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March 1, 2005 > Answer: Leslie Frates, professor at Cal State University East Bay.

Answer: Leslie Frates, professor at Cal State University East Bay.

Question: What woman has had more appearances on Jeopardy! than any other in the show's history?

by Ceri Hitchcock-Hodgson

March is National Women's Month and in addition to recognizing significant women of the past, it is important to take note of those who are making a difference today, those who are breaking boundaries.

On Feb. 1, Leslie Frates, professor of Spanish at California State University, East Bay, traveled from her home in Hayward to Los Angeles to compete on the first episode of Jeopardy!'s Ultimate Tournament of Champions. Jeopardy!'s largest tournament to date features the best players of the past 21 years. Jeopardy! champions will compete in a 15-round tournament culminating with the top two contestants competing against Ken Jennings, ultimate Jeopardy! champ and biggest money-winner in game show history,

The first episode premiered on Feb. 9 with Frates taking her rightful spot among the champion-contestants. This appearance marked her 14th show, the most by any female in the show's history. She buzzed in, "questioned" correctly and was in the running for the win. As with most contestants, the "Final Jeopardy" answer proved to be extremely difficult and Frates was eliminated in the first round.

The Ultimate Tournament of Champions runs for 10 more weeks and Frates said it promises to be a very exciting series. The winner of the tournament will compete against Jeopardy's record-breaking champion, Ken Jennings, for a two million dollar prize.

It wasn't the loss of potential winnings that frustrated Frates. Rather it is the thrill of competition and disappointment to not be competing against her peers. Jeopardy! is about skill, wit and split-second reactions, noted the professor.

"A thumb-race," offered Frates. "It's not what you know. It's what you know in two-fifths of a second."

She first appeared on Jeopardy! in 1990 while teaching at Chabot college. A student gave her Jeopardy!'s contestant hotline number, she called and before she knew it she was on her way. She flew to Los Angeles and out of a group of 100 Jeopardy! hopefuls, Frates answered enough correct questions to garner her first appearance on the long running game show.

Students, coworkers, friends and family had always mentioned that with her diverse and extensive knowledge, she would be a perfect contestant on Jeopardy!. Frates was no stranger to the long-running game show. At the age of 10, Frates, a self-proclaimed "nerd," would rush home after school just in time for Jeopardy!

"There was always one that I could answer," she said of her earliest memory of the show.

The first "answer" she remembers getting right was identifying states based on the outline of the image of its boundaries. At 12, she answered the entire category correctly.

Frates has a B.A. and M.A. in Spanish. She has taught at the University of Berkeley and Chabot College. Now a professor of Spanish at CSU East Bay, she peppers her Spanish lessons with interesting trivia and word-origins.

Frates holds the record - 14 - for most appearances by any woman since Jeopardy! premiered in 1963 with host Art Fleming and announcer Don Pardo. A portion of her winnings have helped pay for her son's education.

Jeopardy! requires contestants of the game show to sign a release stating that the television company (Sony Pictures) owns all electronic images of players. Frates signed the release form and thought nothing more of it until a friend living in Alaska called Frates to mention a film she had watched that afternoon, Groundhog Day. "Day" is a Bill Murray film that repeats a day in the life of a cynical weatherman. Part of his day involves watching Jeopardy! and memorizing the "questions" to impress those around him. Fifty-seven minutes into the film (Frates timed it), the Spanish professor (guess who?) appears answering "What is Mexico?" in her perfectly accented style.

Frates had to see the movie, even dragging her son out of a friend's birthday party because," There I was, up on the screen for three and a half seconds."

Frates most memorable appearance was when she won her fifth game, at the time the most games in which a Jeopardy contestant could compete. With a fifth win, she was designated a retired, undefeated champion. In 2002, Frates participated in the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions at Radio City Music Hall in New York City where family and friends cheered her on.

Even though Frates was eliminated in the first round of her recent Jeopardy! appearance, she left with a sizable prize, an amount guaranteed to all contestants in the tournament. Aside from monetary winnings, she received numerous interesting "parting" gifts including Centrum Silver vitamins, bottles of hot sauce and the ultimate prize, 36 boxes of Rice-a-Roni.

Her favorite categories on the multi-screened game board are: geography, word origins, Broadway musicals and foreign phrases. Categories she saves for last are: math and the Civil War. She is admittedly hopeless when it comes to pop culture and, joked, "I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between Ashlee Simpson and Homer Simpson."

Frates has now returned to CSU East Bay but the competitive spirit is still active. "There are 144 of us out of 6.5 billion people in this world," noted Frates, "And believe me, I am not disappointed [in my performance]."

 
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