As 7 p.m. hit on Monday, the bartender at Do or Dive in Brooklyn killed the music and two ancient black-and-white TVs roared to life, as they do every night at 7. On the screens, Alex Trebek took the Jeopardy! stage from his pre-taped purgatory. “I can’t believe how quickly the year is moving along,” he told the audience. One of the categories in the first round was “Masks.”
A handful of people — after getting their temperatures checked and giving contact-tracing information — sat at the few tables in the narrow bar. One of them, Franco Del Valle, was drinking a Miller High Life and celebrating the last night watching Jeopardy! at Do or Dive almost daily over the past three years; the next day he and his girlfriend were moving to New Hampshire for cheaper living as the pandemic wore on.
“I’m sure my girlfriend will be mad I’m getting drunk instead of finishing the packing,” he said. “There aren’t many things I go into a shared space for. This is one of them. This is about as close as I get to human beings.”
In the before times, bars like this would be the rowdiest and most devoted places for Jeopardy! fans to mourn the beloved host’s passing. Trebek died on November 8 after 37 seasons of the nightly gameshow; in March 2019 he had announced he was fighting stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
Over those nearly four decades on the air, watching Jeopardy! at dive bars and local pubs became a nightly ritual followed with an almost religious devotion. (Last Christmas Eve, a regular at Alibi in Fort Greene, Brooklyn scolded me for putting money in the jukebox too close to broadcast time.) But in the never-ending twists of 2020’s knife, limitations on indoor gatherings have made it harder for fans to meet and grieve Trebek properly.
Four days after Trebek died, as the precious reserve of his final taped episodes was already running out, the TV at Alibi was dark and the bar was empty. The bar used to be one of the most famous Jeopardy! spots in the whole city, but manager Jenny Fowler canceled the cable at the beginning of lockdown. She likely won’t start it up again until people are allowed to sit at the bar.
“I would forget [to turn it on] sometimes and people would get mad at me,” she said. “I have a couple of people that scream, they were known for that. I think it’s comforting. People are creatures of habit.”
Jeopardy! fans can be found at dives across the country, from Washington D.C. to Kentucky. I reached out to a few bar culture historians but none were sure where the tradition started: one regular at Alibi says it dated back to the 1970s, before Trebek was even the trivia show’s host. In the ’90s, people would bet on Final Jeopardy; until someone found out the show aired earlier on a different channel and started cheating, regular Ricky O’Connell says.
Fowler said bars like hers typically show the 6 p.m. news so rolling over into Jeopardy became natural. The calming, unflappable presence of Trebek was an escape from current events.
Jeopardy! fits snugly inside dive culture: Its air time catches the after-work crowd a few beers deep and eager to show off by yelling answers. It’s over before most sports get started in earnest, quicker than a baseball game and at times more fast-paced than even basketball. It doesn’t zap conversation for those disinterested in watching, unlike like pub trivia, but it can be interactive and full of promise: maybe you, sitting on a stool, two Budweisers in, are smarter than a Jeopardy! champion.
Do or Dive imported the tradition when it opened in 2016 from another dive the owner used to frequent, Turkey’s Nest in Williamsburg, says Pasquale Reca, who does art for the bar. When Trebek announced his diagnosis last year, Reca designed Jeopardy blue T-shirts, with “We ♥️ you Alex!” written on the bottom, inside the shirt. Since Trebek died, bar patrons who guess Final Jeopardy get one for free.
Del Valle got a little teary talking about losing Trebek in a year when seeing loved ones is difficult. As a child in Peru, he learned English from Jeopardy!, among other shows.
“This was a man I spent a lot of time with drunk, which is essentially what a friend is supposed to be,” he said. “I saw Alex Trebek more than I would see friends from college, friends from high school.”
Trebek recorded new episodes of the show until late October. His final show will be broadcast on Christmas Day.
“Alex Trebek isn’t dead until December,” said Kelly Cobbs, a regular at Turkey’s Nest, who was there watching Tuesday’s game at a table with her boyfriend, two friends, and a pizza. “For us, he’s still alive. That’s how he’s always come into our homes,” Cobbs added. “He’s going to be doing that until Christmas, it’s his last present and he’s gone.”
It’s unclear how much longer even these Jeopardy! fans will be able to gather, regardless of how many episodes are left. By Wednesday, November 18, New York City canceled in-person schooling as the COVID-19 infection rate was surging; expectations were high that indoor dining and bars would be shut down within a week, just as the first freeze warning of the season hit. Bartenders told me of plans to show Jeopardy! outdoors but none sounded optimistic. Del Valle says he’ll be watching at home, not a bar, after he moves to New Hampshire.
Like all good dives, these Jeopardy! bars plan to be open on Christmas Day for the final episode — if they can open at all.
Tim Donnelly is a Brooklyn-based freelance reporter and editor. Follow him on Twitter: @timdonnelly.