Slouching toward Jeopardy!, part 10: The Call

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 studying, and my history colleague Rob gave me an old paperback student atlas and a pile of slightly outdated but still useful AP history prep books.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: piles of books

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.

Posted in Jeopardy!

Interlude: “Whitney Houston, we have a problem”

Did you watch on Wednesday, May 3?  Did you notice the $600 question in the category “Aye Aye, Admiral”?  Years after he was booted from the Bounty, he achieved the ranks of rear and vice admiral.*

I really like this piece, “Inside the Jeopardy! Writers Room,” from the show’s website.  It gives a peek into the process by which the show is written and highlights the creativity, cleverness and consistency of the show’s writers.

Just a week to go until my episode on Thursday, May 11!  I’m basically shoveled out from the blizzard of Napa Writers’ Conference emails–if you haven’t heard from me, it’s because I’m waiting for a response from someone else before I can reply to you.  This weekend, I’m hoping to cover 2015 and 2016 so that I can blog about the taping of the Teachers Tournament as the tournament itself begins to unfold, starting Monday.

*Answer: William Bligh.


Posted in Jeopardy!

Slouching toward Jeopardy!, part 9: audition room redux

My second crack at the audition room, in July 2015, was actually quite similar to the first one except that I went in determined to be effervescent and wasn’t infected with anything (except charm!). All I remember about the written test is that there was a mutiny on the Bounty question. When I returned to school in the fall, I mentioned to my Australian colleague Dan that Jeopardy! seems to be mad for the mutiny on the Bounty, and he thoughtfully filled me in on Pitcairn Island’s more recent history, including a number of disturbing facts that will never, never be Jeopardy! questions.  (All that information about serial killers that I absorbed as a child from The Book of Lists and The People’s Almanac is similarly useless in this context.)

It could have been the same hotel–it could have been the same room, just with gaudy hotel carpet of this decade rather than the last.

We came up three at a time to the buzzer bank, practiced ringing in and answering questions, and nervously watched the contestant coordinators flip through our paperwork.  This time, when Glenn asked what I’d do with the money, I said I was a poet and I’d like to build a tiny house in our backyard to write in and to have writer friends come to stay in while they were working on their books.  Which is true–this time I just left out the part about how it would probably wind up in the college fund.  And when he said, “You’re a teacher?  A full-time teacher?  For how many years?  Would you be interested in playing in the Teachers Tournament?” I said, “Um, I guess so.  I mean, I sure would!”

Posted in Jeopardy!

Slouching toward Jeopardy!, part 8:

There is no part 8.

Just kidding.  Actually, I have just finished sending out emails to all the people who applied to the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference by the priority deadline of March 31.  We had a lot of applications, which is great, but I could not offer everyone a place at the conference, which is not, and I had to disappoint a lot of people today.  So I’m in a restless frame of mind that is not soothed by thinking of the people who were probably made happy by being offered places in one of the four poetry workshops.

I always want to tell the people I have to reject that I do get how lousy it feels, and that it’s not personal, and that it’s not even a commentary on their work.  Most years, I am receiving my own rejections for summer writing residencies around the same time I’m sending out the Napa emails.  (In fact, I’m expecting one any day now.)

AND HERE’S THE KIND OF SEGUE I COME UP WITH AT 10:30 PM:  Did you know that about 100,000 people take the Jeopardy! online test every year?  And that only a few thousand are invited to in-person auditions in Los Angeles and a handful of other cities (which are changed up from year to year)?  Talk about impersonal rejection!  I know a lot of people, including some pretty formidable trivia players, who have been trying to get on for years.

So I know there was some luck involved when, flush with six months of successful pub trivia nights in which I more or less held my own against a couple of past Jeopardy! champions, both of whom encouraged me to try out, I signed up for the online test in April of 2015 and actually made it through to a live audition that summer.

You might get lucky, too.  The online test is being given again at the end of May and the beginning of June.  You register, and then you’re allowed to log in on one of three consecutive nights–whatever time works best for you; they’re being offered at 5 P.M., 6 P.M., and 8 P.M. Pacific time.  This page has pretty much everything you need to know.  The test launches and the 50 questions appear one at a time, at the same time for everyone taking the test in the same time slot.  You have 15 seconds to type your answer into a box–not in the form of a question, and spelling doesn’t count as long as they recognize the answer.  The next question follows automatically, and 12.5 minutes later, you’re done.

I took the test by myself and wanted to keep track of my correct answers without having to pick up a pen, so I put a pile of paperclips by my right hand and each time I got a question right, I flicked a paperclip to the other side of the desk.  When the test was over, I’d flicked 42 paperclips, which seemed like a solid number of right answers.  No one outside the show knows what the cutoff number is or if it changes from one online test to the next.

You can actually look at one set of those questions on the Jeopardy! Facebook page–they are in the Photos, but you have to scroll down to get to 2015.  There are also videos online of people filming themselves as they take the online test.

The next step is the in-person audition.  Auditions seem to be held in the summer, when the show is on hiatus and the contestant coordinators are able to travel.  If you’re the obsessive type, you could start following the conversations on the JBoard, where people discuss the game and also share news about all stages of the contestant experience.

am the obsessive type, but I didn’t obsess about this particular part.  Really quite uncharacteristic of me, but then I generally tend to obsess about things about which I have at least the illusion of control.  I figured I’d either hear or I wouldn’t.  (Those are the choices, right?) And I did: in early June 2015, I got an emailed invitation to attend a live audition in Los Angeles in mid-July.

Okay, off to bed now.  Audition next.

Posted in Jeopardy!

“Bee 1” in the SF Chronicle “State Lines” column

Poet David Roderick’s lucid words about my poem “Bee 1” make it a particular delight to have a poem in Sunday’s newspaper.

Posted in Uncategorized

Slouching toward Jeopardy!, part 7: Constantly risking absurdity

On, now, to the recent past!  In the summer of 2014, my friend Christine (a four-time Jeopardy! champion) mentioned that a pub trivia night was starting up at a recently opened bar and grill conveniently located between our houses.  We live about five miles apart, which in the San Fernando Valley is practically next door.  One night we gave it a whirl, with her husband, Len, and my husband, Matt, meeting for dinner and staying to play.

There were only a few teams playing that night, and we won handily.  We started going pretty regularly, most often with Lisa, a five-time Jeopardy! champion, and Gillian, a college friend through whom we met Lisa, Chris, and Len, but sometimes adding more folks: another college friend, Bret, and his wife, Maria; sometimes our daughter, 14 at the time; sometimes she’d also bring a friend.  If we were going to be more than six (which is typically the limit on team size), we’d try to get at least eight or nine so that we could field two competitive teams.  We didn’t win all the time, but we usually placed in the top three, and the prize was usually a gift certificate for the next time, so we’d keep going back to the same place.

If you’ve never played pub trivia, the way it usually works is that the venue sponsors some outside company to come in and run the game.  Teams play for free; it’s the revenue on their food and drink that pays for the entertainment.  In many cities, including here in LA, companies like King Trivia and Geeks Who Drink run games at multiple venues almost every night of the week (with few or no games on Friday and Saturday because that’s when the venues don’t need the help).  This article has other suggestions, and there’s also the independent and very long-running pub quiz at O’Brien’s in Santa Monica, which is famously challenging, written by longtime participants, and full of Jeopardy! players.

The specifics vary, but in general all pub quizzes share a few characteristics:

  • Teams give themselves silly names.  When we play with any group that includes Chris and Len, we generally bill ourselves the Human Targets in homage to one of Len’s creations, the Action Comics character Christopher Chance, a.k.a. Human Target.  That’s very low on the silly end.  Shortly after we started playing pub trivia, Matt played Fluellen in a production of Henry V, and he and I began using the name Fluellen’s Leek, silly for a Shakespearean name but not that silly overall.  Here’s a King Trivia rankings page: Westeros Baptist Church, Only Here for the Pokestops, and Bed, Bath, and Beyoncé are all good examples. (Basically, pop culture, current events, and puns.)
  • The game is run by a quizmaster, who emcees, reads the questions, scores the answer sheets after each round, cracks jokes, and deals with troublemakers.  The quality of the questions matters, but the quality of the quizmaster is at least as important.  If they can’t deliver the material, the game falls flat.
  • Games have multiple rounds, some of which are a mix of general knowledge questions–what Jeopardy! calls “potpourri”–and some of which have themes.  There are usually one or two “picture rounds” where you have to identify multiple images on a common theme, like “people with a connection to Kansas” or “TV show bosses.”  Questions are worth points, the quizmaster keeps track, and at the end there are prizes for the top three or four teams.

I wrote a multiple-round trivia game once when Len was recovering from surgery and couldn’t get out to trivia.  It took about eight hours to put together an even halfway decent game and gave me a great appreciation for the people who write them on a regular basis.  I was proud, though, of the picture round, which was “Statues in Southern California.”  I included the scary Lucille Ball statue in Palm Springs (which isn’t as bad as the one they replaced in her hometown of Celoron, New York), the Jackie Robinson one at his eponymous UCLA stadium (there wasn’t yet one at Dodger Stadium–that just happened this month!), Jack Benny, Will Rogers, Tommy Trojan, and these, which you may recognize (answers at the end of the post):man in suit jacket holding hands with someone we can't see

The really great thing about pub trivia, even with Jeopardy! champions like Chris and Lisa, pop-culture savants like Gillian and Len, and Shakespeare-expert Matt (on whom we also rely for sports trivia since the rest of us know almost nothing and he at least knows a lot about baseball) on your team, is that everyone generally has a chance to contribute.  There are some things that everyone knows, some things that a few people know, and some things that only one person knows, and when that person is you, it feels great!  And because the nature of trivia is that everyone knows some things that most other people don’t know, everyone gets to be that person, whether it’s because they were obsessed with rocks as a kid or loved the movie Blade Runner as a teenager or lived through the Watergate hearings or are in high school right now and therefore can name even one person who could legitimately be called a “YouTube star.”  Whatever particulars of time, interest and chance gave you the specific bits of knowledge that you have, in a well-written trivia game you will probably get to use some of them.

Which is also true of Jeopardy!, as I’ve mentioned.  Sometimes only the 8-year-old knows the answer, sometimes only the retiree, sometimes only the person who had a Lebanese grandmother, sometimes only the person with that really weird hobby.  I’m not a gambler, but there’s definitely something addictive, something just-one-more, about being asked trivia questions.  Don’t you think so?

Picture IDs, top to bottom: Walt Disney (that’s Mickey’s gloved hand he’s holding), Amelia Earhart, Al Jolson, John Wooden.

Posted in Jeopardy!

Slouching toward Jeopardy!, part 6

There are a dozen reasons I’m glad I didn’t go on the show fifteen years ago instead of this year, but one of them is this: I wasn’t remotely ready to risk the embarrassment.  Pretty much nobody gets out of Jeopardy! without:

  1. answering a question wrong (on national TV)
  2. making an unflattering face (also on national TV)

It was #1 that bothered me more than #2. It’s actually also embarrassing to admit it–that I was afraid to make a mistake where people could see.  Because a) I make mistakes all the time, and b) I am a teacher, for goodness’ sake–part of my mission in life is to make people feel that it’s safe to make a mistake, to write something incoherent, to say something that doesn’t make any sense, to totally misunderstand a concept–because if you are afraid of these things, you can’t learn very well.

I remember how immediately and permanently I adored my college German teacher–a woman who would leap onto the table to illustrate jumping auf den Tisch, and stand there and stamp her foot to show that now she was auf dem Tisch–when she announced the first day of class that we would all make ridiculous mistakes, and we would laugh at them, because you cannot learn a language without looking ridiculous!

And yet.  Going on Jeopardy!, I felt, would be tantamount to announcing to the world, Hey, I’m good at this!  I know the answers to all these questions!  Which is a perfect setup for falling on your face.  You don’t know the capital of Montenegro*? Guess you didn’t know as much as you thought you did, smartypants!

Jeopardy! is particularly scary this way because, again, the pool of knowledge is wide but shallow.  Of course, no one knows everything.  But you really should study world capitals.  And state capitals–probably more important than world capitals.  And American presidents–Jeopardy! loves American presidents.  And Canadian provinces–don’t get the Maritimes mixed up! And this year’s and last year’s Oscar winners.  And Grammy and Emmy and Tony winners.  Oh, and definitely study up on your Latin and Greek roots; those come up a lot.

There is no stopping place.  There’s always something else you could learn.  Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote Franklin Pierce’s campaign biography.  (They were students at Bowdoin College together.)  While that’s a well-known fact among those who study 19th-century American literature, I didn’t learn it until the second or third time I taught The Scarlet Letter.  And I didn’t know that Hawthorne died while on a trip with Pierce, at an inn in Plymouth, New Hampshire, and that Pierce found Hawthorne dead in bed, until just now, when I went to fact-check this entry.

One of the great things about Jeopardy! is that having multiple paths to the answer, and potentially learning something new from the question, makes the game far more interesting than a simple quizzing of facts would be.  They’d never give the clue: “He was the author of Franklin Pierce’s campaign biography”–unless, perhaps, the category was “Initials N.H.” or something similarly clue-providing, and even then, there would probably be more paths to access.  A search of the J-Archive turns up several iterations, actually:

(1986) AMERICAN LITERATURE, $200: He penned a campaign biography for Franklin Pierce and pinned “The Scarlet Letter” on Hester Prynne

(1990) HAIL TO THE CHIEF, $600: Nicknamed “Handsome Frank,” he had college chum Nathaniel Hawthorne write his campaign bio

(2000) AUTHORS, $100: In 1852 this “Scarlet Letter” author wrote a campaign biography for his friend Franklin Pierce

(2016) FRIENDS, $1600: Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a campaign biography of this college pal, later the 14th U.S. president

(Note: Clue values have risen over the course of the show.  The current values–in which the first-round board clues range from $200-$1000, and the Double Jeopardy! round from $400-2000–started in 2000.)

They could just as easily have used COLLEGE FRIENDS: Nathaniel Hawthorne met Franklin Pierce at this college in Brunswick, ME (What is Bowdoin?).  Actually, that would be a fun category**:

In Dunster House: Future VP Al Gore and actor Tommy Lee Jones

Thanks to Mike Dupee (

This question (which has also come up in a few different iterations) is actually pretty low on the embarrassment scale.  If you don’t get it, you don’t recognize the name of the residential house (whatever) or you don’t read People magazine (who cares).  It would be embarrassing if you were known among your friends as a Tommy Lee Jones fan, or if you’d claimed to have known Al Gore in college, but otherwise, no.  So let’s add to the list of ways to embarrass yourself on Jeopardy!:

  1. answering a question wrong (on national TV)
  2. making an unflattering face (also on national TV)
  3. answering a question wrong that you “should” have gotten right
  4. mispronouncing an answer that you “should” have known how to pronounce
  5. misspeaking–the correct answer is in your head and something different comes out of your mouth
  6. answering a question so spectacularly wrongly as to show everyone that your ignorance is even broader and deeper than anyone imagined
  7. answering a question wrong that you REALLY “should” have gotten right, as in something about which you are an insufferable know-it-all, or something people actually pay you a salary to know something about
  8. struggling to ring in and jerking about like a marionette with an incompetent puppeteer on the other end of the strings
  9. getting flustered, guessing wildly, and driving your score deep into the red
  10. looking and sounding like an utter tool when having the “chat” with Alex after the first commercial break
  11. betting high and losing on a Daily Double
  12. not betting enough and failing to take proper advantage of a Daily Double
  13. going into Final Jeopardy behind someone who has a runaway (i.e., more than double anyone else’s score and can’t be caught)
  14. betting badly in Final Jeopardy
  15. writing the wrong answer in Final Jeopardy and standing there on national TV with your wrong answer displayed below you in a tipsy scrawl that looks nothing like your real handwriting
  16. #15, but in a category that is 100% in your wheelhouse
  17. #15-16, but with a question that you actually DO know the answer to, you just couldn’t find your way to it through the clue (which happens all the time in FJ)
  18. losing by a dollar
  19. losing by many, many, many dollars
  20. losing

(Don’t forget to add “on national TV” to #3-20!)

And guess what!  At least half of these things did happen to me on the show!  But by the time I actually went on, I had made my peace in advance with nearly all of them.  Looking back, I was far more conflicted when I first auditioned.  I’m not even sure I 100% wanted to go on Jeopardy! then.  So I’m glad I didn’t.

*Podgorica, known from 1946-1992 as Titograd. What, you didn’t know that?


Posted in Jeopardy!