Entertainment

This Book Covers Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About 'Jeopardy'

Claire McNear, author of 'Answers in the Form of Questions,' tells VICE why winning contestants need good buzzer skills and better luck.
November 10, 2020, 7:00pm
alex trebek on the set of jeopardy

There are a lot of things that you don't learn about Jeopardy until you're sitting in an aggressively air-conditioned studio in Culver City, California, holding three days' worth of clothing and wondering whether any of the other contestants know more about famous tapestries than you do. 

For starters, the crew films five straight shows on a single weekday, which is why everyone is instructed to have a couple of extra shirts with them when they board the shuttle bus to Sony Pictures Studios. If you win your episode, you jog backstage to change into 'the next day's' outfit and to blot 22 minutes' worth of sweat off your face. Then you're right back on the set, taking your spot at that first podium and acting like you didn't spend years practicing how you'd write your name if you ever got this chance. 

It's been a little over 10 years since I was on the show, and my heartrate still quadruples when I think about what it was like to stand on that stage. I somehow beat one of the game's greatest-ever players, a six-time champion whose five-day total and single-game scoring records both lasted until James Holzhauer Daily Double-ed his way through them last spring. (My own winning streak lasted for either 22 minutes or four Eggland's Best Eggs commercials, depending on your preferred unit of measurement.) 

I hadn't thought about some of the taping-day details—the bathroom chaperones, the pre-game buzzer practice, the hydraulic adjustments to ensure that every contestant looks like they're about 5' 10"—until I read Claire McNear's just-released book, Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider's Guide to Jeopardy!.

McNear, who also writes about Jeopardy for The Ringer, gets as close to the game show as you can without having to, say, remember Calvin Coolidge's vice-president or what the capital of Cameroon is. In addition to talking to super-champions, third-place finishers, and determined would-be contestants for the book, she also had the opportunity to interview the inimitable Alex Trebek. The longtime host and North American icon died on Sunday, more than a year after being diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer. 

Jeopardy has continued to tape new episodes during the pandemic—Trebek's final appearances were filmed in late October—and it has remained an unshakeable source of normalcy during a year that has been anything but. Last week, VICE called McNear to talk about the show's continued appeal, its three GOATs, and about what you should do if you've always wanted to stand on that stage, frantically trying to remember who Ambrose Bierce was.

VICE: What made you decide to write an entire book about Jeopardy? 

Claire McNear: I cover a mix of sports and culture [at The Ringer] and I like to joke that Jeopardy is the exact place that these things intersect. It's a TV show that, if you squint at it, is absolutely a sport, in my opinion. But I grew up with Jeopardy. My family wasn't religious about it, but it was always in the background, which I think is the case for a lot of people who grew up in the U.S. When my now-fiance and I moved in together, we got cable, and it felt like this incredibly grown-up thing to do, to watch Jeopardy every night, to shout the answers at the TV, and to bicker about who got more right. I started writing about it because there are these regular moments where something on Jeopardy will go viral, and as I started peeling back more layers and meeting people in that world, I kept discovering new depths to it. That just made me more interested in writing about the show. 

Were you ever worried that it would affect the way you felt about it? 

It has definitely been a thing where, for a lot of the last year, I've been really in this Jeopardy book world and haven't been able to keep up my nightly Jeopardy habit. There have been days where I've written about Jeopardy for 12 hours and I'd think, I just cannot look at that show right now, I just can't do it. It's been wonderful to write about something that I love, but there have definitely been days where I just could not actually watch Jeopardy. 

When other regular, dedicated Jeopardy viewers read the book, what do you think they'll be the most surprised to learn about the show? 

What I was really surprised by, and impressed by, is the extent to which Jeopardy really is a lifelong dream for a lot of contestants. The people you see on any given episode, the odds are really good that they've dreamt of being on that stage. They've probably spent years trying to get there, taking the online test, or maybe they've had a lot of auditions and this is a multi-decade quest for them. That kind of approach is the norm, and it heightens the stakes of the game, because you know that two of those players [in every episode] are going to lose. Most people who go on Jeopardy don't win a game, but it really is such an important thing in a lot of people's lives. 

Yeah, saying 'I was on Jeopardy' does seem to turn into this big, serious thing for former contestants. 

One of the questions I wanted to answer in the book is just, why is that the case? Because there is harder trivia, there is more competitive trivia. You know like, why is this game show just this thing that people are so obsessed with? I think it's a combination of the nostalgia of it—people have grown up with Jeopardy and everybody's got a Jeopardy story—but it's also so ingrained in American television, and American culture more broadly that it carries this respectability with it. If you hear somebody say they were on Jeopardy, it still has this instantaneous kind of currency, even if they didn't win a bunch of games, or win a million dollars, or even if they didn't win at all.

You mention this in the book, but it's not about the money, either. Contestants on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire can win so much more, but that doesn't have the same game-show gravitas that Jeopardy does. 

Yeah, there are probably like 20 people who have gotten Truly Rich from Jeopardy. You don't go on the show to get rich. It's for bragging rights, to say 'I've been on that stage,' not necessarily that you were the one who took home $8,000 on that random Wednesday. 

After talking to such a wide range of contestants, what do you think is the most important quality for a Jeopardy Champion to have? 

That's tricky, because there's so much going on at once. The actual trivia knowledge is the fundamental thing, but the buzzer is really the trickiest part of it. You don't really get a sense of how hard it is when you're just watching an episode. I think it was Ken Jennings who said that the vast majority of the time on Jeopardy, all three players know the answer to any given clue, it's really just a matter of who can buzz in first. 

I had no idea how many people cosplay as contestants in their homes before they tape their episodes, or how many make replica buzzers to practice with. 

That's part of why I wanted to do this book now, because I think in the last five years, there's been this semi-professionalization of Jeopardy contestants. In those first decades of the show, maybe you picked up an almanac, or watched that week's episodes and that was your preparation. Now it's really becoming the norm to do these really extensive and challenging training regimens, where you do try to shave off thousandths of seconds from your buzzer reaction time, or you memorize the exact formula to tell you what to wager in Final Jeopardy, or you know where exactly the Daily Doubles are probably going to be. Even though we're in this era where contestants are really practicing specifically for the buzzer, rigging their own homemade buzzers and timing their speed, they really don't know until they're up on the stage if they've got it or not. Maybe you've got really good rhythm, maybe you don't, or maybe the person next to you is just on fire on that one random day. 

You went way back into the archives and talked to some old-school champions, and you also included Ken [Jennings] and James [Holzhauer] and Brad [Rutter], the Super Champions who a lot of people know by their first names. This is probably a difficult and unfair question, but who would you say has been the most impressive? 

That's so hard to say, because with a game like Jeopardy, you don't really get to see players go head-to-head very often, which is what made the Greatest of All Time tournament so cool. We got to see Ken, James and Brad—the most dominant current players—face off like that. It's hard to make a case for anybody who is not one of those three from the GOAT tournament, because they are just head and shoulders above pretty much everybody else who's ever been on the show. I wish we could see [1990 champion] Frank Spangenberg, the NYPD cop, come on the show now and see how long he could've taken his streak [now that contestants aren't limited to five consecutive wins]. But as Ken has often said, Jeopardy really is a young man's game, which is why he has kind of retired from play. It was wild to watch Ken and James face off in that GOAT championship, because they're both so sharp and so good on the buzzer. 

Do you think that anyone will ever touch Ken's 74-game streak or James' $2.4 million in 'regular' (non-tournament) winnings? 

Those are two such exceptional records, and don't think I would've believed in 2004, or even in 2019, that either of those records could've been set in the first place. James' 32 straight victories got part of the way to Ken's streak, but that really feels like the one that isn't going to fall down. Just playing 74 straight games is, in and of itself, such an exhausting thing. He was living in Salt Lake City at the time and he would fly out to Los Angeles every week for two days and then go back home, go back to his job, and not tell anybody what was going on. I guess I think that we might see somebody win more money-per-game than James Holzhauer someday, although even that's hard to imagine, because he was averaging more than $30,000 per game. That's crazy. 

Finally, what advice would you give to any would-be contestants out there? 

This is such a cliché thing, but what the contestant coordinators tell each day's group of players is that so much of whether you win and how you do is dependent on luck. There's the luck of the categories, if it happens to be stuff you know or stuff one of your opponents knows. It's the luck of, even if you spent six months drilling yourself relentlessly on how to use the buzzer, did you train yourself to do it exactly the way the guy who sits just off the Jeopardy stage does it? It just turns so heavily on luck. I talked to so many players whose experience on Jeopardy didn't go the way they hoped: maybe they only won one game, or they didn't win at all, and they're just heartbroken, because this is a lifelong goal for people. But I'm fully convinced that it is, in a large part, a product of luck, and just getting to Jeopardy itself is so impressive that I can only be amazed by it. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.