The Best Performance Ever by a Poker Player on “Jeopardy” — Eddie Timanus
Introduction: There’s been a whirlwind of media coverage recently about former poker pro Alex Jacobs, and his six-day run on the television game show, “Jeopardy.” No doubt, Jacobs put on an amazing display of intellectual prowess and challenged conventional game strategy about how “Jeopardy” should optimally be played. However, Jacobs’ success wasn’t the most impressive performance ever by a poker player. In this column, I’ll introduce you to who someone who was even more memorable. His name was Eddie Timanus, and chances are, you’ve probably never heard of him. Until now.
One does not expect to encounter someone who is truly amazing in a $5-10 Limit Omaha High-Low Split game, and certainly not in the poker room at Bally’s in Atlantic City back in 1997.
As I took my seat, I noticed another player in the game who had a friend brushed up closely behind his chair, whispering cards into his ear. Normally, this would violate the “one player to a hand” rule. However, something here was quite unusual. The player was blind.
Playing hold’em, which requires memorizing two hole cards and then connecting one’s hand to the five board cards would be challenging enough. However, the added complexity of remembering four hole cards, plus the five board cards, along with all the suits, and then figuring out if there’s an eight-low qualifier for the low hand would seem to make playing Omaha High-Low Split far more difficult, if not impossible. Try it sometime. Close your eyes and imagine.
The player continued playing, never once slowing up the game. He never requested that the board cards be repeated or asked about the suits. He always knew when it was his turn to act. Oh, and the player also managed to carry on a normal table conversation with the other players, and even managed to leave the game a winner.
As he was racking up his chips and leaving the table, I approached the man, who appeared to be in his 20s. He was polite and shook my hand. He introduced himself as Eddie Timanus.
I informed Timanus that I wrote a regular column for Card Player magazine. To my great surprise, he said he read the magazine (more specifically, his girlfriend sometimes read the columns to him that he found most interesting). I asked Timanus to tell me more about his poker background, and replied that played regularly whenever he visited either Atlantic City or Las Vegas. He told me the Mirage was his favorite poker room.
Timanus would make a fascinating subject for a column, I thought. What interested me most was the level of concentration it took to remember nine cards, all while following the action, while engaging in normal conversation with other players.
As we were exchanging contact information, I was thrilled to discover that Timanus not only lived in the Washington, DC area — my home at the time. He also lived only about a mile away from me! We agree to meet back in Washington and do a magazine feature story together.
A week later, Timanus and I were sitting at a different kind of table across from each other at a bar-be-cue restaurant in Arlington, VA called Red, Hot, & Blue. As we each devoured a full slab of ribs, Timanus told me more about his life, and poker background.
Timanus worked full time at USA Today. Not only that, he was also the person responsible for collecting all the of “Coaches Poll” results. The Top 25 ranked college football and basketball listed in USA Today each week were organized, assembled, and reported on by Timanus. He also wrote other sports and news stories for the newspaper (Note: He’s still employed at USA Today, doing the same thing,some 17 years later).
Timanus lived in a high rise in Arlington, commuted by metro (subway) to USA Today’s headquarters in Rosslyn, and lived a very normal life that anyone would envy. He also loved playing poker in his free time and competing in other games. I would later find out just how competitive Timanus truly was.
A few weeks later, the feature article came out in Card Player and was received favorably. But the only critic I cared about was Timanus. So long as he was happy, I was satisfied. Some time later, Timanus and I met and talked again. He had indeed read the article and noted that he wasn’t really interested in publicity for himself. Rather, he was much more determined to show how those with physical challenges are perfectly capable of living happy and fulfilling lives while making contributions to society. We agreed that the magazine article, at least in some small way, had accomplished that.
We parted ways, and pretty much lost contact after that. We spoke by phone and emailed each other a few times (he had a special vocal program for the visually impaired). I presumed that would not hear from Timanus again, although I did see his work regularly in the Sports section at USA Today.
Some 18 months later, it was 7:30 on a Tuesday night and I was watching television. “Jeopardy” was on, and three new contestants were being introduced.
“A sports reporter from Arlington, Virginia — Eddie Timanus,” the announcer said.
It was Eddie! On “Jeopardy!”
When you’re startled like that, not expecting someone you know to be on television, it’s usually a shock. “I know him!” I yelled to Marieta. “It’s Eddie Timanus!
Come to find out, Timanus would be the first blind player ever to appear on the show. While he would be the last person to want to be either identified or remembered as “the blind player from ‘Jeopardy,” the groundbreaking nature of his appearance would indeed be both powerful and inspirational to all who witnessed it. That said, no one — certainly not me sitting in my living room each of the following four nights — could have predicted what would transpire over the week to some, a stand out performance that in some ways would help to reframe much of the way some of us perceive those with handicaps, and what they’re capable of achieving.
This wasn’t a low-stakes poker game in Atlantic City anymore. This was something really big time This was a nationally televised game show with a live studio audience. How would he do?
Just getting onto the show as a contestant is a significant accomplishment. For those who care to dream, there are several pre-tests and screenings, which makes getting invited to Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, CA where the television shows are filmed, a real long shot. Tens of thousands of people try out each and every year. Only a few hundred manage to make the cut. Fewer still make it to the show. Of those few who make it onto the stage, only one in three wins.
On top of that, Timanus faced some serious technical disadvantages. Any sighted person would be able to read the board display faster than the host can speak the question. This might not seem like a big deal, but that extra processing time would be the difference to buzzing in and answering correctly, versus missing the opportunity to answer. Timanus had to wait until the host, Alex Trabek, finished speaking fully before contemplating the correct answer (or the question, since that’s the way the show is formatted). Moreover, there was the quirky hand-control system, an annoyance frequently described as the biggest obstacle to winning by many former contestants on the show. Buzz in too quickly, and the system locks the player out. So, timing is everything. A good sense of timing, aided by hand-eye coordination is said to be the most important factor in winning and losing, aside from solving the questions.
So, what happened?
Timanus won the first night he played.
Then, he won the second match. And the third. And the fourth.
Eddie Timanus won four straight! The day of his fifth game, I admit that I was excited and couldn’t wait until 7:30 to watch and see what would happen.
Five-time champions on “Jeopardy” were (and still are) exceeding rare. Categories and questions change with every game. A winner could get lucky, getting a favorable draw and know several categories quite well, and then get just as fortunate if his or her opponents do not know as much about the subjects. Every contestant must be ready for five progressively more difficult questions, on everything from astrophysics to opera. This is why winning five consecutive games doesn’t happen every often.
Timanus won his fifth and final game. He was “retired” as one of the few undefeated champions for that season. He would later be invited back for the “Tournament of Champions,” a collection of the top performers from the previous season — which included all the five-time winners, and a few that qualified by winning four games (since there weren’t enough five-time winners from that season to fill all the spots).
Timanus had not only appeared on “Jeopardy” and done well. He had won.
It Timanus’ accomplishment up to that point had been impressive, what happened next is worthy of legend, and why it’s worthy of writing about and remembering now, some 16 years later.
Timanus returned to Culver City and appeared on the “Tournament of Champions,” which was a week-long series of matches, later shown in 2000. These contestants who came by invitation only represented the best of the very best. Just being among this elite group was a matter of pride and major success story.
Out of a dozen players who played in the TOC, Timanus ended up finishing second in the round-robin competition. His performance had been so impressive that some years later in 2014, Timanus was invited back yet again. This time, he would compete on something called “Jeopardy: Battle of the Decades,” which were the top players from each of the past three decades. Timanus represented the 1990s. Once again, out of a round robin of players, Timanus nearly won. but fell just short. He was the leader going into the Final Jeopardy round, but missed the last question.
Today, Timanus is married, now in his 40s. He has one child. Timanus still lives in the Washington, DC area. He continues to work at USA Today, mostly on breaking sports stories and doing the weekly “Coaches Poll.”
I don’t know if Timanus still plays poker. I haven’t talked to him in several years.
However, one thing I do know is this: If he does sit down at your table sometime, you’d be advised to take him seriously. He’s a pretty good poker player.
He’s also the best poker player ever to have appeared on “Jeopardy.”