This is Part II (and spoiler-free) of a larger series about my experiences preparing for and being on Jeopardy! Click below for Parts I, III and IV.
So how did I prepare for being on Jeopardy!?
In short, I studied – a lot. I mean, A LOT. I worked on my buzzer strategy – a lot. I mean, A LOT. I figured out wagering strategy. I studied more. I watched old episodes, reruns, and every night. And I studied more. I did everything I could to give myself the best possible chance.
Here are a few of the ways I got myself ready.
1. I pretended to be on the show – and noticed that “getting clues right” and “winning the game” were often two different things
I’ve watched Jeopardy! on and off for many years, but once I got an audition, I started watching the show every night and reruns. When I got the call to be on the show, I watched more episodes online. But here’s the thing – when you watch the show from the couch, all you’re thinking about is, “Do I know this or not?” If you get a clue right, especially if it’s one that all the other contestants missed, you might even think, “I could totally kick butt!”
I started to feel that way, too. In my mind, I was hearing, “And, our returning champion, Geoff Mitelman, whose 15-day cash winnings total…” But then I remembered – everyone who gets on the show has to pass not one but two very difficult 50-question tests. So you’ve got to assume for any given clue, at least one and maybe two other players know it, too.
So I started pretending that I was playing against other players. I downloaded “Jeopscore,” a free app that allows you to keep track of your score. And I varied how I often I pretended to ring in on a clue if I thought I knew it. I used my right hand to count either “1 or 2” (sometimes “1, 2 or 3”) to count whether I “rang in” or not. If I was on a “1,” I pretended I had rung in, if not, I didn’t give myself credit for that response. If someone got it wrong, and I got it right, I gave myself credit for the rebound. And, of course, if I got it wrong on my ring-in, I deducted the points. Finally, I pretended I hit the Daily Double only if I had control of the board at that time.
One thing I realized quickly was that luck was a huge part of it. Even if I knew a bunch of clues, I still might not win, especially given the role of the Daily Doubles and the Final Jeopardy! category. Yes, I won a lot in my practice games. But there were a lot of times people bet big and locked me out. Or I hit the Daily Double, bet big, and lost. Or I was in second or third going into Final, and the leader got it right. Or I had a decent lead (but not a lockout) going into Final, and got it wrong when someone else got it right.
It really taught me some humility, and gave me the excellent mental and emotional preparation needed to accept a loss. I realized that I could play a great game, and if one or two things went in a different way, that was it. All I could do was practice and study.
2. I re-learned how to learn, and discovered how to cram a ton of facts into my brain really quickly.
One thing that’s often said about Jeopardy! is that they cover all sorts of crazy subjects, and they do. But there are some categories and clues that come up more frequently than others. If you’re going to study something, “American Literature” is much more likely to come up than “1000 Foods to Eat Before You Die.” Since I had limited time and limited mental bandwidth, I needed a way to prioritize what to study.
I started with a Sporcle quiz to see which categories that were most likely to come up. I noticed that, in general, they focused predominantly on geography, history, literature, wordplay, art, and classical music, with special focus on the US first, Europe second, Asia third, Australia fourth and Africa last. So what I needed to do was to look at the categories I was both (a) worst in and (b) most likely to come up.
I felt pretty good about history and wordplay, but noticed that I would get Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky confused, or what Jane Austen wrote and how she connected to Jane Eyre (if at all), or Keats vs. Yeats, or Robert Frost vs. Robert Burns, or who was an impressionist and who was a post-impressionist, or whether Mozart or Beethoven wrote “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” or where exactly the Danube and the Rhine flowed.
So I picked a category – let’s say, “American Literature.” I then said, “OK, who do I need to know about? Who do I get confused or don’t know what they wrote?” I used Secrets of the Jeopardy! Champions and Google searches to discover who or what were most common — Eugene O’Neill, for example, was more common than Edward Albee.
So sticking with Eugene O’Neill, I knew he wrote stuff, but not much more than that. So I looked him up on J-Archive (the amazing database that lists every clue and category in the show’s history) and saw what kinds of clues came up about him – The Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Mourning Becomes Electra, Anna Christie; the only American dramatist to win the Nobel Prize; Jack Nicholson played him in “Reds.” And I then made images to help me envision all of his plays.
I then bought the Anki app, a flashcard program that Roger Craig (the single-highest one-day winner) and Arthur Chu had used, and applies what’s called “spaced repetition.” If you know a fact well, it comes up infrequently; if you don’t, you see it more frequently. And it worked – more and more things started to stick.
I got my American lit and American geography down. I looked at longest rivers in the world, and capitals of nations. I learned British writers, French impressionists, and Italian opera composers. I studied explorers, military battles and classic movies. It was a lot of work, but as I studied more and more — and discovered that I was getting more clues right when I would watch the show — I felt more and more comfortable.
By the way, one helpful thing is knowing “unique answers.” If they ask about a Finnish composer, for example, it’s going to be Sibelius. A Norwegian playwright is Ibsen. A Mexican painter is Rivera (if male) or Kahlo (if female). These “one-off” answers don’t come up as often as say, Dickens or Shakespeare, but they can definitely be helpful.
Now, some people will say that the buzzer is the key to the show, and yes, it is critical. But if you can get the clues other people aren’t getting, the buzzer becomes less important. You get the rebounds other people don’t get. You’re more likely to get control of the board. And most importantly, unlike the buzzer, the studying is something you can control.
But let’s talk about the buzzer for a minute.
3. I turned the buzzer into muscle memory
At one point in December, my mother-in-law was staying overnight. She went upstairs and then came down, and said, “Why is the toilet-paper holder missing?”
Alex Jacob, winner of the 2015 Tournament of Champions, had mentioned that the toilet-paper holder was what he used to practice, and it worked great for me. It allowed me to get it into muscle memory. You might know that you can’t ring in until Alex is done reading the question – if you ring in too early, you are locked out for about a quarter-second. If you ring after someone else, they beat you to it. So it’s important to get used to hearing Alex’s intonations. I’m lucky that I’m a fast reader, so I would read the clue, know what my answer was, and then get ready to ring in at the right time. It’s hard to describe, but if you can practice with the buzzer, you won’t have to think about it.
The most valuable piece of prep, though, was the feeling that I was really, really ready. I knew that I might or might not win, but I felt that however I went in or out, would feel great about how I played, and that my practice gave me a good sense of confidence.
If you want to see other great suggestions for prepping, take a look at Keith Williams’ site “The Final Wager” to learn critical guidance about wagering, this piece from Karl Coryat and this piece from Neville Fogarty.