Five Things I Learned as a Jeopardy! Contestant
Your humble correspondent, Jeopardy! champ.
Photo by Gerald Metz
I've been a Jeopardy! fan since the bushy-Trebek-mustache era, so I was pumped when my third attempt to get on the show finally paid off. I was a pretty successful contestant; going into Final Jeopardy, I even got to hear Alex Trebek utter the magic words: "But Andy Hermann could not be caught."
So yeah, for one game, I crushed it. My second game, not so much. The fatal blow came when I guessed Ajax instead of Achilles on a Greek literature "Daily Double" -- a $3,000 mistake. If only I had watched that crappy Brad Pitt Troy movie. I'll take Sour Grapes for $200, Alex!
Besides the difference between Ajax and Achilles, here are a few other things I learned en route to becoming a one-time Jeopardy! champion.
5. There are no stupid contestants.
Yes, even that one dude who got sent packing with negative-$4,000 probably is smarter than you. To get on Jeopardy!, you have to answer approximately a zillion trivia questions, many of them at an in-person audition with contestant coordinators barking things at you like, "Speak up! Don't slouch! Enunciate! Look like you're happy to be here!" The people who get on the show are basically the SEAL Team 6 of trivia dorks. So why do some of them crash and burn in such spectacular fashion?
4. TV cameras make people lose their shit.
The first thing they make you do on the Jeopardy! set is tape what they call a "hometown howdy," a five-second promo of you saying something ridiculous like, "Hi, I'm Jack from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. See how 'rapidly' I can rack up the bucks on Jeopardy!"
Everyone fucks this up. During mine, I fell apart in spectacular fashion: "Hi, Los Angeles! I'm Andy Highland from Hermann Park. Win me watch big on Jeopardy!"
It turns out that when there's a giant TV camera pointing at you with its beady red "On" light gleaming like the Eye of Sauron, you struggle to remember your own name, much less the capital of Slovakia. They let all the contestants play some mock warm-up games to loosen up, but some people just never get over their camera-induced paralysis.
3. They tape five shows a day, two days a week.
Although this is a pretty sweet deal for Alex Trebek, it's hell on the contestants, because there's 11 of you (two challengers per game, plus an alternate) and you have no idea which show you'll be on. Ten minutes before each taping, they pull names out of a hat, point at you and say, "You're up!" So you're on edge all day.
Once you've won, it becomes an ever tougher endurance test. If you win a Monday show (i.e., the first show of the taping day), you're looking at potentially four more shows over the next five hours. If you win a Friday show, you might have five days off to psych yourself out before you come back. In my case, I won a Wednesday show and then, amped on adrenaline, committed the classic blunder of overeating at lunch. Not that I'm blaming my loss on my digestive tract, but you try winning a nationally televised game show with half a pound of fried chicken in your gut. It's a wonder I could even keep my eyes open.
Turn the page for more things Andy Hermann learned on Jeopardy!, including the real secret to winning.
2. Being on a syndicated game show is like time-traveling back to 1993.
I'm not even talking about the set, which -- even though it looks like a '90s tracksuit -- was updated as recently as 2009. I'm talking about the glacial, pre-Internet pace at which the whole process inches along. I took the online contestant test in March or April of 2012, taped my shows in December, and had to keep my winnings a secret (I signed, like, six different nondisclosures) until April of this year, when my shows finally aired. Two more months passed before the check finally arrived. For six nervous months, I was one drunken tweet away ("I just won Jeopardy!, bitches! #SuckItTrebek") from forfeiting my prize money.
1. It's all about the buzzer.
I'm about to give you the real secret to winning on Jeopardy! Are you ready? Here it is: buzzer timing.
Ringing in on Jeopardy! is harder than it looks. Not only do you have to wait for Alex to read the whole clue, you also have to wait for the edges of the clue board to light up (you can't see this on TV). Hit your buzzer -- or "signaling device," as they like to call it -- too soon, and you're locked out for a fraction of a second, which is all the time your opponents need to steal that clue right out from under you.
So yes, you have to be smart to do well on Jeopardy! Yes, you have to not freak out under the cameras and stage lights and that baleful glare Trebek gives you when you miss an easy question. But in the end, it all comes down to a little red button. That and, in my case, some Greek literature and fried chicken.
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