Winning and losing on Jeopardy!

To every thing there is a season
Posted on November 21, 2016

The final scores revealed and champion declared, we are ushered around the podia to our marks at center stage for the banter with Alex that plays behind the closing credits.1 Given the circumstances there is little room for substantive conversation, so we make light talk about some aspect of the game.2 This is to be the peak of our interaction with our host, who promptly heads backstage to prepare for the next go-round. As the winner I do not experience the same emotions as my fellow contestants—but I will soon enough, along with everyone who ever plays Jeopardy.3

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  1. In some markets these credits are shunted to a corner of the screen in favor of a teaser for the local news, where assorted misdeeds are hinted at in such detail as to hook the Jeopardy viewer, who would otherwise move on.
  2. Imagine stepping off a roller coaster and going directly into a live interview.
  3. A rule broken only once, by a certain Brad Rutter, whose initial run occurred when win streaks were capped at five and who has since won every tournament to which Jeopardy producers dare invite him.
  4. His diligence is for the best, as many a career has been tripped up when the presence of a nearby hot mike was forgotten.
  5. The staff also miss no opportunity to address the winner as “Champ,” which is touching, like something a Little League coach would use to psych up his pitcher.
  6. This auto-dap is further enhanced by a rather chunky loose gold bracelet on Alex’s right wrist, said bling reportedly associated with his mother.
  7. A somewhat obscure distinction, though if an intrepid fan knows of other examples please let me know.
  8. The idea of gambling has never appealed to me, but I may understand the rush: there’s nothing like standing there in the silence, Alex and the specter of a few million prospective viewers waiting expectantly while you look up at the scoreboard, and finally just letting it all go. (A notable difference here, as staff are wont to point out, is that I am playing with house money.)
  9. Thus triggering a retroactive debt of gratitude to the University of Pennsylvania Class of 2003 commencement speaker selection committee for choosing Desmond Tutu, whose speech was notable mostly for an apparent endorsement of the Marxist dictum “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”, which went over with the assembled begowned bankers-to-be about as well as you’d expect, given the places they were about to assume in the economic pecking order.
  10. Unlike his suit these remained unchanged, on the safe assumption that even the most eagle-eyed viewer isn’t paying attention to his footwear. (A younger contestant might be tempted to ask: What are those?)
  11. It does puncture the aura of television sanctity, but this is a workplace after all, and people have dry cleaning to pick up, etc.
  12. This being the amount that could be lost entirely while the leading challenger doubled up and still leave me a dollar ahead.
  13. Including the invariable advertisement for the pain reliever Aleve preceding Final Jeopardy, suggesting that for reasons unknown the aches afflicting the geriatric audience peak just as the episode reaches its dramatic conclusion.
  14. Indeed Bernie Sanders’s callout of the Republican nominee used the exact response required by the clue, demagogue.
  15. After momentary dithering I choose to wear the tie from my wedding for this third game. This is for the best, as I am not to get another opportunity. Nota bene, to future Jeopardy contestants tempted to keep a favored outfit in reserve.
  16. Once again, as is the case for Jeopardy strategy, so also in the vicissitudes of life.
  17. Something to bear in mind the next time you are absolutely certain about something you’ve seen or heard.
  18. It’s the Galapagos Islands, which belong to Ecuador, which is the Spanish word for equator. (Of course.) 
  19. In this case, preparation turned out to be my downfall. The lesson of this experience is perplexing, as you might imagine.
  20. Drama, comeback, twist ending: great television.
  21. The clunky inelegance of this term corresponds reasonably well to the emotions these clues evoke in a contestant.
  22. Jeopardy has done away with non-cash prizes it once offered, so this consolation donut is all that remains.
  23. The human desire for ceremony to mark significant events finds little outlet during the production of a game show, so any reflection must be held for processing later. Perhaps on a blog.
  24. But not beyond the actual Ken (Jennings), who must have enjoyed an unparalleled bounty of comped sandwiches and fruit cups and suchlike during his 75-game run.

The view from behind the Jeopardy! podium

All the world's a stage
Posted on August 16, 2016

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.

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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.

Warming up, and freezing, as a Jeopardy! contestant

Let's get ready to rumble
Posted on July 25, 2016

The walk over to the set quiets us for a moment, as the anticipation of finally seeing it through non-television eyes heightens the senses. In the studio everything shines, the air seems colder, the audience section is smaller than expected, and Alex remains hidden away, presumably wrist-deep in hostly preparations.1 The ensuing dry run will get us acclimated to the geography of board and monitors and cameras and provide a chance to work out any twitchiness before actual play.2 Upon being shepherded to a podium we bunch around it like puppies crowding a food bowl—unnecessarily, since everyone will get a dedicated turn. We feel the signaling devices in our hands and practice writing our names with a chunky stylus on the screens.3 The most important parts of the warm-up are truncated rounds of almost-real Jeopardy, designed to:

  1. Allow contestants to work through the jitters that come from being in a surreal environment for which no prior experience is a good analogue, and that can lead to less-than-ideal coping behaviors on camera
  2. Blunt the advantage of the incumbent, whose familiarity with gameplay and, more importantly, the peculiarities of signaling can be overwhelming in the right hands (see: Jennings, Ken)4

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  1. The smaller, more intimate audience is in keeping with Jeopardy’s cerebral self-regard. There’s none of the wild gesticulating that defines The Price is Right nor the throaty chant that kicks off Wheel of Fortune. With polite applause and tempered responses to any turn of events, this is basically a golf audience.
  2. Aside from a floor monitor used to display video clues and an LED score tracker hanging from the rafters, what viewers see on television is what players see (excepting of course any loved ones in a player’s peripheral vision, were they able to make the trip).
  3. Over the years, countless regular contestants and some celebrities have stood in these very spots and traced their names on these screens, making the top of a Jeopardy podium the leading contender for palimpsest of the digital age.
  4. The unassuming software engineer who won 74 straight games back in 2004, a record so preposterous there are no good parallels in other areas of competitive endeavor. The perfect confluence of circumstances that led to this streak are very unlikely to reappear, especially given the broad dissemination of Jeopardy knowledge and tactics fostered by the internet since then. More insight from the data wonks at FiveThirtyEight here.
  5. You’ll notice two or three contestants tapping away at the buzzers for most clues, so knowledge isn’t the primary differentiator. A player who has nailed the timing and can seize control at will sets the conditions for domination.
  6. The correct reaction in both scenarios is, of course, to chill.
  7. Other theories: Alex’s contract stipulates his dressing room be furnished with an ice sculpture every morning, and this is the only way to ensure it lasts through the full taping day, or the temperature makes our Canadian host feel more at home in balmy Southern California.
  8. As with several things Jeopardy, also true for life in general.
  9. For some the unmediated gaze of the television camera is almost unbearable, like staring into the sun, and others have fun with it, but in general this is the most grim part of the whole morning.
  10. You will be miked up by a friendly sound technician who must find somewhere on your clothing to hang the battery pack, which is straightforward with gentlemen’s attire and less so for some of the women’s outfits.

Entering Jeopardy’s studio

To the green room and beyond
Posted on July 15, 2016

Sony Pictures Entertainment has a contracted rate at a comfortable if nondescript hotel, and we made the wise move of arriving there two nights in advance—creating some semblance of a consistent daily rhythm is probably good before performing under pressure.1 Wandering the halls on the eve of taping triggers idle speculation as to which fellow guests might also be prospective competitors, although it’s unclear what in comportment or style would mark them out as such. But the next morning when I head to the lobby to catch the shuttle the contestants are unmistakable, for two reasons:

  1. Everyone has the two2 requisite changes of clothes draped on an arm or over a shoulder, like we’re about to go to a very formal sleepover3
  2. No one else would be standing in a lobby of a hotel in a rough circle nearly motionless and silent at seven in the morning

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  1. Given the circumstances this was also the first flight for our newborn son, which added exponentially to the logistical complexities of the trip. Plus guests under eight are barred from the set, requiring someone to stay back with him. But it was definitely worth it, because love.
  2. You are of course welcome to bring more than two outfits, depending on your level of optimism, though if you’re lugging a Samsonite and the combined number of Jeopardy wins in your ancestry is under 20 you should probably dial it back a bit there, tiger.
  3. There are no other life situations I can think of where outfits are selected and transported with such careful consideration and the simultaneous knowledge that there is a two-thirds chance they will be put back unworn.
  4. Even the robot battle shows that were briefly popular thrived on the competition between the teams themselves, which the mechanical destruction merely foregrounded. Drama, an essential component of television, is ineffably human.
  5. You’ll note a rather expensive German luxury car in a prime parking spot right next to the studio. Look closer and you’ll see that the license plate is BONUS RD. I would hardly think that Pat Sajak or Vanna White would want to draw such attention to themselves given their existing levels of celebrity, so it could be a producer’s vehicle. Regardless, further evidence of the handsome profitability of game shows.
  6. And the amorphous hopes of thousands trying to catch their big break in Hollywood.
  7. His dressing room is somewhere in the back regions of the set, comfortably insulated from any chance contact with contestants. It is presumably furnished with accoutrements unknown to the contestants’ side of the house.
  8. Or the Canadian equivalent: after a temporary hiatus Canadians are once again eligible to compete. Questions over anti-spam laws had caused producers to cut off Canadian contestants for fear of lawsuits. 
  9. It’s that shirtless one of Alex, of unknown provenance.
  10. And having my eyebrows filled in made me aware that my eyebrows could use a filling-in.
  11. Our taping occurring shortly after Prince died, and I later found out that at least one of these songs was a very famous one. This did not bode well for my performance in any potential music categories.

Getting ready to play Jeopardy!

The calm before the slightly less calm
Posted on July 7, 2016

A casual observer would be surprised to discover the legal rigor that accompanies an appearance on American game shows. The legacy of the quiz show scandals of the 1950s is still very much with us, and the first thing a contestant coordinator will do upon calling is run through a litany of possible relationships to uncover anything potentially disqualifying.1 For the vast majority of contestants these questions will be perfunctory, so unless you’ve been regularly serving blintzes to Alex Trebek at his favorite diner you should be in the clear.2

Throughout the phone conversation you will maintain your detachment and professional calm, although you both know full well where this is going, so that the actual invitation to appear that follows your satisfactory responses is simultaneously thrilling and anticlimactic.

Jeopardy gives you roughly six weeks between the call and your actual tape day, and there is little flexibility in that schedule, if you wished for a few more months of preparation. Contrary to general belief there is also zero guidance as to areas of study nor any preparatory material, so contestants must watch the show and avail themselves of the same publicly available data as anyone else.3 Read more…

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  1. In the release documentation contestants must affirm that they will have nothing to do with “payola”, as apparently it is still 1927.
  2. The process attempts to weed out those with relationships with any of the parties involved in producing Jeopardy, which are numerous, and to eliminate anyone whose interest in the show could be self-serving, i.e., candidates for political office.
  3. The ur-site for all things Jeopardy is the J-Archive, which catalogs the content and performances of essentially every Jeopardy game played, in impressive and obsessive detail.
  4. Good luck trying to find Jeopardy via streaming services. Like other syndicated shows, it can’t be found legally online.
  5. For instance, the actual clue “Millard was born in this state’s Finger Lakes region in 1800” requires no knowledge whatsoever of the president himself to respond correctly. Many clues are written in this way, which is why the category is often only a rough guide to its clues’ subject matter.
  6. To be fair they could also ask about Liliʻuokalani, but given the potential for gnarly pronunciation the chances are vanishingly small, because television.
  7. I can’t tell you where we stayed, but there were two trees involved. (With credit to the late Mitch Hedberg)
  8. Other questions ask about your personal interests and professional life, sifting your life in remarkable detail in search of any nuggets that would interest the general public.

What it’s like to try out for Jeopardy!

The answer is the question
Posted on June 30, 2016

If you’re like most Americans Jeopardy! is a longstanding resident of that sliver of your cultural consciousness reserved for game shows, sharing space with Wheel of Fortune and The Price is Right, and maybe a later innovation like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, if you happened to catch its blaze of glory in the early oughts.1 Depending on your affinity for the quiz format and the vagaries of local syndication schedules, your childhood memories might even be tinged with the electric blue glow of Jeopardy’s set.2

From elementary through high school I was a regular viewer, even becoming sufficiently invested to try entering the annual Teen Tournament, wherein high schoolers get their turn behind the iconic podiums, like Little Leaguers playing their championship game in the big league ballpark. In that pre-Snapchat era the application process required sending in a postcard and waiting for an inscrutable process to spit out a lucky fifteen students.3 Like the overwhelming majority of entrants I heard nothing afterwards, and that was that. Read more…

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  1. I’ve dispensed with the signature exclamation point after Jeopardy. It may transgress the style guide but it makes it seem like we’re shouting, and Jeopardy is actually a supremely calm environment.
  2. Though for pure nostalgic appeal nothing will beat The Price is Right, whose defiantly retro set seems like a dare to a set designer that’s now gone too far for anyone to back down with dignity.
  3. So basically the Hunger Games reaping, but for mid-1990s kids who were really into school. Also possibly less cutthroat.
  4. Crew chatter during my taping suggested the most recent number was roughly 70,000 applicants, down from 100,000 or so, for reasons unknown.
  5. This applies to Jeopardy, and also most other scenarios in life where you’re presenting yourself in consideration for something.
  6. In reality the median age of a Jeopardy viewer is well into AARP territory at 64, despite attempts to be down with the kids.