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

Glenn now takes up the mantle of game show host, reading clues with the alacrity of an auctioneer trying to move heads of cattle; there will be no lingering, in case you were hoping to just take it all in. The clues are noticeably easier, making correct responses more a measure of hand-ear-eye coordination than knowledge base, and also providing a subtle confidence boost for players unsure if they would survive contact with actual play. Columns of gentle LEDs on the sides of the board blink on when contestants are free to buzz in; mastering this dynamic is perhaps the most critical part of the game.5

We cycle through in threes, playing a game board that becomes increasingly depleted as the session progresses. When the coordinators feel that players have acquitted themselves sufficiently they are abruptly swapped out. This continues until everyone has at least two runs, the first longer and the last a brief finishing-off. It’s difficult to calibrate against fellow contestants, and I find myself oscillating between extremes: stringing together a few correct responses in a row makes me feel like the heir apparent to the Jeopardy throne, and getting locked out for a stretch makes me wonder if it’s time to panic.6

Whether due to adrenaline or because Sony’s thermostat is controlled by a yeti whom no one wishes to cross, I am actually shaking as I wait to rotate in for a turn.7 The set of Jeopardy reverses the normal response to weather—here crew go about their duties wearing jackets and can remove them when outdoors.

Throughout the warmups (and the game itself) an independent monitor ensures that everything is on the up-and-up, providing any contestants who feel slighted with a neutral party to whom they can complain. She also ensures that no contestant is disadvantaged in any conceivable way. This sedulous eye for propriety stems from a commendable desire to be fair and/or a fear of litigation that gives Standards and Practices some serious clout. Criminal defendants have probably gone to real-life prison with less careful legal representation than what game show contestants have available to them.

A cameraman notices that somewhere in the constellation overhead a light has caught a shiny surface and is reflecting onto the backdrop. Work halts while the crew uses impromptu physics to sort it out, trying to trace angles of incidence and reflection to isolate the offender. The source is discovered to be bouncing off the screen on podium two and adjustments are made, lest the gleam distract a home viewer.

Throughout the warmup camaraderie overshadows competition, so gauging how aggressive anyone will be during the game is difficult, but some differences are obvious. A note here on the right outlook for a Jeopardy contestant:

It helps to keep Jeopardy in perspective

Being over-awed by the whole experience is not the best mindset for winning, but nor should Jeopardy provoke any existential crises. It’s a game, and an unusually fun one at that, and a cultural icon of enduring significance that’s unlikely to be replicated in our lifetimes, but also still a game. With the benefit of knowing how it turns out for everyone, there does seem to be a loose correlation between attitude and success—though luck can overrule at any moment.8

While contestants are preoccupied with preparations, guests have been filing unnoticed into the audience section, and I suddenly catch the face of my wife, which is wonderful, and then I wave to her, which is less wonderful, because apparently any interaction with the audience is a big No-No, which is communicated to me in a way that vaguely suggests peril. Duly chastened, I make no further gestures to family members.

We shoot the briefest of promos9 for our local markets, which may not ever be used, and then are trundled back to the green room where the selection for the first game happens. And instantly I hear my name called, slotting me in to the first game of the day, without having had any time to consider if this is good or bad. Podium assignment for the two challengers is accomplished through the high-tech means of a slip of paper selected from the hands of a contestant coordinator.

And now the Jeopardy train that has been slowly picking up speed since that call six weeks ago really starts moving, and I am definitely on it, and this is definitely about to happen, and no there will not be time to ponder the significance of any of it. There’s a final makeup retouching, we’re out to the set and wired for sound,10 contestant platforms are leveled to create the illusion of equal height, I write my name—still no sign of Alex, who by this point is mainly a concept—all building to that sense of exquisite and motionless tension that precedes a rocket launch or the start of the 100-meter dash.

Maggie continues in her role as contestant den mother, with last minute exhortations and a promise to return to us at the commercial break seven minutes hence. As a final touch that is somehow entirely appropriate she works a double fist bump down the row—don’t forget the explosion—for me and my fellow contestants, now competitors, and the lights fade down, the boom camera swings gently into place, all conversation stops, and a countdown starts: it’s time.

Next: Alex appears  |  All Jeopardy posts

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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.