In Jeopardy!: The Pre-Game

The answer: To prepare for your appearance on this game show, study buzzer theory, play lots of Sporcle, and steer clear of bar trivia.

Illustration by Hallie Bateman for The Bygone Bureau

Trying out for Jeopardy! is a lot like being in the army: there are long stretches where not much happens followed by short periods of intense activity.

On a lark, I took the online test in January of 2012. It was a 50 question test, ten seconds per answer. You do not get a score or any indication if you got a question right. I felt pretty confident about half of the questions, and thought that I probably got about half of the remainder right. Sort of like the SATs.

Six months later, I got an e-mail from one of the “contestant coordinators” that I’d been invited to Boston for an in-person audition. Up until that point, I didn’t really think I had a shot at being on the show, but JetBlue had a sale on Seattle to Boston tickets and I had some friends offer me a couch for the night, so I went.

The auditions take place en masse: thirty to forty people at a time, four or five times a day. The first part is another, written test. The second part involves a mock game, where you get to buzz in while the producers tell you to use your “big voice!” and speak with “more energy!” If you have ever been graded on your presentation skills, this is not a problem. But some people wilted under the pressure.

After that, you get to practice your anecdotes. This is a bigger deal than you might think. Before you show up, you have to submit a list of at least two dozen anecdotes, and you’ll run through a good number of them during your audition. The content is not as important as, once again, your presentation. Do you speak with energy and enthusiasm? Do you know when to stop talking? Do you sound entirely “canned” or can you be conversational when the producers ask you follow-up questions?

The in-person audition is quite jarring, especially since most people just prepare for the knowledge part of things. There are a few die-hards out there who live for the show, in ways that I truly envied: joining message boards, transcribing games, and so on. If nothing else, it made them sound a lot more confident during the auditions. That, it turns out, is half the battle.

I went home to Seattle and heard nothing for five months. Then, at 3:50 p.m. on a Tuesday, right before a department meeting, I got the call from one of the contestant coordinators. Would I be interested in flying down to L.A. to be on the show?

And then she gave me six weeks to prepare.

Who is Vishnu?
Who is Gordon Ramsay?
Who are the Romanovs?

The buzzer is every contestant’s nemesis. Every message board post, every postgame interview, every book involving a Jeopardy! appearance will tell you as much. Even Ken Jennings owed his victory as much to his buzzer technique as to his enviably wide knowledge base. The point is simple: those who buzz well, win; those who don’t, lose.

There are three things to remember when buzzing in:

  1. You cannot buzz in until the lights on the side of the board light up. When Alex Trebek finishes a question, a producer hits a button to enable the buzzers. Little lights on the side of the board also light up. As soon as this happens, the first person to buzz in gets to answer.
  2. If you buzz in before those lights light up, you are locked out for a fraction of a second—more than enough time for someone to swoop in and answer before you.
  3. In short, you have to aim for a very narrow window, bordered on the front end by the enabling of the buzzers by the producer, and on the back end by the reflexes of your next-swiftest opponent.

For all the known aspects of buzzer mechanics, there is no magic formula to the buzzer, as there is for, say, the most common categories or the most rational way to wager. Some people will tell you to time your buzzes based off of the moment that Alex Trebek stops speaking, based on the assumption that you and the buzzer-enabler will think Alex is done speaking at the same time, but your reflexes will be a bit slower than his or hers. Others will tell you to look exclusively at the lights. The producers are apparently always adjusting things, so the advice someone gives you for one season may not be correct for the next.

This is maddeningly frustrating for people, like me, who think of Jeopardy! as purely a knowledge game, not a twitch game. It adds uncertainty and luck. And it is a huge unknown, in the way that, say, the list of American secretaries of state isn’t.

How do you prep for it? Well, decide which method you want to train with, and practice with a clicker pen. I chose to time my buzzing off Alex.

But just in case I was wrong, I also decided to work on my reflexes. The best way to do this? Practice at stop lights. Your goal should be to hit the gas pedal as soon as the light turns green, and always faster than the car next to you.

What is Uncle Tom's Cabin?
What is the Jordan?
What are Teddy Bears?

After a certain point, bar trivia does not help you prepare with the knowledge part of things. You are not going to need to know the population of New York City to the nearest ten thousand or the names of the entire cast of Saved by the Bell. It generally rewards specialized knowledge, collaboration, and patience, which are exactly the sorts of non-telegenic virtues that generally don’t appear on Jeopardy!

I only found bar trivia to help me in one respect: managing frustration. There are plenty of things that can annoy you at trivia nights. Your friends, for their incompetence, their second-guessing, or the fact that they are just not as competitive as you are. The MC, for not grading fast enough or mumbling or coming up with dumb questions.

The question that faces you in those situations is simple. Do you give vent to your frustration, thus making everyone annoyed with you and potentially spoiling what is probably supposed to be a nice night out? (In my experience, most teams would answer “yes” to this.) Or are you Zen enough to let go and just focus on the next question?

What is freelance?
Who is Scheherazade?
What is a lever?

Sporcle, Sporcle, Sporcle. I cannot stress that enough. Sporcle quizzes get you into the Jeopardy! mindset better than anything else.

It’s tempting to approach your study program like you would study for a final exam. But Alex Trebek is not going to ask you to list at least three factors that contributed to the start of the Civil War, or make you write an essay on symbolism in Dracula. Your answer will turn on a phrase or a word, or sometimes even a single letter—and you will have to regurgitate these bite-sized pieces of information on demand, and within a strict time limit.

This is what Sporcle does. The right depth of knowledge, the right size of answer, the right amount of time pressure. Apart from SAT study guides—I’m really not kidding—this was the one thing that helped me prepare the most.

And my last bit of advice? Tune in on Thursday, June 27, when I’ll be on the show. You can see if any of this stuff actually worked out.

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.