As told by a two-time champ.
In October 2014, I won two episodes of Jeopardy! and I learned a lesson I’ll never forget: Once you go on the show, you end up talking about it for the rest of your life.
I won $38,801 (pretax) on the holy grail of trivia games, and since then, it’s formed the basis of about 80% of conversations I have with friends, family, dates, enemies, former classmates, dogs, strangers, and co-workers — and I love every minute of it.
It turns out that people have a lot of questions about the Thinking Man’s Wheel of Fortune© (sorry), and a) their questions are usually the same, and b) I can answer them for hours.
So at the risk of running out of things to talk about with new people I meet, here are answers to some of the most common questions I get about being on Jeopardy!:
3. Anyone can take the online test, and the audition process is pretty straightforward.
Honestly, one of the first things people usually ask is “Ok, but were you on ~adult~ Jeopardy!?” The second thing they’ll ask is, “How do you get on the show?”
Basically, it’s a two-step process. Step one is signing up to take an online test that happens once a year, usually sometime in January. You have to answer 50 questions in 15 minutes, which gives you very little time to think twice or double-check answers. I took my test at work around 7:30 p.m., and it was a blur, though I do remember feeling pretty confident after it ended.
Once it’s over, there’s…nothing. They never tell you your score, and, if I recall correctly, there’s no follow-up email, either. But if your score is above a certain percentage (I’ve heard it’s around 80-85%), you get put into a pool from which names are randomly selected for the second step. And that step is…
…the in-person audition. I took the online test in early January and got an email about an audition in mid-April. In case you’re counting, that’s enough time to completely forget about taking the test. When I got the email, I actually fell off of my chair. After that, Jeopardy! consumed all my waking thoughts.
5. That’s because, before your audition, you have to come up with your “fun facts”.
You know the ones — they’re the questions Alex Trebek asks during the interview portion of the show. They’re usually incredibly uncomfortable to sit through. If you end up on air, you’ll have had your tidbits stored away and ready to go for a long time, which makes it all the more shocking how awkward those conversations end up being.
Before the audition, you fill out a huge form with personal information. It prompts you for crazy vacation stories, how you met your significant other, funny celebrity encounters, the list goes on. And the producers ask you about your facts during the audition, so at that stage of the process, thinking of a gem that’ll really make you stand out is more nerve-racking than actually knowing trivia.
Ultimately, I felt like my stories were pretty mundane. During the audition, I remember people talking about owning pig farms, meeting spouses on airplanes, and having bizarre landscaping fails (Alex Trebek loves home improvement stories) and feeling thoroughly unimpressive in comparison.
7. The actual audition is actually really fun.
The legendary pen.
Most auditions take place in generic hotel conference rooms like this.
A-day (aka audition day) for me was at a nondescript hotel in Washington, DC, with about 100 other nerdy strangers. After producers went over the ground rules, they split the group into two rooms to take a written test (ostensibly to corroborate online scores) with a Jeopardy! pen you get to take home — and use as a buzzer when practicing on your own. The real fun started when they did a mock show with clues on a projector screen and had us compete to see how well (read: quickly) everyone might buzz in and answer on the show. They also asked about the “fun facts,” and…that was it.
I was by far the youngest person there, and everyone was dressed impeccably, as expected. During the downtime, people swapped stories. One man had auditioned three times; another woman had taken the online test four times before finally getting called for an audition.
At the end of the audition, producers tell everyone that there’s an 18-month window during which you may get a call to go on the show, but there’s no guarantee that you ever will. Chilling. I got the call three weeks later, asking if I was available to go on Jeopardy! in four weeks. I said yes without checking my calendar first.
9. The show doesn’t pay for your flight or hotel.
Big studios like Sony (which produces Jeopardy!) seem loaded, but realistically, they can’t bankroll everyone’s mini vacay to Southern California. I had about a month after I got the call to book a flight and room at their recommended hotel, from which they run a shuttle to the studio on the morning of taping days. To be fair, they technically kind of pay for these expenses — second-place contestants get $2,000 and third place finishers get $1,000, so depending on how you do, you can make up for transportation costs with your winnings.
Also, they do your makeup (can’t have those bright lights turn us all into Richard Nixons), but they do not do your hair. I got mine professionally styled before the show, mostly for America’s viewing enjoyment. You’re welcome.
11. Everything is taped in one day.
Jeopardy!’s filming schedule is basically the dream: They tape five episodes a day, two days in a row, and then they take two weeks off before doing the whole thing all over again.
On the actual tape day, you get to the studio at the asscrack of dawn (OK, 8 a.m., but whatever) and spend most of the morning filling out paperwork, getting your makeup done, practicing your hometown howdies and little stories to tell Alex Trebek, acquainting yourself with the competition (who were all lovely and brilliant, in my experience), and doing practice rounds with the buzzers.
The actual taping takes about 15 minutes, give or take, depending on how many retakes are needed for technology malfunctions or contested answers. In other words, it speeds by in the blink of an eye. If you win the episode, a producer whisks you offstage the second the cameras stop rolling, and you have about 10 minutes to change, get your makeup retouched, and get re-mic’d before hitting the stage again.
All of that means that you’re advised to bring at least two outfits to change into in the off chance you win one or more episodes. In a moment of poor planning and “realistic” expectations, I packed one and a half outfits, which I shoved into a purse, much to my mom’s dismay. Everyone else had garment bags. Sorry, Mom!
13. The order you compete in and your standing position are totally random.
The producers pick names out of a hat to see who gets to compete on the first episode of the day; if your name isn’t chosen, you sit in the audience and watch everyone play, which I can only imagine is fucking nerve-racking. I wouldn’t know, because I was chosen for the first episode of the day, aka the “Monday” episode.
And for standing position, the champion always stands on the left (if you’re looking at the TV screen). I wish I could say there’s some kind of power move involved with standing at the middle podium, but in reality, it’s based on numbers you draw out of a hat.
15. You definitely don’t know the questions or the categories in advance.
MANY people have heard the false rumor that producers tell you which categories to expect in the greenroom. So many, in fact, that I heard it and believed it before I went on the show. But no, those babies are under lock and key — writers create six sets of questions for each week of shows, and then an outside company comes in to choose a question set at random before each episode begins.
17. It’s so much harder being onstage than watching at home.
Armchair contestants playing from the “fourth podium” are positive that they would do so much better than those noobs on TV. I know because I used to be one of them. I can’t speak for everyone who’s been on Jeopardy!, but when I took my place at the podium just before the first episode began, I was shaking so much that my knees knocked together. There I was, on that stage. Looking at that board. Seeing Johnny Gilbert in his little booth. Standing on a platform that was elevated to compensate for my 5-foot-tall stature, where I could see my family out there in the audience, waiting for me to put on a hell of a performance. Holy crap. The game itself was a complete blur.
What I do remember is that the buzzer is your best friend and your worst enemy. You’re supposed to buzz in during the sweet spot after Alex Trebek finishes reading a clue, but before lights on the side of the game board flash. But actively trying to do that while thinking of the correct answer and remembering to phrase it as a question is a tricky little game in itself. Add in the glare of studio lights and the invisible pressure of your family in the audience? Forget about it. Eventually, you get into a rhythm, as I did about 10 minutes in. But there’s nothing more frustrating than knowing the correct answer and then seeing someone beat you on the buzzer by a fraction of a second, and that can happen at any point in the game. Grr.
Also, a lot of the time when no one buzzed in on a clue, I did know the answer — or I was 90% sure I knew it — but I didn’t want to buzz in in case I was wrong. There’s money and pride on the line! In retrospect, I should’ve buzzed in whenever I thought I might know the answer, because you’re always guaranteed to leave with more money than you came in with, but alas.
19. It’s exhausting.
Combine lack of sleep, not enough breakfast, and a fiesta of nerves, and you have a recipe for a full physical and mental shutdown. The first episode began taping around 11 a.m., about three hours after I arrived on the Sony lot, and by the time I set foot on the stage, it all felt surreal. I attribute most of my success on the show to luck, good timing, and some sort of mysterious backup energy source.
There’s a learning curve during the first episode, but in some ways, that was my best performance, because the sheer exhaustion hadn’t kicked in yet. I was able to quickly jump to correct answers and trust my instincts because they were so fresh. I was fearless. By the second episode, the adrenaline wore off a bit and my mind slowed down; by the third, I was getting really easy questions wrong that I would have nailed if they’d come up earlier. When you see a contestant make a truly harebrained mistake where even they look ashamed, it might be because it was their third or fourth episode of the day.
In addition, the clues stay in those small boxes on the board, so you have to squint and hunch over to see them from your spot across the stage. That was definitely a contributing factor to my overall fatigue by the time I lost after three episodes.
21. Wagering is maybe more important than knowing a ton of trivia.
This is something I really wish I’d considered more carefully before going on the show. Everyone hopes (or even hunts) for Daily Doubles, but what’s the point of getting them if you bungle your wager? One of my wise older sisters, who is far more adept with numbers than I, tried to guide me toward a wise wagering strategy, bless her heart. She offered what she thought was some sage advice: When in doubt, go big or go home. What my sister meant was that you should bet big if you are confident in the category or just want to have some wild and crazy fun.
I, of course, forgot about the first part of her advice when I landed on a Daily Double during the first taping. I’ll let this clip tell the rest of that story.
Video available at: https://youtube.com/watch?v=kSlnrxqX4sU.
UUUUUUUGHHH. Going into the question, I had $23,600 — $10,800 more than Shawn, my next-closest competition. In a category I wasn’t confident in, with two clues left, I should have bet $2,001 to ensure an insurmountable lead if I was right, and not waste too much money if I was wrong. But I did not do that. NOPE! I blew an enormous lead at the very end of Double Jeopardy because…$10,000 seemed like a fun number? I really don’t know. I do know that I almost gave my family individual, simultaneous heart attacks. And that this is still painful to watch.
Needless to say, you should definitely pay attention to contestants’ wagering strategy, and consult sites like The Final Wager to learn from other people’s (read: my) mistakes if you’re going to be on the show.
23. You will be shocked by what you remember in the moment.
I studied a lot between the time I found out I was going on Jeopardy! and when the big day arrived. I watched old episodes, made flashcards, practiced “Pavlovs,” and scoured J-Archive and JBoard, all of which were immensely helpful at sharpening my recall, at the very least.
I generally brushed past things I felt familiar with in favor of trying to learn about operas, ancient gods, and poets. And guess what? None of those came up! In retrospect, a little refresher on the things I knew well would have been really helpful. In the heat of the moment, what you actually remember is random shit you’ve unconsciously had stored away for years.
Watching the episodes when they first aired, I was shocked that I spat out correct answers to questions like these:*
“This collective title of James Fenimore Cooper’s five novels about frontier life includes a kind of legwear.”
“This 1830s Secretary of War has a popular Christmas flower named for him; his name doesn’t end in ‘ia.’”
“This English card game popular in the 18th century is an ancestor of modern bridge.”
I wish I had an interesting reason why I knew all of those things, but the only explanation is that stray facts stick to my brain like lint.
*Those answers are The Leatherstocking Tales, Joel Roberts Poinsett, and whist, respectively.
25. You remember everything you get wrong and almost nothing you get right.
This is a common adage among former contestants, and it’s so true. Many of the questions I didn’t answer or got wrong were things I had learned at some point, but hadn’t thought about in a while. For example:
“‘His madness being stronger than any other faculty,’ he ‘resolved to have himself dubbed a knight by the first person he met.’”
“Hummingbird feathers adorned the ceremonial robes of this early 16th century Aztec emperor.”
“In the 1520s this founder of the Jesuits was twice imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition.”
Those answers are Don Quixote, Montezuma, and St. Ignatius, respectively. I know who they all are; I even read Don Quixote (missing that question in Final Jeopardy still kills me). The good thing is that I’ll never get those wrong in trivia again.
27. There are lots of tape delays and glitches.
The magic of television is real, y’all. During taping, questions don’t appear on the screen, Alex Trebek fumbles over his words, and contestants challenge wrong answers. I guess I was naive going into the show and assumed everything I saw on TV was exactly as it happened, but it’s not — thankfully.
29. You don’t get much time with Alex Trebek.
This is another very common query. Trebek is the benevolent, all-knowing sage you want him to be, but the only interactions I had with him were during the mid-show Q&A and the little postgame huddle you see during the credits. During those times, though, he was as chatty and engaged as you could expect someone who meets at least 10 people a day to be.
31. Doing taxes is a bitch.
No, I’m not complaining about winning a bunch of cash in a span of less than two hours. I am, however, pointing out that filing taxes in two different states is frustrating, not to mention time-consuming, if you’re like me and do them on your own. Plus, it’s true what they say about game show winnings getting taxed up the wazoo.
I got my winnings check three months after my episode aired, and that was already missing the 7% state of California withholding. Federal taxes took another 30% of the winnings. Again, not complaining, but it’s worth knowing if you think winning a million dollars means you can accurately call yourself a millionaire.
33. There will be creepers.
I prepared for a lot, but I was 100% unprepared for how many people would crawl out of the internet woodwork once my episodes aired. During the first episode, one of my friends noticed that a lot of people were tweeting about or at me. Many were nice. Most of them, though, had observations about my appearance, which ranged from benign compliments to ridiculous declarations or vulgar statements about my body.
I was amused at first, but then I sort of wanted to scream. I worked my butt off to compete on one of the nerdiest TV shows that exists, and all you can focus on is what’s under my (high-necked, billowy) shirt? What does it take to rise above virtual catcalls? It didn’t taint the experience, by any means, but it was a side effect of putting myself on national TV that I didn’t expect — and I’m certainly not the only woman who has experienced this.
There are statistically pretty few 24-year-old women who go on Jeopardy!, but with the date and marriage proposals I got (on LinkedIn, of all places), you’d think I was the first ever. A year and a half later, I still get Facebook messages and Instagram comments from strangers which fall more on the side of creepy than flattering. At this point, I can laugh about it and only feel a teeny bit violated.
35. It’s ridiculously fun.
Every time someone tells me they’re thinking about taking the online test, I strongly encourage them to do so. It was a lifelong dream of mine to be on the show, but I put off applying for a long time just because I figured I’d do it when the time felt right. I never had a lightbulb moment, but there came a point when I realized Alex Trebek wasn’t going to be around forever, and why put off the chance to play the ultimate trivia game any longer?
I’m so glad I did it when I did — I stepped out of my box, got to share a special life event with my parents, and went home with a sick Jeopardy! baseball cap. I went into a little withdrawal after it was over, knowing I’d achieved a lifelong dream, and I had to take a break from watching the show for a while. But after that faded, it was all good, and meeting fellow former contestants and swapping stories makes everything feel as fun and exciting as it was the day I stepped into Sony studios. It was a thrilling roller coaster that, in some ways, I still feel like I’m riding.