SO YOU WANT TO BE
A JEOPARDY CONTESTANT . . .
You watch the show every day, and you're certain you could hold your own against the contestants you see on TV. Sure, there's a chance you might make a fool of yourself in front of 17 million people, but with thousands of dollars just waiting to be won, you're game. Do you have a shot at it? Definitely! But if you want to give yourself the best shot at getting on the show and winning a bunch of cash it makes sense to be prepared. After all, you'll probably never get to show off your knowledge on national TV again, so you should try to make the most of it.
Some people think you can't prepare for the Jeopardy audition, but that's not true at all. However, if you want to do a good job preparing for the show, there's no sense in trying out until you feel ready for it. If you pass, you might get called almost immediately for a taping two weeks from then and a few weeks of cramming just won't be enough time. Preparing for the Jeopardy test is about commitment. It might take a year, or two, or even more, but the education will be more than worth the work.
Gauge yourself. One of the most important ways to prepare for your Jeopardy audition is to start keeping score of your games. There are two reasons for this. First, it will enable you to chart your progress over time. Second, it will get you used to the idea of responding to the clues selectively. One sure-fire way to get into trouble on the audition or show is to ring in and make blind guesses at material you're unsure about, and keeping score will condition you to keep your mouth closed when it can hurt you.
Here's how to keep score: Before each show, take an index card and draw two six-by-five grids on it. Write the names of the categories over each column. When you get a question right, but a check mark in the appropriate square; when you get one wrong, put an "X"; if you pass on a question, put a dot in the square. When the round is over, cancel out every "X" with a check mark of an equal value, and then add up the values that remain. But whether you're keeping score with a machine or a card, don't count the Daily Doubles; treat them as regular clues. In other words, feel free to guess at them, and if you get one right, give yourself the value of the square; if you're wrong, count it as a pass. The reason I don't believe in wagering at home is that you want your score to accurately reflect your true performance in handling all of the material, and wagering on Daily Doubles puts too much weight on three of the 60 questions. (Oh, yeah don't count Final Jeopardy, either.) One more thing: Be brutally tough on yourself when you're scoring. Give yourself the money only if you're able to say the correct response before the contestant does.
Record your scores for at least two weeks, and average them; this will give you a handle on where you stand performance-wise. I would estimate the average Jeopardy contestant on the show would average around $24,000 if you adjusted for Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy and eliminated competition in other words, if nobody were able to beat him or her to the buzzer. (Note: The dollar values on this page reflect the current dollar values on the show, where Double Jeopardy questions range from $400 to $2,000. If you're watching older episodes on the Game Show Network, divide these values in half.) Mathematically, a group of three players with more-or-less random overlap of knowledge each able to answer $24,000 worth of material on his or her own accounts for the average accumulated sum of $38,000 to $40,000 you see on the show (again, with wagering adjusted out of the equation). For a real challenge, measure yourself against all three contestants combined in this way it's a humbling experience!
If you average under $16,000 (I averaged about $12,000 when I began which, back before they doubled the values, was only $6,000), you can either plunge in and take the contestant test again and again until you pass, or you can get to work to bring up your score. (See below.) If you can consistently score around $24,000, you have a fairly good chance at passing the test, but it certainly wouldn't hurt to bring up that average. If you can consistently score around $28,000, I'd say you have a very good chance of getting on the show. However, if you think you're prone to stage fright or if pressure weakens your ability to think or if you have an obsessive-compulsive streak my advice is to overbuild your knowledge as much as possible to compensate. (You just know most of those contestants on TV play better when they're in their comfy living rooms.) In that case, you might wait until your average is up to $32,000 or even $36,000 before you try out for real. By the way, my at-home average was close to $36,000 ($18,000 in 1996 dollar values) by the time my episodes were taped but don't let that scare you. I did it, and so can you.
Preparation. You can take two approaches to studying for Jeopardy. If you find yourself knowing most of the correct responses but have trouble coming up with them on time, you can concentrate on simply refreshing your knowledge. If some of the material is foreign to you but you have a good memory, you can learn a lot of the stuff from scratch. (This is what I did.) If you're memorizing a lot of material, you should do it systematically, and you should frequently reinforce your new knowledge by reviewing it. This can literally take years; it is not possible to significantly improve your score through sheer memorization in only a month or two. And even if you're only refreshing old knowledge, you'll find that when the moment of truth comes, the things that pop into your head the fastest are the ones you reviewed most recently. The trick is to review, review, review. In fact, I cannot stress review enough. At least half of your studying time should be spent reviewing "old" material. It may not be very fun, but trust me if anything can make you a Jeopardy champion, it's reviewing what you already know.
In terms of material, there are a few things you absolutely must know. These are, in order of importance: State and world capitals; U.S. presidents (order, years of office, and biographies); state nicknames; and Shakespeare's plays, including basic plot lines and major characters. It's a good idea to go through a book of biographies to learn about the lives of significant people, as this info makes up a huge amount of Jeopardy's material. For instance, did you know that Leonid Brezhnev studied metallurgy, or that Albert Schweitzer was an organist? You'' also want to know everything about all the world's major religions and currencies. Later, you'll want to learn which U.S. senators (notable past and present) come from which states, current and past cabinet members, world leaders, and other similar fields where there's a fairly finite set of information. In addition, you should be as sharp as possible on history, geography, literature, mythology, artists, composers, religions, and languages. These are the heavy-duty academic categories that make up much of the weight of the Double Jeopardy round. If you're weak in one of these areas, work on it, and your score will go up. You'll almost never see a Jeopardy game in which variations on literature, history, and geography don't appear in one (or both) of the rounds.
I've noticed that Jeopardy gives certain countries more weight than others in its material. These countries are (roughly in order): the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Germany, France, Australia, Russia, Italy, Spain, India, Mexico, and China. In terms of continents, North America comes first, followed by Europe, followed by South America. I've also noticed that Jeopardy rarely asks contestants for hard-to-pronounce foreign words or names. For instance, they probably wouldn't ask for the "real" name of Canton, China but if they said "Guangzhou," you should know it's the proper name for Canton.
Read lots of books, and write down the material you might need to know. Write lots of questions, and put them on flash cards or audio tapes for the car. Look for general-knowledge reference volumes on cultural literacy, Americana, and the like. Be wary of "trivia" books; Jeopardy concentrates on culturally significant material and places "lightweight" subjects, such as show biz and sports, in the first round, where there's much less money. Trivia books do contain valuable material, but you have to search for it amidst a lot of unimportant stuff. The best single book I have seen is a little paperback called On the Tip of Your Tongue by Irene M. Franck [Signet]; it contains an astonishing amount of relevant material. It's no longer in print, but if you can find it, get it. (Another excellent one, much newer, is The Cultural Literacy Trivia Guide by Steven Ferrill. It's actually written for people studying for shows like Jeopardy. -KC, 9/7/01) Pocket encyclopedias are also valuable and are easy to read cover to cover. In general, avoid books that appear to have an agenda where the contents consist of what the author considers important, rather than what society as a whole considers important.
Getting a feel for "Jeopardy scope" is very important as you prepare. For instance, Jeopardy would never ask for the atomic number of the element fermium, but they would definitely expect you to know who Enrico Fermi is so you'd be wasting your time and energy by learning all the atomic numbers when you could be learning about prominent physicists. In studying for Jeopardy, I found that while the amount of human knowledge is indeed virtually infinite, the amount of knowledge within the "Jeopardy scope" is actually surprisingly finite. Here's a model I dreamed up to explain how this works: Imagine you have a good education and a fair gathering of knowledge. Now imagine your knowledge is a sphere, like a planet. There are "shells" of knowledge surrounding that sphere, like layers of the atmosphere, each shell representing increasingly obscure or esoteric knowledge as you move away. As you travel further and further outward from your sphere, the volume of knowledge contained within the shells increases geometrically, until you reach a point where it becomes impossible for the human brain to store that much knowledge. Your job, as a prospective Jeopardy contestant, is to find the limits of that shell that separates possible Jeopardy material from the overly obscure stuff. Believe me, those limits do exist, and if you can find them you're halfway home to preparing for Jeopardy.
There's another peculiarity about Jeopardy material that can be a big help: If you watch the show regularly, you'll notice recurring phrases that give away the correct responses to clues. A lot of these consist of a nationality and an occupation. For instance, if you hear "Chinese-American architect," you can be sure the correct response will be "Who is I.M. Pei?" Here are a few others: Swedish playwright = Strindberg; Norwegian playwright = Ibsen; Norwegian artist = Munch; Danish astronomer = Brahe; Polish composer = Chopin (or Paderewski be careful); Finnish architect = Saaranin; Finnish composer = Sibelius; Indian conductor = Mehta; Yugoslav tennis player = Monica Seles; Czech tennis player = Navratolova; Welsh poet = Dylan Thomas, etc. There are a couple of other phrases that come up again and again: any time you hear "those darn" people, they're referring to the Etruscans; this is an inside-joke reference to a favorite category in the '60s and '70s version of Jeopardy, "Those Darn Etruscans." Anytime they ask for a European Duchy, it's Luxembourg. A "nonsense poet" is Edward Lear. An "ode poet" is almost always Keats. A "Round Table wit" is surely Dorothy Parker. A U.S. commonwealth is Puerto Rico. If a poet is referred to as a "lord," it's either Byron or Tennyson make an educated guess, perhaps based on the dates they give. (Byron came before Tennyson.)
It helps a lot if you can read the clue quickly just after it's revealed. I found myself developing a skill where I could scan the clue quickly for an important element while I listened to Alex reading it. I would scan for things like quotation marks; in a Literature category, for instance, all you need is the name of the book, play, etc., which is always contained within quotation marks. If you find that title right away, you can spend the four or five seconds it takes Alex to read the clue to try to remember who wrote the work. But you've got to practice a lot and learn to keep your cool to get all of these skills to work right.
Videotape the Jeopardy broadcast and watch it religiously once to play and keep score, and a second time to study the structure of the clues and to write down the big-money material you need to know. You'll find that much of the same stuff, rephrased or dressed up differently, comes up again and again. Try to get a really good feel for the scope of the big-money questions, and keep that in mind as you read and collect your material.
The audition. It's a good idea to schedule your audition for the spring or early summer; that way, if you pass, your name will be in the hopper for the entirety of the coming taping season. (Jeopardy tapes from July until February.) The audition consists of a 50-question test, in 50 different categories, with some questions much easier than others. If you pass the audition, you go on to play a mock game in front of the contestant coordinators, who watch you closely and take lots of notes. If they like you, you'll get called for the show within a year. (It took me about five months to get called.)
The show will give you most of the information you'll need for the audition, but I'll give you a few pointers. First, consider the audition a fun opportunity, not a day of reckoning that judges your worth as a person. The contestant coordinators look for people who look like they're having fun, not enduring a grueling ordeal. Second, for God's sake, do what the contestant coordinators say! At my audition, about 20 people passed the test, and during the mock game, the staff kept saying, "Speak up! Let's see lots of energy! Keep the game going!" and I was shocked to see most of the applicants mumbling, stalling, and being very unimpressive overall. In retrospect, it was pretty clear who was going to get on the show and who wasn't. Finally, be nice, cheerful, and respectful to the contestant coordinators. You don't have to kiss their butts, but understand it's your good impression that will get you on the show. (To read one prospective contestant's auditioning story, go here. To read a story from a teen who got to the last stage of the Teen Tournament audition, go here.)
The show. All the same things apply to preparing for the show that applied to preparing for the audition. I did some additional things, like playing along at home with a bright light in my face, to simulate the studio lighting. (This may have been a good idea, because the lights in the studio are somewhat distracting.) If you can, play along at home with lots of people in the room; this will put a little pressure on, and they'll be impressed with your performance, which will help your confidence.
When you're actually on the show, you really should play Jeopardy as a game and not an end-all competition. I personally can't stand contestants who constantly dart their eyes over to the scoreboard to see how they're doing. In fact, many successful contestants claim they never knew where they stood score-wise until commercial breaks or Daily Doubles came around.
Here's a devious trick I actually used successfully on Jeopardy: When contestants are selecting a category, they're allowed to abbreviate the category name to speed up play. For instance, if the category is "Presidents' Last Words," you can just say, "Presidents." Now, with some categories, you can use this rule to confuse your opponents. I had a category called "Crossword Clues M," in which every correct response began with the letter "M," but when I chose the category I would say only, "Crossword Clues for (dollar amount)." Unless they looked at the top of the category and read the full name of the category, my opponents were at a crippling disadvantage, and I smoked them. (Unfortunately, I ended up losing that game so it didn't make me any money.) Other abbreviations: Shorten "European Capitals" to "Capitals," "19th Century Authors" to "Authors," etc. Get the idea?
A lot of people want to know about wagering. I don't have much to say in this regard. My strategy was to bet big on Daily Doubles, which ended up helping me a lot, and to bet for the win on all Final Jeopardy questions, which ended up being my demise in game #3. In retrospect, I would advise for people to be a little more judicious. I had about an 80% average on DD's but only a 60% average on FJ's, so it probably would have been wiser for me to be more cagey with my FJ wagers. I was killed by the category Business & Industry, and looking back, I rarely got Business & Industry FJ's right at home so I should have bet less than I did. Your mileage, as they say, may vary. (I recommend Math For Jeopardy Players for some excellent info on Final Jeopardy wagering.)
The buzzer. Everyone wants tips on how to beat the buzzer, the device that lets you ring in. First, you have to understand how it works. You can't see it at home, but on both sides of the game board are two lights that come on a moment after Alex finishes reading the clue. When the lights come on, it's okay for you to ring in. If you ring in early, you're locked out for a half a second, allowing someone else to ring in. Therefore, you will want to push the buzzer repeatedly, so that in case you ring in early you'll have a shot at the rebound. If everyone rings in early, the clue will go to the person who pushes the button first after the half-second is up.
It's not the best idea to wait for the light to come on before you push the button, even if they tell you that's what you should do. The big winners and that includes me learned to time their buzzers so you get in an instant after the lights come on. Here's how you can work on this: Make yourself a mock buzzer. (I made one out of a large ballpoint pen with the clicker removed.) When you play along at home, try to coincide your "ringing in" with the contestant's podium lighting up. This is most effective with the lower-valued clues, where everyone knows the correct response. You'll find the contestant's podium lights up about three-tenths to one-half second after Alex finishes the last syllable of the clue. This depends on several factors, including the rhythm of Alex's speech and the reflexes of the person hitting the switch that turns those lights on. I found the only real way to practice the buzzer, though, was to watch from the studio audience, where you can see those lights so if you can make it to a taping (or if as a contestant you have to watch several shows from the audience), you'll have an advantage.
I asked 1996 $100,000 Tournament Of Champions Winner Mike Dupeé to contribute to my page with some advice about the buzzer and how to ring in. Read: How to Win on the Buzzer.
The payoff. I made enough money on Jeopardy to put a down payment on my first home, and after a couple of refinances, my mortgage payment became low enough that I was able to semi-retire at age 37. Cool, huh? I must tell you, though, that never in the process was money a factor for me. My prime motivation was to get on TV and do something impressive in front of millions of people. (It was either that or reciting pi to the 100th decimal place on Letterman's "Stupid Human Tricks"!) But almost immediately after I began studying for Jeopardy, I noticed something amazing: my knowledge was increasing in a really significant way. No, learning the state birds won't change your life but it seems I can't go five minutes these days without encountering something I learned from my Jeopardy experience, and that knowledge has broadened my understanding of the world and what people talk about. Just flipping through the TV channels the news might mention the Golan Heights ... a cooking show might mention carbonara sauce ... a nature show might take us to the Atacama Desert. Before, the stuff would have been over my head. Now, I'm right there with it, and I have a perspective that gives it all meaning. (Dennis Miller makes a lot more sense, too!) Studying for Jeopardy really did change my life and if you tackle it with anything close to the effort I gave, it will change yours as well.
Think you're ready for the challenge? If you want to apply to be a contestant on Jeopardy, go to the Official Jeopardy site. That should provide all the information you need to know. Good luck and if you end up appearing on the show, please let me know so I can cheer along at home!
If you have other questions about auditioning for Jeopardy, please read my FAQ. If you have comments about this page or would like to tell me about your own Jeopardy experience, e-mail me at email@example.com. No questions about auditioning, please! Go to the Official Jeopardy site. I am not affiliated with the show!
The author of this page, Karl Coryat, was a two-game champion on Jeopardy in June 1996, winning $42,400, including a one-day season-high total of $26,100. (This was before they doubled the dollar values.) In fact, that game put him on the Jeopardy list of top one-day winners, where he remained until 2003, when they revamped the list to no longer recognize the achievements of pre-double-value contestants but hey, he's not bitter about it. For a look at his appearance on the show pictures, sounds, and other stuff see Karl's Megalomaniacal Multimedia Jeopardy Experience.
Thanks to Jeopardy contestants Mike Dupee, Ed Seiler, Kurt Bray, Jonathan Loeb, and Burns Cameron for their help with this page.