Announcer Johnny Gilbert sits in the shadows in the far corner opposite the contestants, and the first thing you hear emanating from the dim light is his precise readout of the episode number. This marks the recording to make life easier for editors and is well into the seven thousands, a final reminder of the show’s longevity as we begin.

There’s a NASA-esque countdown and a moment later the music starts, an electronic whoosh morphing seamlessly into a synth-heavy remix of the iconic Think! theme,1 which plays over the recitation of player names and occupations. Introductions culminate in the champion’s win total, in which Johnny emphasizes the word “thousand” as if it astonishes him, no matter the amount.2 Contestants are trained beforehand to look into one of two cameras as their names are called, which feels longer on set than it does on television.

Johnny ends by calling for the man himself, and then out from behind the board he strolls, looking for all the world exactly like Alex Trebek, and in that moment it becomes plain that of course he wouldn’t look like anyone else.3 His arrival brings a flash of instant recognition, tinged with a thrill that can only be described as childlike.4

Alex is well past retirement age, and although in fine form at 75 he is nonetheless a senior citizen who won’t be hosting the show much longer—rare is the television personality maintaining a workload into his eighties.5 He wears a well-fitted suit, a tie knotted in a smallish double Windsor, black slip-ons that appear comfortable, and an incipient hint of the fragility that attends the very young and the very old.6

For episodes slated to air on significant dates Alex mentions something topical in his opening remarks. He does so with a knowing look, as the events he treats as current are in fact months away given the gap between taping and airing. Contestants play along, though from their expressions some look to be caught off-guard. No such circumstances surround this day’s shows, which air during the unremarkable week of July 11, 2016.7

Any frisson of recognition from seeing Mr. Trebek in the flesh quickly dissipates as he turns in workmanlike fashion to the board and promptly starts play. After all the buildup the game itself is marked by a quiet intensity, like a spacecraft that has navigated the drama of takeoff and now floats in the illusory calm of space while actually orbiting at 17,000 miles per hour, and a slight mishap can send it all awry in a hurry.

The unveiling of categories marks a definitive shift into game mode. No matter how much time you spent drilling on opera composers or the Prime Ministers of Australia these are now the only subjects that matter.8 A category might have been the topic of your doctoral dissertation (yay) or include words you are hearing for the first time (uh-oh), and you must be prepared to handle either with equanimity.

The tensions of a game show may be contrived but they are no less effective for it, and we now focus on playing this trivia game as if conducting surgery. This peculiar intensity is such that clues and even whole categories are forgotten as if never seen at all; an audience member probably has better recall of specifics. I would be hard-pressed to recite more than a handful, and I actually played the game and provided some of the responses. The glaring exceptions to this phenomenon come when incorrect, particularly on Daily Doubles. These are seared into memory, a potent example of negativity bias at work.9

Jeopardy has unwittingly woven a dilemma10 into its gameplay; that which makes for good television viewing—orderly, top-down progress within categories that are seen to completion—is an inferior strategy for those seeking to win, and many contestants know this quite well. The most dominant players in the recent era have taken this to its logical conclusion, including the impassive IBM marketing coup Watson, which was calculating in the literal sense and also trounced its human competition.

the muddled middle

The more striking fact about Jeopardy strategy is there is absolutely no requirement that contestants play the way they do. In her pregame briefing Maggie nudges us to start with lowest dollar amounts and work categories sequentially, making it easier to pick up the thread of the writing, but this reason is not compelling; any advantage from finding the rhythm of a category accrues equally to your competitors. Similarly, although you should minimize your Daily Double wager if confidence in the category is wobbly, the lowest possible wager of $5 is rarer than a media-shy Kardashian. This desire to operate in the middle of the road leaves a wide-open space for those willing to explore the edges.

Whatever your approach, it must be established beforehand. Once play starts there is no time to work through the finer points of strategy, nor can you spare the brainpower. Everyone has a default playing style, and when Alex calls your name expectantly you will revert to it. Hence some advice for Jeopardy, and related undertakings:

  1. Know your strategy upfront.
  2. Stick to it.
  3. Don’t do something silly like bet $2,000 on a literature category, when you knew going in that the right bet for the category was $5, and then as the game unfolds think that if this mistake decides the outcome you’re going to be pretty upset at yourself, because you really did know better, and what’s the point of #1 above if you ignore #2.

Fortunately I am able to absorb the blow, and at the end of the first round my score puts me somewhat clear of my competitors. This is not to last, as the second round turns into a running battle with my fellow challenger taking over the lead. In the scrum I fail to uncover either Daily Double. This is partly fortuitous as the second is unmercifully difficult and sets the returning champion well back from the lead. Had I the misfortune of choosing it I would have been unreasonably confident and certainly wrong.11

In the commercial interludes Alex gamely fields questions from the audience; given the thousands of times this has happened genuinely new questions must be exceedingly rare. He has more of an edge than his formal television host persona may let on; when asked a recommendation for his replacement his reply was the nonagenarian Betty White, a deft non-answer reflecting the hardened savvy of someone who has spent many a year in the public eye.

It is good to have more money than others at the end of each round, but it is better still to have more than twice the amount of money as your nearest competitor before Final Jeopardy, which guarantees a win, barring any spectacular display of hubris.12 It is this condition that I am frantically working to achieve in the latter part of the game, eyes darting between the score tracker and the board as if watching a tennis match that only I can see. And I nearly pull it off, until on the very last clue of the game and needing $300 to prevent my runaway, the champion slides in on a $1,000 clue. Having battled through sixty clues one more will be needed to settle it. At least the rules of television drama favor such an outcome, uncertain till the very end.13

The final break is the only one that runs longer than what you see on television, as we are provided with scraps of paper on which to do our figuring. Each contestant is watched intently by a dedicated staffer while this happens, which is vaguely disconcerting and makes what should be basic arithmetic into something profound. The ramifications of botching addition and subtraction dance in my head as I rework simple numbers before finally entering it on the digital screen—once your wager is entered there is no going back. Imagine tying your shoelaces while two feet away someone watches you intently in complete silence, and you’ll get a sense of the strangeness of the exercise.

Before the Final Jeopardy clue is revealed a Sharpie and card with the word “who” on one side and “what” on the other are placed on your podium, in the roughly zero percent chance a technical glitch zaps your stylus at a critical moment and you must revert to analog technology before the music stops. Such a thing will not happen, but game shows this practiced have thought of every conceivable contingency. Alex presumably could pass out mid-clue and a replacement host would be winched down from the rafters to take over, with no need to stop tape.14

And then the last prompt is revealed, and a response that feels right floats to me quickly and I jot it down in letters that look tiny when revealed on screen. As soon as my fellow challenger’s answer is revealed the outcome is certain, so I am at ease as Alex continues to the returning champion and finally to me, confirming my imminent promotion to podium one.

In the annals of life’s accomplishments being a husband and father and numerous other things will surely rank higher, but Jeopardy champion isn’t a bad distinction to add to the resume.15

I feel a general glow of satisfaction but have little time for it to crystallize into more defined emotion,16 as the wheels of Jeopardy’s production schedule are in full motion. I am relieved of my microphone and rush back to the green room to swap outfits, because in the television universe Tuesday—and game two—is only 15 minutes away.

Next: A moment at the top  |  All Jeopardy posts

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  1. Few melodies are more ubiquitous or recognizable, further demonstrated by Merv Griffin’s estimate that his 30-second tune generated lifetime royalties totaling a preposterous $70 million.
  2. In some not-too-distant future inflation may make Jeopardy’s scale of thousands unimpressive to the viewing audience, requiring another adjustment in clue values; its usual payouts are already well below those provided by some other game shows for much less work. But knowledge is its own reward, etc.
  3. Real-life encounters with those “known” only from the screen tend to go this way.
  4. It may be that the appearance of Alex brings up and encapsulates in one glimmering moment a lifetime of Jeopardy memories, like a Proustian madeleine, and for a moment I am ten years old again watching the show on the couch with my mother. This may also be the first time Alex has been compared to a cookie.
  5. With the passing of Dick Clark this is a club populated mainly by Regis, who is now 84 and has cut back his workload significantly. Since our taping Alex has celebrated his 76th birthday.
  6. Alex is downright juvenile compared to announcer Johnny Gilbert, who was 91 years old at the time of our taping and has had a career in Hollywood nearing six decades. He sports a jacket embroidered with his signature phrase (This is Jeopardy!), appropriate for a man who’s still kicking it into his 90s.
  7. On my first show Alex mentions the returning champion’s win on the preceding Friday and talks of the weekend spent freshly savoring her victory. In reality her last game was taped three weeks earlier, prior to an interval for special competitions featuring teenagers, teachers, and Beltway types. Such are the deceptions of television.
  8. Not once in my life had it occurred to me that in time to come something of consequence might depend on my knowledge of eels. This was the day I learned otherwise.
  9. Chalk it up to deficiencies in my education in the classics, but of the Aeneid all I knew is that it was a thing that existed. This proved a perilous foundation on which to risk $2,000.
  10. A prisoners’ dilemma of sorts: in a nutshell, a situation where if each person does what’s good for them individually everyone is made worse off. For example, if you stand up in a crowded stadium you get a better view, but that blocks others views’ and makes them stand up too, and now everyone has the same view as before without the comfort of sitting. Similarly, no matter how others are playing, you should get those Daily Doubles off the board, although it makes it a choppy experience for all players (and viewers).
  11. The Karakoram Highway: which two countries does it connect? They’re high up, probably in the vicinity of the Himalayas. You have five seconds.
  12. Or admirable display of self-confidence, depending on the outcome.
  13. Similar devices are common in game shows, which tend to amplify the stakes in later rounds so that laggards can still win, which maintains suspense without completely disregarding the outcomes of earlier play. This is why Pat Sajak so assiduously tries to spin the maximum dollar value in Wheel of Fortune’s time-shortened last round, which ups the chances of a come-from-behind victory.
  14. Just kidding, Alex is irreplaceable. But seriously though, he will be replaced, and soon, a fact that must give the stewards of this whole operation no end of heartburn as they seek to keep the cash cow alive.
  15. It’s at least worth a footnote. Boom. Meta.
  16. In a nutshell, it’s awesomesauce.