Thursday, July 15, 2004

And the answer is...Jeopardy!

Ever since Ken Jennings began his million-dollar run on Jeopardy!, people who know of my history as a past champion have bombarded me with questions about the secret of Ken’s success. I hate to disillusion those who equate Jeopardy! with rocket science, but it’s no big secret: Ken obviously knows a lot more of the answers than the people he’s playing against, and he’s also faster with the signaling mechanism. End of story.

The defending champion on Jeopardy! always has a tremendous advantage over his or her challengers, because that little electronic signaling button is the key to the game. In my original run as champion, I played against several people who were very knowledgeable contestants, but who lost because I’d already played with the signaling mechanism and had the timing down pat. When I returned a couple of years later to play Super Jeopardy!, a different show staffer was assigned to operate the signal unlock, and several of us returning champions struggled to adjust to the new person’s rhythm, myself included. (For those who don’t pay close attention to such esoterica, the contestants’ signaling buttons are locked until host Alex Trebek finishes reading each answer. When Alex utters the final syllable, a Jeopardy! staff person manually enables the electronics, allowing the contestants to ring in.)

The toughest player I ever faced was a master of that signaling button. In 1998, I was invited, along with two other past champions, to play a Jeopardy! exhibition game at UC Berkeley, to coincide with the show’s College Tournament being taped there. Both of the other players, Leslie Frates and Dr. Beverly Spurs, were incredibly talented players who’d been very successful in their championship runs. They also had a decided advantage over me in that they’d both been on the show fairly recently, while my championship was by then ten years in the Wayback Machine. Leslie had a genuine knack for operating that crazy little button — demon fast. I could barely get a question in edgewise for the first round and a half. I managed to pull out the game in the end, but only because Leslie misplayed a couple of Daily Doubles and cost herself on the scoreboard. She was easily the better player on stage that night, despite the end result.

The other night, one of my chorus colleagues was giving me my daily Ken Jennings grilling, during which I answered for the umpteenth time the same battery of questions I’ve been answering for years about my Jeopardy! career. Just to settle the record so I never have to answer these questions again, I’m establishing the following FAQ.

When were you on the show? The five games I won aired the first week of June 1988. (We actually taped them on a Monday and Tuesday in March of that year, just as a major screenwriters’ strike hit Hollywood. Jeopardy! was unaffected, because the show’s writers didn’t belong to the writers’ union — they were classified instead as "researchers.") I also played in the 1988 Tournament of Champions, winning my quarterfinal game and losing in the semis. In 1990, I was one of 36 former champions who played in a special tournament called Super Jeopardy! that aired on Saturday nights throughout that summer. (I played miserably in my only SuperJ! game, thank you very much.) As I mentioned earlier, I also played in a one-game special event in 1998 called Jeopardy! Battle of the Bay Area Brains, which only aired in the San Francisco Bay Area.

How much did you win? My five-game total was $52,098 — a pittance in the modern era in which the dollar values of the questions have been doubled from what they were when I played, and when a champion can continue to play an unlimited number of games instead of being forced into retirement after five consecutive victories. But back in the day, anything over 50 grand was considered stellar. The Jeopardy! Web site still lists all of the champions who won $50K or more, and there I am, down near the bottom of the list. (In anticipation of your next question — it was sixteen years ago, so yes, we’ve already spent all the money. Nice try.)

How did you prepare for the show? As shocking as this will sound, I didn’t. I watched the show every day for about two months and played along, but I didn’t wolf down encyclopedias and World Almanacs or anything. I figured that anything I didn’t know already, it was probably too late to learn.

What was your best category? I don’t really recall. I think the only category I ever ran from top to bottom was something obscure like "State Postal Abbreviations." Most of the subjects that would have been my theoretical areas of specialty — things like baseball, Bible, comics, and so on — never came up, and I only drew a rare movie or TV-related category. But Jeopardy! knowledge is really only half about what you know; the other half is being deft at unearthing the clues in the questions that will lead you to the correct response. I’m pretty good at solving word puzzles, so I often did well in categories that would have appeared to be outside my realm of expertise.

What was your worst category? I never did particularly well at fine arts material. I believe I had at least one "Ballet" category and one "Opera" category, and I’d be shocked if I answered one question between them.

Do you have your appearances on video? Yes, somewhere, though I couldn’t tell you for sure where in the house they are now. (Again, it’s been sixteen years.) The last time I watched any of them was before the 1998 show.

Do you keep in touch with the people you played with? You’re kidding, right? Here’s what I can tell you. The guy I unseated as champion is an actor named Jack Koenig; if you watch many TV shows that are based in New York (i.e., Sex and the City, the various iterations of Law & Order), you’ve probably seen Jack turn up in a supporting guest role now and again. The guy who won my TOC, Mark Lowenthal, later co-wrote a book about being a Jeopardy! contestant — I have a copy somewhere. Some friends of mine know another of my TOC classmates, a fellow named Ron Triguiero, and say he’s a nice guy – that corroborates my brief experience with him. That’s the extent of my Where Are They Now? for today.

What was that TV Guide article about? A few years back, Jeopardy! incurred some headlines when Dr. Maya Angelou said in an interview that she never watched Jeopardy! because they never had any people of color as contestants. When that quote hit the news wires, TV Guide — along with numerous other media outlets — pressed the show’s producers for comment. Somewhere in one of those conversations, someone on the Jeopardy! staff gave my name to TV Guide as the most successful past Jeopardy! champ who fit the "of color" designation. A very nice reporter from the magazine interviewed me by phone, and a couple of my remarks made it into print. (After the ruckus, the Jeopardy! folks bent over backwards to encourage more "people of color" — as opposed, I guess, to "people of transparency" — to apply to become contestants, taking out ads in various ethnic publications and conducting contestant searches at some of the historically black colleges in the Southeast. No, I have no idea whether Dr. Angelou watches the show now.)

Do you still watch Jeopardy!? Hey, I know who Ken Jennings is, don’t I?

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1 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Anonymous Anonymous offered these pearls of wisdom...

Fascinating insight into "how to win on Jeopardy." Good to know if I ever find myself in the contestants chair...I'll work on the hand-eye thing...borrow my boys' Gameboys. What can I say, it's an honor knowing you! TMOT

7:07 PM  

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