Looking back at my emails, I realize that nothing Jeopardy!-related happened in the rest of 2015, except that I began preparing for the show in earnest. The next time I saw my trivia teammates Chris and Lisa, each handed me a bagful of books from her own Jeopardy! studying, and my history colleague Rob gave me an old paperback student atlas and a pile of slightly outdated but still useful AP history prep books. The copy of The American Nation below was my daughter’s eighth-grade history textbook, and her AP European History prep book from tenth grade is on top of the same pile. Chris included a laminated periodic table of the elements, which you can see below:
So how do you prep, exactly? Everyone has a view on this, from Bob Harris’s reports of highly regimented cramming (in his great book Prisoner of Trebekistan, which is well worth reading even if you’re just a casual viewer) to the airy claims of some winners that they didn’t prepare at all, really. My suggestion is to begin with Karl Coryat’s invaluable page of advice, which led me to try to get a clear sense of how much I knew by keeping track of my Coryat score (the total value of questions I could solve, not including wagers) when playing games on the J-Archive. (Install the Chrome plugin–it makes playing the games through much faster, and it keeps track of your Coryat for you!) I was able to see that my knowledge was a reasonably good match for that of most three-player groups–my Coryat was rarely very far off from the players’ combined Coryat score.
Playing a lot of games on J-Archive was what I did most often and most consistently. You can play a game pretty fast (in about 10 minutes) if all you’re doing is clicking through clues as fast as you can read and think of the answer, and it makes a nice break when you’re in front of the computer working anyway. You’re only exposed to authentic Jeopardy! material, and you’re getting practice with the categories, question types, and the sometimes unusual ways that questions are framed.
However, with all those study materials, and with an unknown number of months between me and The Call, it seemed practical to study, too. I decided not to try to deliberately acquire knowledge in categories far outside my strengths (e.g., sports) and instead to try to retrieve, refresh, and build on knowledge I’d already acquired once. I read some of Chris and Lisa’s books because I enjoyed them. If I read a review of a book that seemed germane to the studying process, I’d put it on hold at the library. I thumbed through nearly every book in Kenneth C. Davis’s Don’t Know Much About… series, including Chris’s (or Lisa’s) copy of Don’t Know Much About Anything, the ultimate distillation of stuff you’re supposed to know but don’t. I discovered some books I’m glad I read, including Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements by Hugh Aldersley-Williams (which I didn’t finish and must get back to sometime soon) and Brainiac by Ken Jennings.
Karl Coryat also succinctly recaps the things “you absolutely must know”:
State and world capitals; U.S. presidents (order, years of office to within a half-decade, and general biographies); state nicknames; and Shakespeare’s plays, including basic plot lines and major characters. How much you need to know about one thing depends on how significant that thing is, so you need to know more about Abraham Lincoln and Macbeth than Martin Van Buren and Titus Andronicus…
You also want to know all about 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 (notable) past cabinet members, major 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. In most Jeopardy games, you’ll see a variation on literature, history, and geography in one or both of the rounds.
Two enormous bouquets of thanks to the Los Angeles Public Library, which allows patrons to have up to 30 items at home at once and which has a fantastic citywide hold system that works fast and sends books to whichever branch your want, and to the volunteers who built and update the J-Archive. Both of these resources, completely free, gave me hundreds of hours of access to material.
How much time did I actually spend on preparing? I wish I’d kept track! It’s a bit like when someone asks me how long it takes me to write a poem, though. I often remember the moment that I began, and I may remember the moment in which I’m sure it’s finished. In between, it’s hard to say. There may be a month, or three, or six, or a year, in which I’m thinking about it, returning to it for bursts of concentrated attention at some times, at others simply on the lookout for a change about to happen in it. Maybe Jeopardy! studying was more like writing a book of poems, when the project simply runs next to me like a river–even when I’m not immersed in it, I can still hear it and know it’s there. From July 2015 onwards, I was more on the alert for things to know than before. I read books and newspapers and magazines with a bit more purpose, scavenging for possible relevance. I irritated my friends and family by applying the same scavenging instinct to casual conversations. I used online quizzes to help build my geography knowledge–Google any region of the world and “map quiz” and you’ll get some great options. And I played game after game on J-Archive.
Chris told me that I’d probably serve as an alternate before actually getting on the show on a different tape date; it’s what happened to her, and Lisa, and nearly every Los Angeles-area contestant I have met. I got The Call in mid-January, 2016, to be the alternate for the Teachers Tournament in late February.