Thursday, February 26, 2009

Jeopardy: the invitation and studying

The last time I blogged in detail about my Jeopardy experience was late last winter, after my audition. I felt good about my chances, but had been told that if I had, indeed, passed the written contestant exam, I'd be on the active list for 18 months, during which time I should not call to check on my chances, nor should I re-audition.

So I got busy keeping my Jeopardy expectations low. In the Spring, Melissa and I bought our house and I changed firms. In early December, I got a call on my cell during my commute from work to mentoring at Homework & Hoops, an after-school program ([you] should volunteer, by the way; drop me a line). Robert from Jeopardy was calling to ask me some questions. Did I still live on Harriet Ave? No. Did I still work at [my former employer]? Nope. Was I at least still with Melissa? Very much so, thank goodness. Was I interested in coming out to Los Angeles in late January to try to win some money? A stupid grin spread over my face. Absolutely! He told me to call him back when I wasn't driving to work out the details.

Those close to me know I had a worried several days after that, as I was unable to get ahold of Robert to confirm. In the meantime I had proceeded to tell anyone who’d listen that I was going to be on the show. I didn't want to lose the opportunity by either not following up or being That Guy who calls back all the time. After having left a message, I decided to wait. Nerve-wracking. On Friday he finally called me back and gave me the details. My taping date would be January 27th and/or 28th. If I wasn't drawn to play on the first day, I'd be guaranteed a spot on the second. Five episodes would be taped each day. The first one or two from the first day would air starting on March 9th, then the remainder would pick up on March 25th following the airing of the Tournament of Champions, being taped in Las Vegas in January.

One of the most common questions I've gotten about the process is whether the people at the show (The Powers That Be, or TPTB, borrowing a term from the Jeopardy message boards) tell you what to study, or what the categories are. They don't. What you’re supposed to study is Everything. Sort of.

There is a bunch of good information online and in print from former contestants about how to prepare for the show. To begin with, I reread Prisoner of Trebekistan while Melissa and I were in New Orleans just before Christmas. I'd read Bob Harris' book on the recommendation of a college friend. It is funny and well-written, and filled in a lot of information about the show. However, his approach to preparing for the show depended somewhat on not being employed, so I knew I couldn’t be that hard-core about it. I also knew that I would drive myself insane if I tried to cover everything.

Former champion Karl Coryat's article on how to prepare scared the crap out of me. His list of what you absolutely need to know is very long and intimidating, but does an excellent job of delineating what the high-value targets of study should be. He also includes many good examples of what Harris calls "one-to-ones." If a Jeopardy clue refers to a Finnish composer, they're asking for Sibelius, a personal favorite. A bog fruit is always a cranberry. Etcetera.

I decided to put together a Jeopardy notebook, that the act of copying information into lists, tables & synopses would be more effective for learning than just reading. You can check it out for yourself. Click here to see the guts of the book (2MB).

Most of this information I got from Wikipedia, cross-referenced with print as necessary. I also decided to focus on areas of study that I had a pretty good grounding in, but could stand to brush up. So I concentrated on US and world history and geography, primarily, with some other stuff thrown in. I made lists of presidents and their elections/ascensions, Vice Presidents, current world leaders, UN Secretaries General, Shakespeare’s plays in order of writing with major characters and short summaries, English and British royal houses and monarchs, and major Prime Ministers. I printed blank maps of the continents and filled in nations & capitals, seas, bays, straits, and lakes. I wrote out a periodic table of elements. I went a little overboard with my Greco-Roman mythology review (pp. 42-46). I also printed Coryat's article and taped it in the back of the book.

Around the same time, I was in the process of re-ripping every single piece of music in my collection from CD to put on my iPod, which gave me a good opportunity to review 19th- and early 20th-Century composers. I also put together a short Jeopardy playlist of such high-information-density songs as Monty Python's "Oliver Cromwell," the state capital song from Animaniacs, "James K. Polk" by They Might Be Giants, and other flashbacks to high school. As a result, I had "Mammal" stuck in my head for weeks.

You'll notice that on my to-do list, two large items never got crossed out: Literature and Art. So it goes. A few items I considered but decided against, including Roman Emperors and Empires (Roman vs. Holy Roman vs. Eastern or Western), Nobel Prize winners, Popes, and so on. I may continue to expand the book with topics that pique my interest. Gotta come up with Weeklypedia quizzes somehow, after all.

Next Jeopardy blog: Strategery, or: Don't Hate the Player, Hate The Game


Anonymous said...

If I ever get called, I fear I will take the lazy approach of, "Hey, I already know everything worth knowing" and not study at all. You are an inspiration :-)

Nora Rocket said...

That would be my approach too: if I don't already know it, or know enough to "know" it and *ring in first* (which I picture as the greatest difficulty), I cannot possibly learn it in the time before taping. But, your planning could prove me very, very wrong. I am SO tuning in for your show.

Fred said...

The ring in first part was a big part of the idea. I knew I had a lot of information bouncing around in my head. Like African nations and capitals. I feared, though, the delay between clue reveal and answer retrieval would kill me. It was important to get my head used to accessing this information. And I knew lots of names and ideas from, say, British Royal history. But I wanted to sort them into a correct working order.

Jack said...

Good stuff! Thanks for posting!

Anonymous said...

I just had my audition yesterday in Chicago and am now "in the pool" for the next 18 months. I'm totally printing your notebook - and am very impressed. Did you actually memorize all of that stuff, like the periodic table, or did the writing just help you learn it?

Thanks - patrick

Fred said...


Congratulations on your audition! Are you on the message board yet? My handle there is fbeuks.

Anyway, I didn't really memorize all of this, but as you suggest, the hand-copying was intended to reinforce by re-exposure, muscle memory, visual learning, whatever you want to call it.

Based on my show experience, I highly recommend covering some art. I'd say the same for literature as well, but I still have little idea of how to approach such a damned big topic.

prakul Chandra said...

The link to your book is not working anymore. Can you help please ? Thank you.

prakul Chandra said...

the link to your book is not working. Can you help please ? thank you.

Fred said...


My hosting arrangement dried up, so I've tried sharing the pdf of my notebook on Google docs, and have updated the link above. See if that works for you.


prakul Chandra said...

Thanks for updating it. Really appreciate it.