Frontier Psychiatrist

How to Win (and Lose) on Jeopardy

Posted on: July 30, 2012

Leo and Alex Trebek

nerd definition

Let me make something clear: I am a nerd. Not one of those pickles-and-plaid, post-ironic, twenty-first century nerds either. I’m talking about a data-hungry glutton for the esoteric, a devoted slave to pedantry, a straight-up Urkelian nerd. My glasses are so thick that, were you to try them on, you’d think you were dropping acid. In the second grade, I read myself to sleep with an international book of flags. My favorite shape as a three-year-old was the trapezoid.

It should come as no surprise, then, that it has been my life’s dream to appear on Jeopardy!. Since its NBC debut in 1964, the half-hour prime-time quiz show has been a virtual cathedral of arcane knowledge, a rare refuge for lovers of fact in an opinion-driven nation. Throughout its three incarnations and nearly fifty years, Jeopardy! has served as perhaps the only medium through which the American (and occasionally Canadian) nerd can be openly admired by those who might otherwise view him as a peculiar curiosity, or perhaps even an object of derision.

Despite the promises of wealth and veneration, however, the prospect of appearing on a TV game show was fraught with potential embarrassments. For most of my youth, then, I kept the idea of appearing on Jeopardy! in the realm of fantasy. Thankfully, as the years went by, I matured into one of the lucky nerds: I grew pretty tall, girls didn’t run away from me, I entered a non-alienating profession, and I moved to a city in which acceptance of the outlier is the norm. What’s more, sometime around 2004, I learned to my surprise that nerds were in. Everyone was sporting ironic t-shirts! People were wearing glasses who didn’t even need them! Tobey Maguire was a star! My point is: suddenly those potential embarrassments didn’t seem so important. We had arrived. My time had come.

The current Jeopardy champion is hipster scum, and I can't help rooting for him.

And so, in January 2011, I began my quest. For any prospective contestant, the quest begins with an online test administered at the beginning of each calendar year. The test consists of fifty questions in fifty categories, each of which appears on the examinee’s screen for only ten seconds. A passing score renders one eligible for the next round of competition, but what constitutes a “passing score” is never revealed. Neither, for that matter, is the examinee’s own score; as we will come to learn, much of the Jeopardy! process is shrouded in secrecy. Suffice it to say: you need to get most of them right.

At this point, the waiting begins. Either the prospective contestant receives an email informing him that he is moving on, or he waits for an email that never comes. When this lengthy ordeal finally comes to an end, an invitation to a “live audition” in New York or Los Angeles is the reward. At this point we have cut a pool of over 100,000 applicants down to 1,000. Of those 1,000, I was one of the fortunate ones: as a citizen of New York, I rolled out of bed and dragged my caffeine-addled brain into Manhattan like I have done on countless other Saturdays. Residents of Minnesota and Manitoba were not so lucky, and as such the energy level was lower than might have been expected. Like me, there were many first-time applicants, but there were also those that had tried out for the show upwards of seven times, a circumstance likely related to their failure to wash their hair in the intervening years.

this guy on Jeopardy is kinda hot

The audition is the first opportunity to meet the Jeopardy! “contestant coordinators,” a group of four people (Robert, Glenn, Maggie, and Corina) who perform their unique occupation with stunning enthusiasm. Two are present at each audition (for me they were Robert and Glenn), and I am fairly confident they remember the name of everyone who has ever been on the show. They open the morning with a second fifty-question test, designed to 1) separate the wheat from the chaff and 2) dispense with any cheaters. Following this, there is a mock-game into which each of the fifteen to twenty people present rotates. Scores are not kept (or, at least, are not visible), but one encounters the famous buzzer for the first time, and the first awkward post-commercial anecdotes are shared.

This is the point in the process where one realizes for the first time that Jeopardy! is a television show. Yes, they want people who are “smart” (i.e., obsessed with minutiae), but they also want people who can follow directions and who won’t scare your children. This applies to fewer people than you might think. Or maybe more people.

Everyone who successfully completes the audition goes into the “contestant pool” for the next 18 months, although ultimately only 400 will be selected. At this point, the Jeopardy! hopeful has no choice but to wait by the phone and hope to get the call. This Beckettian nightmare began for me in April 2011, and as spring turned to summer and summer to fall, I became increasingly convinced that I had failed. Had I not answered as many questions correctly as I thought? Was I not telegenic enough? Did they choose the guy who didn’t wash his hair over me?

And then, just as I was ready to change my shampoo and start from scratch, I turned on my phone to find a voicemail from Robert. I would have four weeks to prepare before flying to Los Angeles to film. And prepare I did. Had my colleagues been aware of the energy I was putting in to studying for Jeopardy!, they would have slipped lithium into my mac & cheese. I reviewed at least three episodes a night and made my wife chart the results. I brought an almanac to work to review if a patient cancelled. I hung a list of world capitals from my kitchen wall and a list of British monarchs in my bathroom. I even learned the names of Katy Perry songs.

OH MAN THIS LEO DOUCHE ON JEOPARDY IS ALREADY PISSING ME OFF

By the time my filming day arrived (March 14, to be exact), I knew that if I lost, it would not be for lack of trying. Each filming day on Jeopardy! involves the taping of five shows, and so there are about a dozen contestants present. We all stay in the same hotel (the show helps out), and each of us wakes up to a “good luck” message slipped under our door. We then all sit nervously in the lobby at 7 AM (with our changes of clothes, in case we win) and wait for the morning shuttle to arrive. This shuttle ride is so quiet you’d think there was a librarian standing in the aisles; presumably no one wants to slip up and reveal his complex Jeopardy! strategy.

Things loosen up when we arrive at the studio and meet the coordinators. Maggie in particular is a human amphetamine, and her epic hour-plus pre-game pep talk is sufficiently energizing that it would not be out of place on an episode of Hard Knocks. While this is going on, each contestant gets a moment in the make-up chair and reviews his anecdotes with Robert. Prior to the show, we have all been asked to complete and mail in a list of five potential anecdotes for Alex; Robert has reviewed these and practices his favorites with you. Remember this when you watch Jeopardy! and think about how ridiculous the contestants’ stories are: we have not chosen them on our own. In my own case, running low on network-appropriate narratives, I had noted offhand that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was my childhood hero. Turns out, Kareem is the most beloved Celebrity Jeopardy contestant of all-time; the entire room practically orgasmed when his name was uttered. Of course, I had no actual story about Kareem, and was ultimately coaxed into two minutes of awkward encomium on the Laker great with the show’s famed host. Just know: I had a way better story about what happened when 8-year-old me tried to get a sword through German customs.

By 10:00, the pre-game prep is over, and it’s time to walk into the studio. After a few seconds of stunned and reverent silence, we’re given the opportunity to practice against each other with the buzzer, choose questions from the board, and so forth. This is the time when you decide who to be scared of. Once this is over, Robert chooses two people at random to compete against the defending champ. The rest of us take our places in the audience, and the games begin.

My dude is fierce on Jeopardy. It's obnoxious how smart he is.

The time spent in the audience watching your competitors on-stage is probably the most excruciating part of the entire experience. Every time a category comes onto the board that you know you would ace, you experience the brief torment of knowing that it will not come up during your game (here are some categories that actually arose while this psychiatrist/music blogger was in the audience: “Mental States,” “Crazy Talk,” “Phobias,” “Album Cover Art,” “On Bass and Drums”). Additionally, and perhaps even worse, you have to witness the suffering of your fellow contestants, a group of people with whom you have bonded significantly through the uniting power of anxiety.

It is difficult to explain how painful losing on Jeopardy! can be. A loss on Jeopardy! is more than a loss: it makes the loser feel like a fraud. You have convinced all of your friends, all of your loved ones, all of the network TV audience that you are one bastard, only to be revealed as a dunce in front of the entire world. There is absolutely no one invited to the show that cannot win, and yet one ill-timed question can warp one’s entire self-image. I witnessed a young man from Baltimore, a man born in the 1990s, lose his money and his pride on “Who is Alex P. Keaton?” I saw a successful sportswriter from San Jose, a man who had covered the World Series, stare into the existential abyss after losing on the category “New Olympic Sports.” In a contest in which everyone is evenly matched, chance begins to take on an outsized role. And chance is a bitch.

Chance can smile on one as well, however, and it smiled on me by selecting me for the fourth game of the day, the Thursday game. The Thursday game is the best to play, for one reason and one reason only: it immediately follows lunch. By the time the Wednesday game rolled around, I was praying not to be selected, fearful that passing out from hypoglycemia might be too hilarious for the network to edit out. One double cheeseburger later, however, I was revitalized and ready to buzz.

Go Leo! #jeopardy

I would face off against Lori Hohenleitner, a friendly non-profit worker from Jersey, and Doug Thornton, a humorous IT guy from Virginia with a predilection for Sammy Hagar pants. As you can imagine, there are few athletes within the Jeopardy-contestant population, and as a result there’s no “killer instinct” to be found. My wife had lunch with Lori’s sister and Doug’s wife, and in a way I would have been happy for either of my opponents had they won. But in another, more accurate way, I would have sold my first child to win.

With the exception of a Shakespeare category, the opening board was not particularly attractive to me. Additionally, my buzzer timing was off, and as a result I fell behind early. The buzzer system is complicated: when Alex finishes reading a question, a man offstage hits a button which activates a string of Christmas lights along the side of the board. Once the lights go on, the buzzers are active, and the first person to buzz in after the lights go on sees his podium light up. If you buzz in early, you are locked out for a quarter of a second, or, to put it another way, a quarter of a century. Your choice is to try to predict the appearance of the lights based on Alex’s voice, or to wait for the lights and hope you are fast. I chose the former strategy and was consistently early, a frustration I would compare to thinking you’ve rolled a strike and ending up with a 7-10 split. It can get to the point that you are so focused on the buzzer, you forget to read the question; many of the “stupid” answers that occur on the show result from this problem. In my own case, this error resulted in the ridicule of my seven-year-old neighbor, to whom I was unable to explain adequately my failure to answer “What is Dolphin Tale?”

Thanks to a few high-value questions, I made up some ground after the first commercial, and going into Double Jeopardy I found myself with $4400, only $600 behind Lori and Doug. The new board was a tad more attractive than the old board, and being a physician, it was a forgone conclusion that I would choose “Give ‘Em Health” to start. The questions were easy, and I know for a fact that Doug and Lori knew the answers, but I had made the wise decision to alter my buzzer strategy, waiting for the lights and counting on my reflexes. Turns out, I was pretty fast, and I began to run away with things. I dominated the health category, a category on Biblical wives, and “Lesser Known Greeks & Romans,” one of the bullshit wordplay categories that Jeopardy! always includes and that are somehow more fun to answer than the real categories (for example, I got to utter the most non-sensical three-word sentence in the history of the English language: “Who is Supercalafrajalisticexpialadocious?”).

It bears mentioning that I had no idea I was in the lead. For the contestants, the scores are only visible on a small LED board to the left of the main board, and focus on the main board is far too intense to bother keeping track. It wasn’t until late in the round, during a lengthy pause, that I finally learned I was in the lead by more than $10,000.

This dude Leo on Jeopardy looks Straight Outta Textbook

It was at this point that fate decided to punch me in the nuts and take my lunch money. I answered a question with “What is showboat?” and was ruled incorrect; Doug answered “What is paddle-wheel” and was ruled correct. Then comes the part you don’t see on TV. The contestants have a lawyer (a real one) whose primary job is to challenge the judges when questionable answers are ruled incorrect. This question was challenged on my behalf, and for the next 15 minutes the three of us stood on the stage in dead silence while the debate raged between the judges. It was at this point that I realized I had more than twice Doug’s score, that I might actually win, that I might actually win A LOT, that I might not even have to bet during Final Jeopardy. When they finally came back to tell me that they had decided in favor of Doug’s answer, I didn’t even care.

Until two questions later, when Doug landed on the last Daily Double, bet almost everything, correctly answered “Who is Baron von Münchhausen,” and pulled within $3000. I maintained my lead going into Final Jeopardy, but now I had to bet big to cover my lead. The category was “Opera,” one in which I felt fairly confident, but still my anxiety level was peaking. It turns out that, at the end of the season, questions that were never answered during other parts of the season (due to time constraints) are recycled as Final Jeopardy questions, and I’m fairly confident that’s what happened here. Suffice it to say no one answered “What is Lohengrin?” We all lost money. I lost $12,401. Just enough to keep me in the lead.

I was the champ.

Jeopardy Champion

they told me not to do this, but I did it anyway

I miss andy.  New dude is too cocky.

Now came the cool part. Following a victory, the winner has about ten minutes to go backstage, change outfits in the “Champion’s Dressing Room,” and go back out for the next game. At this point Robert, apparently an avid reader of this website despite the fact that I’d never discussed it with him (I told you, these people are amazing), put James Blake’s “The Wilhelm Scream” on the stereo in honor of our #1 album of 2011. This was without question the coolest moment of my adult life.

The second game proved far more difficult than the first. I felt a rise in confidence when “Female Lead Vocalists” appeared on the board, but unfortunately my new competitor Alison was much faster than me on the trigger, and I got shut out. I again adjusted my buzzer strategy in round two (if you’re ever on the show and struggling, remember to do this), and again staged a valiant comeback, ultimately regaining the lead going into Final Jeopardy. The difficulty level of the questions had risen significantly. By far my proudest moment of the day was answering the following Daily Double:

“He was named for a distant cousin who was aboard a sloop during the 1814 bombardment of a Baltimore fort”

with “Who is F. Scott Fitzgerald.” The clue is meant to lead you to Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, and I worked so hard on that question that I could feel the electrical current flowing through my brain. I think this is the most difficult part of Jeopardy to explain to the viewer: it feels like real work. One has to know the answer to a question about a third of the way into Alex’s reading, spending the remaining two-thirds focusing on when to ring the buzzer. Any other approach results in failure, and the level of mental energy required to sustain this approach through an entire half-hour is enough to burn off a double cheeseburger. This is what made the experience so exhausting, but also so rewarding: I didn’t feel like I was just answering questions. I felt like I was earning it, and I think everyone else who has been on the show would agree. The satisfaction is immense. But, of course, so is the disappointment.

Once the Final Jeopardy question on “Antarctica” appeared, that disappointment began to sink in. I have thought back on this question a million times, on how I could have wagered differently, on how I could have approached the question more logically, but the bottom line is that I didn’t know the answer. I lost my lead, I lost the game, and I lost most of the joy I had felt just half an hour earlier. Perversely, once a champion has lost, he is invited to the “Winner’s Circle” to engage in an interview about his experience. If you’re in the mood for something morose, watch a few of these interviews. After this I shared a cab back to the hotel with Alison (She paid; I told you we were all friends), and packed up for my flight out of town.

The disappointment didn’t last too long, at least not at high intensity. I flew to Austin that night to cover South by Southwest for this site, and it didn’t take me long to realize that I was never going to have a week like this again. After a solid week of taco-and-beer therapy, I was able to let the loss go just a little, able to appreciate that I had accomplished something unique, even if it wasn’t on the scale that I had hoped.

Fans React to Win on Jeopardy

It turns out, though, that I had underestimated the scale, in large part because I had underestimated the significance of Jeopardy! in America. While I waited for the show to air, countless people approached me to tell me that they had an uncle or a grandfather or a daughter who had watched the show every night for decades. A friend told me that, as a child, he would compete with his mother every night to determine who would do the dishes. Videos of Will Ferrell and Weird Al Yankovitch, clips from Billy Madison and White Men Can’t Jump started appearing in my Inbox and on my Facebook wall. People I hadn’t spoken to in fifteen years went out of their way to tell me how excited they were to watch. My sister made a Jeopardy! t-shirt for her 19-month-old daughter. And after all that, after over four months of waiting, I began to realize that I had been given the opportunity to participate not just in a game show, but in a true cultural touchstone, a simple show that had the odd power to connect with people from all segments of American life, a surprisingly significant half-hour of trivia. I realized that I was one lucky dude.

Since the airing, the surprises have continued to roll in. I discovered that (as you’ve seen) I was the topic of some discussion on Twitter, although not always so positive. I was contacted by The Jeopardy! Fan to discuss my experience. I was included on a tumblr called “Jeopardy Hotties,” which exists. But most importantly, I’ve received tremendous support from my friends, my family, my colleagues, and even total strangers. It has left me with a great sense of satisfaction, and a small sense of sadness that I will never be able to appear on the show again.

At least not as a contestant. Robert and Maggie, if you’re reading this, just remember: one day you’re going to need a new host. And we know there are at least a few people who think I look pretty good on TV.

L.V. Lopez is the publisher of Frontier Psychiatrist and a former Jeopardy champion. He is indeed Straight Outta Textbook.

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7 Responses to "How to Win (and Lose) on Jeopardy"

Wow this was an amazing read! Extremely well-written. I like the behind the scenes aspect to it because I’m a Jeopardy fan and didn’t know the buzzer part is like that

Great stuff Leo!! Interesting too. There’s always Wheel of Fortune!

OMG Leo ! What an amazing writer you are. Such a great read. So articulate and funny. Proud of you and glad you had a great experience.
Rachel (Low 3)

Congrats Leo!!! Awesome job on Jeopardy. E. coli! You killed it!
Hope you’re well.

So exciting to watch you on Jeopardy!! Great article! I was playing along and you totally would have had me beaten 😀

Such a great account, L.V.! I watched your games, as I was in prep for my own (I just won two; coming back “Monday” night). It’s such a weird thing to be on the show, and I had a very similar experience. I felt like a scrapper, not a natural winner, so have been glad to do as well as I did so far. So much depends on the matter of milliseconds and an answer here or there.

[…] as punk rock existentialism to radical anti-communist visual artists to Ben Affleck’s beard to Jeopardy heartthrobs to unloved vegetables—and just about everything in between—we tend to keep away from political […]

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