TV Article

Q: What's a 'Jeopardy!' contestant?

''Jeopardy'' insider secrets -- Get a sneak peak of host Alex Trebek's new book, featuring memorable contestants and their winning strategies

One downed 12 cups of black coffee minutes before airtime. Another spent a weekend reading the World Almanac aloud to his dachshund. Several have videotaped the show and practiced buzzing in by using the pause button on a remote control device. And one gentleman stopped at a church on the way to the studio to light a votive candle for luck, then found himself praying in the form of a question.

These are Jeopardy! contestants, and in the fiercely competitive world of TV game shows, they are the elite, the high priests and priestesses of trivia. Jeopardy! contestants are to game shows what the Green Berets are to the military, and like the Green Berets, they take no prisoners. Many can't get an invitation to play a friendly game of Trivial Pursuit, because they never lose. Some have Ph.D.'s from prestigious universities, are successful attorneys, scientists, or State Department officials. Others never graduated from high school; waiters and cabdrivers have been champions. Most are quick to tell you that they don't watch game shows, and have applied to appear on only one game show in their lives — Jeopardy!

To become a contestant, you are not required to dress up like a tuna melt, leap in the air, or reveal the sexual quirks of your mate. Having a genius IQ won't be enough, either, though it wouldn't hurt. To succeed on Jeopardy! it takes more than intelligence, luck, and personality, but having all three is a good start. Contestants must instantly access their memory on subjects as diverse as Howdy Doody and Shakespeare, and do so with thousands of dollars at stake and millions of viewers judging every response. These contestants must summon facts while two competitors, equally gifted, are straining to do the same thing, only faster.

And there are rewards. Most important, the satisfaction of knowing how you measure up to the best and brightest of fellow Jeopardy! fanatics. Plus cash. Sometimes lots of it. Jeopardy!'s biggest winner, Chuck Forrest, waltzed home in 1986 with $172,800 and global bragging rights.

About 250,000 people each year apply for the show. Of those, 15,000 are chosen to take the first screening exam, 1,500 qualify as contestants, and only 500 finally make it to the air.

Most contestants who qualify have watched the show for years, harboring the belief that they could do as well as anyone else. Others decide it might be a way to pick up easy money. For some, it takes a nudge to move from viewer to participant. ''My mother is the world's biggest fan of the show, and for years had been after me to try out,'' recalls Bruce Naegeli, a law library clerk from Phoenix. '' 'You should know all that stuff,' she'd tell me. 'Why are you just walking around with it in your head and not making any money off of it?' In 1987 they were doing a search in our area, so my mother called. So I wouldn't have to hear about it for the rest of my life, I took the test. I passed, got on the show, and ended up winning over $83,000. I'll never win another argument with my mother for as long as she lives, because whenever I disagree with her on anything, she can remind me of how gloriously right she was about Jeopardy!''

What I Did For Love (And Money)
You know the look. I finish reading the answer and a contestant buzzes in. The camera moves in for a close-up, and we see that blend of terror, frustration, and blankness: The contestant knows the correct question is trapped in his brain, a synapse away from his lips, but the words, at least the right words, are suddenly elusive. Many contestants have seen and heard an answer, only to have their mind play tricks on them. Like Frank Spangenberg, who holds the all-time one-week total of $102,597. ''On the show I found myself a few times giving wrong answers, and sometimes right ones, automatically,'' Spang-enberg says. ''I thought to myself, 'I know that's wrong, why did I say that?' '' Things can work the other way, too. ''There was a Final Jeopardy answer about the headquarters of Welch's Corp. in Massachusetts,'' Spangenberg recalls. ''I had no idea. But I thought, 'They're famous for grape jelly, which they make from Concord grapes. Maybe it's Concord, Mass.' And I was right.''

While many champions never cracked open a trivia book or did any type of preparation, others found that a bit of training paid dividends. ''Tournament of Champions'' winner Bob Verini says, ''I played the box game and taped the show to get down the timing of the questions. For the tournament I brushed up on categories I felt weak in. I needed to memorize the signs of the zodiac, the order of the planets, stuff like that. I was in third place going into Final Jeopardy. The only way for me to win was if I got it right and my opponents got it wrong. The answer was 'War in which Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis first met.' The question is 'Black Hawk War.' That information stuck with me when I studied because it was the only military experience Lincoln had. I got it and won the game, so my preparation paid off.''

''If you watch the show regularly,'' contends former champion Mark Lowenthal, ''you know the things you absolutely must know. And those are the things I memorized. Presidents, everything about the states, geography, Oscars. I marked up an almanac with the key stuff, and memorized it all.''

''Being able to quickly associate is more important than just knowing facts,'' counters Joel Sacks, a $51,000 winner. ''There are always clues in the questions, so you rarely have to know the particular fact. If you have a broad base of knowledge — information, rather than lists of facts — you tend to do well.''

All contestants agree, however, that one kind of preparation is Meaningful — getting ready to deal with the dreaded buzzer. Senior champ Peggy Kennedy believes that practicing the buzzer helped her win. ''My husband made me a little box so I could watch the show at home, push a button, and actually get the feel of it,'' Kennedy says.

''I think an awful lot of Jeopardy! is luck,'' says Bruce Seymour, 1988 ''Tournament of Champions'' contestant. ''The people you beat are not necessarily dumber or slower than you are. It's the buzzer and the categories, the questions. Also, I learned not to despair at the end of the first Jeopardy round, because it's nothing but a warmup. The Double Jeopardy round can turn the game 180 degrees. That's the real game.''

As much as we advise contestants to relax, it can be a pressure cooker backstage. ''Some contestants actually played trivia questions against each other in the waiting room,'' remembers former tournament contestant Eugene Finerman. ''People were trying to measure one another, or trying to create doubt in the other person's mind. One contestant tried to maintain a Zen composure. Another tried asserting the fact he was a member of Mensa. And there was a lady who tried doing a Blanche DuBois imitation, worrying that she was going to make such a disgrace of herself on the air. Of course, she turned out to be one of the most aggressive players.''

The ''A (&Q)'' team
We produce 230 shows per year, and each show contains 61 Jeopardy, Double Jeopardy, and Final Jeopardy answers; that's 14,030 answers per year, folks. Consider that Jeopardy! has 20 seasons behind it, and we're approaching 300,000 answers. We have a staff of 12 that creates, verifies, and assembles Jeopardy!'s game boards. Before an answer appears on the air, it has gone through six stages of checking.

From the inception of the show, its creator, Merv Griffin, has meant for an ideal Jeopardy! answer to be a declarative sentence: ''He was the first president of the U.S.,'' leading to an equally unambiguous response. And he intended for the material to entertain as well as inform. "I want the viewer to say, 'Wow, I didn't know that!' '' Griffin explains. "The clue should contain something odd that points the contestant in the right direction."

''We call it the 'crux and frill,' '' says editorial associate producer Harry Eisenberg. ''After all these years of Jeopardy!, the crux of an answer appears again and again, such as information about the presidents, but the frill makes it entertaining. For instance, under Presidential Ailments, we ran 'A confirmed hypochon-driac, he was in constant pain because of his false teeth.' It's a way of using an answer that we've done hundreds of times — George Washington.''

It's the show's style to ''back load'' clues. We've found it's more interesting for the viewer, and helpful to the contestant, to include the most essential information at the end of the clue. For example, on Ancient Rome: ''The first Roman circus, it was also the largest.'' Hopefully this leads the contestant to ''What was the Circus Maximus?''

Researcher Steven Dorfman adds that by starting from the top of a category, you might eliminate certain answers from the big-money windows. This can help later. The exception to not skipping around, of course, is if there is little time left in the game and you need to make up a large dollar amount. Also, if you are in doubt about a response, your first impulse is usually the correct one. Don't outthink yourself. "If the clue includes the identification 'French emperor,' '' explains researcher Kathy Easterling, ''you can bet we're looking for Napoleon. Go for the obvious and, in most cases, you'll be right.''

Originally posted Sep 28, 1990 Published in issue #33 Sep 28, 1990 Order article reprints