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Top 10 Jeopardy Tips from Someone Who Didn't Expect to Become an Expert

Trebek_Connery It's a big month in the Jeopardy! world. Later this week I'll post my interview with Stephen Baker, the author of Final Jeopardy: Man Vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything, an inside account of IBM's building of Watson, the Jeopardy!-playing computer that takes on all-time J! champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a three-day battle February 14-16. And this week is the big one for Jeopardy! aspirants: the once-a-year window for taking the online test that begins the qualification process for the show is February 8-10. (You have to register ahead of time to take the test, but there's still time.)

As I've tried not to bore you with too much (although those who know me might feel differently by now), I somehow won a lot of times on Jeopardy! in December. So for those who might be considering trying out this year (see #1 below), and for those who manage to make it past that round, I'm taking the liberty of offering my top 10 Jeopardy! pointers. Take these not as the diligently planned and executed maneuvers of a master Jeopardy! strategist, but as some things a player who didn't really have much of a plan at all learned along the way. (For more systematic advice, I recommend Bob Harris's Prisoner of Trebekistan and Jennings's Brainiac (which I have to confess I still haven't read!), as well as Karl Coryat's classic advice page and these two pages by a contestant who lost a close game a couple days after me but clearly had the chops to go much further if the breaks had gone differently (see #10 below). And Final Jeopardy turns out to be very useful as well, revealing the strategies that Watson's creators used, as well as the surprisingly similar, data-driven preparation of Roger Craig, who had a record-breaking run in September.)

Apologies for this not-directly-book-related material, but I figure there are a few other Omnivores out there who might like to test their knowledge, and perhaps this will help (I know a few of the pointers below helped me):

  1. Try out. You've always wanted to try out? They couldn't make it any easier now (in fact, if they had set the bar any higher I probably never would have hurdled it). All you have to do to begin the process is register for the online test, and then park yourself in front of your computer during one of the three test windows for a 50-question quiz. The test is typed, not multiple choice, and timed: you have 15 seconds to answer each clue. (The Jeopardy! site has much more information, as well as a sample test. By the way, is it just a coincidence that the answer to sample question two--"This website where you can buy books, food or toys shares its name with a mighty river"--is a word I was not allowed to say on the show?) They don't tell you how you did on the test, but if you do get a call a few months later (or was it an email? I can't remember) saying that you passed the test (folk wisdom says you need at least 35 out of 50 right) and have been scheduled for an in-person interview, say yes, even if the nearest tryout city (in my case, L.A.) is not so near. It may turn out to be an excellent investment. (Hey fellow Pacific Northwesterners: it looks like this year one of the local tryout cities will be Seattle, so it's a great year to try out.)
  2. Read. There is a small but significant amount in Jeopardy! you can wikicram for (presidents, capitals, Shakespeare, geography, etc.), and a few questions did come up during my run that I wouldn't have known without the little cramming I did squeeze in (Bern? Grover Cleveland? the Adriatic Sea?). But the range of subjects covered is so unpredictably broad that 90% of the clues will cover items that no mortal with a day job could have prepared for. Luckily, you don't have to read deep, just broadly. As I noted earlier (and as Watson's researchers discovered), you don't have to have read The Moon and Sixpence to answer a clue about it, you just have to have read about it. If you're cramming, encyclopedias and fact books are the places to go, but if you are looking for a long-term, Jeopardy!-friendly diet, magazines hit just the right level of knowledge (or at least they did in the Old Media world I was marinated in). If you had subscribed to Time, Sports Illustrated, People, the New York Review of Books, and National Geographic for the past 30 years, I'm not sure any more systematic study could have prepared you better.
  3. Practice. Obviously, watching the show is a plus, and it's a good idea, as many people say, to watch with a ballpoint pen in your hand, to practice clicking in like you do on the show. (And really, all three contestants know so many of the answers that buzzer technique is crucial, although in retrospect I think I never really got that Zen art down.) But I know at least for me, with two kids and no DVR, my evenings were often too complicated to make that nightly 7:30 date, even once I knew I was going to be on the show. The true place to practice is the wondrous J! Archive, where the game's biggest and most meticulous fans have put every game--really!--from the past 15 seasons online in a format that mimics nearly everything about the game except the time limits and the awkward personal anecdotes (and also provides plenty of commentary about the subtle art of Final Jeopardy wagering). If you want to dig even further, there are the Jeopardy! discussion boards, where fans critique each day's game. To be honest, though, if I had visited those boards before I played (I didn't even know they existed) I probably would have been freaked out and intimidated by the level of obsession and strategy on display.
  4. Sleep. This was a piece of advice I gave to myself ("You may not be able to study everything, but at least you can get enough sleep") and then completely ignored. As anyone who notices how late Old Media Monday usually goes live, I generally operate on fewer hours of shut-eye than I should. I thought I would do better for the week before my taping in September, but circumstances, as well as my own restlessness, prevented it. In fact, I felt so weary and fatalistic when I got to L.A. the night before taping that when I happened to pass a club where my old favorites Shonen Knife were playing I almost said "What the hell" and went in instead of going to bed. At least I had enough self-restraint to resist that. Happily, though, when the taping days arrived, adrenaline took over and I hardly remembered how tired I should have been. That is, until we reached the late afternoon. They shoot five shows in a day, and if you're lucky enough to survive to the end, you are going to be wiped out (unless, say, you actually got enough sleep the night before). I'm sure that one reason I got fatally reckless in my final game was that I was so exhausted I could hardly contemplate coming back for more (and ironing all my TV shirts again) the next day.
  5. Don't guess. Now we get into game play, starting with the best advice I got from a previous contestant (who, as it happens, is also the editor of lovely books such as Miles from Nowhere, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, and It Feels So Good When I Stop): "Don't guess." It's not like the SAT, where educated guesses are worth making. In Jeopardy! the penalty is high enough for guessing wrong that even a 50-50 guess is often not worth making. (Not only do you get docked the dough, you also give the other players more time to think while eliminating one of the answers they might have been considering.) It can be hard to resist buzzing in (I got a little antsy in my first game when it took me a while to get an answer in), but resist!
  6. The obvious answer is almost always the right one. Here's a difference between Jeopardy! and many other trivia quizzes: the Jeopardy! clue writers are not trying to trick you (in fact, they often bend over backwards to lead you to the answer--see #7). So it's very helpful to remember that nine times out of ten the most obvious answer you can think of that fits the clue is the right one. If you think it might be Lincoln, it's probably Lincoln; if you think the "Argentinean city" is Buenos Aires, it's probably Buenos Aires. In one of my Final Jeopardys, the clue, in U.S. History, was "The day after the 15th Amendment took effect, Thomas Peterson became the 1st African American to do this under its provisions." All three of us remembered (or guessed) that the 15th Amendment had to do with the right to vote, but my closest competitor overthought the question and answered "What is register to vote?" when the simple "What is vote?" was correct.
  7. You often don't need to know the answer to get the right answer. A lot of the time, the Jeopardy! writers will give you not just one, but two or three chances to figure out a question, with little (and sometimes enormous) hints in the clue that can steer you toward the right answer if you didn't know it, or make you more confident if you think that you do. In that same game, the $2000 clue in "Life Is Short" was "This German epistemological philosopher who lived from 1724 to 1804 was categorically, exactly 5' tall," accompanied by a visual portrait of the person in question. That gives you, by my count, five ways to get to the correct answer of "Who is Immanuel Kant?": the portrait, the "German epistemological philosopher" (again, see #6: if they say "German epistemological philosopher" they are not going to mean Schelling; it's going to be Kant), his life span, the awkward use of "categorically," and of course the actual topic of the category, his height (or lack thereof). That's not to say the answer is obvious, but if, like me, your 4-second thought process was "'epistemological'?--was that Kant? Was Kant short? Oh yeah, 'categorically'--thank you!" then you'll feel a lot more confident buzzing in.
  8. Don't freak out. Good general advice in life and on television, but especially on Jeopardy!, where I quickly learned that it's quite possible to dig yourself a multi-thousand-dollar hole early in the game and still come back. I didn't make a conscious decision to start slowly, but after I did so almost every time I realized that the dollar values are so low in the beginning of the game that you could afford to bide your time, especially in categories that were unclear at first, as long as you hit your stride when the numbers got bigger lower on the board and in Double Jeopardy. And relatedly, this is very hard advice to take when you know your mug is being projected to 10 million or so households, but relax and enjoy the game. It is the same game you've been playing at home forever, and this may well be the only chance you'll get to play it on the real stage, with real buzzers and real money (and real Trebek). It's a lot of fun once you're actually playing (and it goes by incredibly fast), and you'll no doubt do better if you allow yourself to enjoy it.
  9. Bet big, but smart. One of the constant refrains on the Jeopardy discussion boards is frustration that people don't bet enough on Daily Doubles. And that's not just out of a desire for exciting games: I haven't done the math, but the IBM engineers have, and players consistently underbet the Daily Double, even when they are behind late in the game and it's their only way to get back in the hunt. If you know enough to get on the show, your average chance of getting a single question right should be well over 50%, especially with the extra time to think that the Daily Double provides, so take advantage. (Although I am curious about one aspect of the math: does betting big, while increasing your chance of winning any individual game, decrease a good player's chance of putting together a long run of wins by widening the range of your possible scores?) And then there's Final Jeopardy, about whose betting strategies entire dissertations could be (and possibly have been) written. From first place, the strategy is usually simple: bet enough to beat an all-in wager from the player in second (the discussion boards went nuts a couple of days ago when Molly Rosenbusch bet everything from the lead, and lost). From second and third, it gets a lot more complicated, and I'm a bad guide. The only times I was in second I rashly bet almost everything, which is rarely the smart thing to do: the first time because I was so confident in the category (20th Century Novelists) that it seemed rational (or at least a matter of honor), the second out of sheer recklessness. It paid off the first time, but killed me the second, when, to my ongoing regret, a conservative and rational bet on what turned out to be a triple-stumper question would have allowed me to live another day. If you want to dive further into FJ strategy, here's a quick primer, or you can check the J! Archive's analysis for any historical game (e.g. my demise).
  10. Get lucky. Aside from #1 and #2, this is by far the most crucial piece of advice and, of course, the one entirely out of your control. As you can tell from watching the show (and seeing how often the champions turn over), and as I could tell by playing alongside plenty of brainy competitors, everybody who plays the game knows a lot, and, given the right set of categories--and especially the right Final Jeopardy question--anyone could win any particular game. It might happen that, as it did for me, you find yourself behind an excellent player going into Final Jeopardy, only to see pop up the one category you'd request for yourself if you had the choice. Or you could run into a board like Double Jeopardy a couple of days ago, when categories like "Our Watery World" and "TV Personality Marriages" would have left me so clueless that I probably would have just crawled under my podium and given up. And that's not even taking into account the tryout system, where plenty of qualified people try out year after year before finally breaking through whatever decision-making process the show uses.

As I said in #1, if you've ever wanted to be on the show, you really should try out. I can't guarantee that the advice above will be much help beyond that, but if you can follow tip #10, who knows what will happen? Good luck! --Tom


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Thank you for the information.

How refreshing to read your ten tips, Tom. I serendipitously clicked on your name alongside the Omnivoracious posting today, and found your interesting article. I've often toyed with the idea of trying out for Jeopardy! but have never taken the plunge. What you've written has given me much to ponder. Who knows ... perhaps I'll find the courage to give it a try.

A momentous to me.. You were giving me a courage to pursue my dreams. I'll follow your Top 10 Jeopardy Tips..Thanks

This is good, Tom, especially since my wife is forcing me to audition after your experience.

How refreshing to read your ten tips, Tom. I serendipitously clicked on your name alongside the Omnivoracious posting today, and found your interesting article. I've often toyed with the idea of trying out for Jeopardy! but have never taken the plunge. What you've written has given me much to ponder. Who knows ... perhaps I'll find the courage to give it a try.

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