appearing. In this world, Logan Paul and Boyle’s Law all exist on the same plane. Answer a question, about anything, and earn money. You can never stop studying if you want to win at the highest levels. I kept playing in tough online quiz leagues, realizing that I knew nothing about the geography of Oceania.

They gave me a taping date. Then they rescinded my taping date at the last second. I gave myself what felt like an endless series of nose swabs to make sure I didn’t have the plague. Finally, I got another taping date. They sent me a plane ticket. I went to Los Angeles. I did more nose swabs. Then I quarantined in the Universal City Hilton for 48 hours, doing yoga in my underwear like Martin Sheen at the beginning of Apocalypse Now, intermittently ordering takeout meals on Postmates.

Taping day arrived and I sat in a dressing room by myself for two hours. They did my makeup and pressed the awesome cowboy shirt that I wore on set and that the “Chasers” all mocked relentlessly even though they were all dressed like they were going to their friend’s Bar Mitzvah. They put a face shield on me, marched me to the set, and then, just before the taping began, they pulled me off the set. Apparently, I was set to face Ken Jennings, but they had to yank me because I’d interviewed him once at a book festival.

Instead, the show sent me back to my dressing room for three more hours, gave me lunch, and then marched me to the set once more, where I battled as hard as I possibly could, before finally losing to the best trivia player in the world. But I’ll tell you, I took Holzhauer to the wall. I, a man in his 50s who recently came out in public as a marijuana addict in recovery, faced him down at the highest possible stakes and almost won. And I never would have succeeded to that extent if I hadn’t approached my goal with single-minded focus. I was determined not to let the pandemic, life, or fear bring me down. So to that end, I won, or at least that’s what I’m trying to tell myself.

Even people who lose on Jeopardy! describe getting on the show as the absolute highlight of their lives. Jeopardy! contestants are a large, warm extended family, and it’s a club with many thousands of members. The Chase is a smaller club that offers fewer warm fuzzies. Even though everyone involved with the production of The Chase was extremely nice and professional, the vibe isn’t one of folksy quiz-bowl charm. The Chasers are mean to you, by design. Losers are actually losers, discarded as quickly as recycling.

In the end, I overcame tremendous odds to just barely not succeed but also kind of succeed. That feels like an epitaph for my entire life and career. Man, I really could have used that $155,000. Who couldn’t? Hopefully, I’ll have another chance. In 18 months, my statute of limitations on game-show appearances will expire.

I hope Card Sharks is ready to cast a middle-aged man wearing a cowboy shirt.

 You May Also Like

Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

11 thoughts on “I Fought ‘The Chase’ and ‘The Chase’ Won

  • January 7, 2022 at 10:34 am
    Permalink

    Thank you for writing this story, which is packed with insights about a game-show angle I hadn’t really considered — the amount of preparation and study that precedes the appearance. As an avid fan—but ultimately just an observer—of Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit and the like, it has always seemed like there would be no real way to prepare for the incredible variety of unpredictable topics. Beyond re-reading Shakespeare and geography, I just hadn’t considered there was much one could do other than “be smart.”

    Even the details about your non-study prep, such as personality and yoga, are fascinating. And, having watched your appearance on The Chase with my family, it was totally riveting tv. The game play, the zingers, the teamwork. In the final round, how do the contestants decide which will answer? For several questions, either you or Ms. Kuh buzzed in but then said “Pass.” What if the other of you knew the answer? It was just such great television and when you nailed baobab tree and then cited bergamot as the citrus fruit that gives Earl Gray its flavor, I think I can speak for 99% of America when I say, “how the f* did he know this?”

    I also think your article captured something about the tone of the game compared to the collegiality of Jeopardy. You write, “the losers really are losers.” I don’t know if the ribbing that the other chasers give the contestants is a regular feature of the show, and Holzhauer is sui generis in having built a brand as the “arrogant trivia GOAT” and plays that role to perfection. But it does seem to me to reflect a coarsening of the culture in general — not even a Jeopardy like feature where the 2nd place finisher gets $2000 and 3rd gets $1000. A case of Turtle Wax?

    Bottom line: you played a round of one-on-one against the very best in the world. You won that round. There are very, very few people in the world who can say that they faced the best in the world at any pursuit — let alone a hard and worthwhile one, like “knowing things” — and weren’t annihilated. This is no different from facing Magnus Carlsen in a Washington Square chess game or Kevin Durant in a backyard one-on-one. It’s a rare and special achievement that almost defies belief. Add in that you went for the bigger amount (a weird and random nuance to the one-on-one portion of the game) and that you got off some good one-liners, and it really was a memory for the ages.

    Reply
    • January 7, 2022 at 10:57 am
      Permalink

      Thanks, Ken. “Passing” is a strategy you deploy if you’re pretty sure no one on the team knows the answer. It can be misused, but you generally play that card if you just want to get to the next question. I knew Bergamot because I have drunk a lot of Earl Grey in my life. The baobab answer came from space.

      Reply
  • January 10, 2022 at 6:36 pm
    Permalink

    I have a question that I’m hoping the author will answer publicly for the good of the republic. When Nick from Vanderbilt was battling The Highroller, one of the questions was “the longest one-syllable words in the English language both start with what letter?” Nick picked M. James picked S. James was right. James explained his correct guess by mentioning that the longest one-syllable word he could think of was ‘straits.’ That’s seven letters long.

    But after Nick lost, Sara mentioned that the two words were actually ‘strength’ and ‘scraunch’ (to make a crushing noise, and yes, I looked that up). Those are 8 letters. But the word ‘straight’ is also 8 letters. So how come the clue referred only to “both” words? I’m also wondering if there’s such a word as ‘straights’ at 9 letters, as in “I couldn’t believe this guy’s luck at the poker table — he drew two inside straights.”

    Reply
  • January 10, 2022 at 7:08 pm
    Permalink

    I loved watching you on the show Neal. You did an incredible job facing Holzhauer and his attitude. But I was also wondering whether a nine letter word like strengths would count?

    Reply
  • January 13, 2022 at 11:30 pm
    Permalink

    Just caught up with the show and as a fellow writer you remind me of a multitude of my friends in the industry. Quirky, savvy with a solid sense of humor. I truly thought you were going to bring home the bacon to Austin.

    Cheers

    Paul

    PS GIFFORD.

    Reply
  • February 1, 2022 at 9:24 am
    Permalink

    I thought you were going to win! We were rooting for you from Waco! Where did you get the shirt?

    Reply
  • April 30, 2022 at 12:41 am
    Permalink

    Hi Neal, I’m a big fan of your performance on the s2 chase, and you were so close to winning it! I was rooting for you!

    As someone who is interested in being on the show, I was wondering if you could take some time out of your schedule to answer a few questions that I have:

    1) I know the show comp’d your flight, would they have/did they comp’d your hotel if the whole covid epidemic didn’t happen and you didn’t head to the Universal City Hilton (not sure if that was your choice, or the show had you quarantine there)?

    2) what are things that you knew/wish you knew during the audition that you didn’t know at the time, and what is your recommendation in regards to whole applying and auditioning process (the quiz that you mentioned during your zoom auditions) to prospective trivia lovers who want to try their chance on the show?

    3) I noticed you mentioned alot about people “within the quizzing circuit”, have you met any prospective teammates or know of someone who applied for the show who was not part of that circuit?

    Thank you very much Mr. Pollack, and you gave it your absolute best out there!

    Reply
    • May 1, 2022 at 11:57 am
      Permalink

      Thanks, Alex! So close.

      1. I think they cover accommodations even if there’s not a pandemic. And we also got a small per diem food allowance.
      2. Not particularly. I study and work on my trivia knowledge every day. Just keep expanding your knowledge base.
      3. There are plenty of people who get on the show who aren’t part of any active quizzing community. One of the best things about trivia as a competitive sport is that champions can emerge from anywhere. They often don’t get involved in the community until after they appear on TV. Sometimes it’s a pipeline, but not always.

      Good luck!

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.