Saralee Etter writes Regency romances and Victorian mysteries, and also helpful articles on real-life topics.
How it all started
“You were on Jeopardy? Wow, you must be smart! I could never do that.”
I’ve been hearing that a lot lately.
However, two of those three statements are not true: Yes, on January 2 and 3, 2018 I did appear on the long-running TV game show, Jeopardy! But I don’t think I’m all that smart, and many people could be Jeopardy! contestants, if they chose.
It’s easy to think that Jeopardy! contestants are born, not made. That some people just know a ton of little-known facts and have lightning-like reflexes. But my appearance on the show didn't happen by accident. Like any other goal, being a contestant on Jeopardy! mostly depends on how hard you’re willing to work for it.
Start with the Online Jeopardy Test
Like many people, my husband and I watch the show almost every night of the week. So when host Alex Trebek announced that the show was offering an online test as the first step toward being a contestant, we both decided to take it. Why not?
Later on, I learned that about 70,000 people around the country took the online test when we did, at the end of June 2017. I believe the test is offered every year.
Next Step - The Regional Audition
A few weeks later, I got an email inviting me to a regional audition in a town about a three-hour drive from our house. I was thrilled. The regional audition would take place in about one month from the time I got the email, so I began to prepare.
After I eagerly accepted the invitation, I scurried off to the local library. First, I found every book and video on the game show. Then I moved on to general knowledge.
“Help me!” I begged the librarians. “I’m going to try out to be a contestant on Jeopardy. What should I study?”
The librarians loaded me down with almanacs, atlases, and resources of all kinds. I read, and took notes, and researched online. Lists of US Presidents and Vice Presidents. Ken Burns’ Civil War and Vietnam War series. Grammy winners and celebrities. Mnemonics and mind palaces. It’s cool—I enjoy learning new things, which is the key to being a trivia buff.
Preparing for the Chat
Every contestant on Jeopardy spends a short time chatting with host Alex Trebek, and telling a good story is important. Part of the regional audition involves chatting with the contestant coordinators. To prepare, I spent some time coming up with stories about interesting experiences I have had in my life.
What stories are best? I would say, talk about things in your life that make you the happiest. Hobbies, personal memories that make you smile, positive ways that you contribute in the world.
Out of the approximately 70,000 people who took the online test, I understand that only about 2,000 are invited to a regional in-person audition. At my regional audition, I was in a group of about 30 people. The contestant coordinators gave us a presentation about the inner workings of the show, and then we took another 50-question test. Next, we were called up in groups of three to play a mock game and do a little interview.
We got to hold the buzzers and ring in to answer questions, just like on the show. All of the hopeful auditioners were intelligent and fun people. After each group of three had taken their turns as contestants, the audition was over. Time to wait and see.
More Studying and Practicing
Out of the 2,000 or so people who go through a regional audition, only about 400 are actually needed for the show each year.
Nevertheless, I continued to have high hopes and I kept studying. After all, if I did make it to the show, I wanted to be prepared.
My favorite book about being a Jeopardy contestant is Prisoner of Trebekistan by Bob Harris, a former 5-time winner and Tournament of Champions participant. In his book, he gives a lot of good advice about how to approach preparing and studying for the show.
Another great book is Brainiac, by Ken Jennings, who won on Jeopardy an amazing 74 times. From the book I learned not only about his Jeopardy experience, but about his lifelong love of trivia challenges and learning new things.
To improve my understanding of how memory works, I read Joshua Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein, which recounts his experiences studying for the World Memory Championships.
These books were just general resources, so I could learn how to learn -- to answer the questions (question the answers?) I studied the atlases, almanacs, and other factual resources I mentioned above.
Online, a valuable resource is the J-Archive which contains all the show's answers and questions, plus wagers and other information.
Also, video versions of many past Jeopardy games are available on YouTube and other places around the Internet. By watching those videos and clicking the top of a ballpoint pen to "ring in," I was able to practice ringing in and answering quickly.
There is also a game, Jeopardy World Tour, available for both Android and Apple devices, which I played every day. Like the J6 game on the official Jeopardy! site, you get to choose from 3 multiple-choice options -- which is easier than coming up with the answers all by yourself, but it's still good practice.
And although my husband personally (and repeatedly) explained to me how to wager on the Final Jeopardy round, you may want to check out the blog The Final Wager, on game theory and making the best possible bet.
Then, to my delight, I got The Email. I was invited out to Los Angeles to be a contestant on Jeopardy! The taping days were on October 24 and 25, 2017.
My Big Day(s) Taping the Show
Jeopardy contestants pay their own travel, hotel and meal expenses when they go out to Los Angeles to be on the show. However, even if a contestant winds up in third place, the $1,000 they make will probably cover most of the cost. And hey, for the rest of your life, you made it to The Show. It’s worth it just for the experience.
Being on the Jeopardy set gave me shivers of delight. The clue board is huge, like 10 or 12 feet tall, and there's a strip of lights running down the edges that lights up when it's time to ring in -- you can't see those lights at home, because the individual clue takes up the whole TV screen. But those lights are key, because you don’t want to ring in until Alex finishes speaking and the lights go on.
During a two-day period, they tape 5 games a day -- two week's worth of shows -- and it takes about 40 minutes to tape one game. Really, really fast.
It takes a surprising amount of energy to concentrate and focus for 30 minutes. There are a total of 61 questions, about a half-minute per question. You have to read the clues faster than Alex is speaking them, decide whether you know the answer or not, and then wait for the lights to light up. If you ring in too early, you get locked out. If you wait too long to ring in, someone else will beat you to the answer. If you ring in when you don’t know the answer, you risk being wrong.
The host, Alex Trebek, seems like a nice person, but he can't really talk to contestants. He knows all the answers and there must be no hint whatever that he might be showing favoritism. But when he talks to you during the on-air chat, he listens with his full attention. It is a lovely quality.
For Final Jeopardy, I followed the wagering strategy which my husband had patiently explained to me. My bet was modest, assuming that I would get it wrong. And I did get it wrong. But so did everyone else.
To my utter surprise, I won!
After the game, the coordinators hustled me down to change clothes and then back on the stage to play again. I played a second time, but I was exhausted and the Force was no longer with me. Another player barreled through the categories and I was glad to end the game in a dignified second place position.
Waiting, Part II
After the show is taped, it takes several months before it is aired. Contestants don't tell anyone how they did, because it will spoil the surprise -- and it can be very difficult to keep the secret that long! Fortunately, most everyone you meet is understanding about the need for secrecy.
We had a "watch party" when my show aired, and the support of friends and family that I got then was worth waiting for!
Your winnings from the show don't arrive until many months after the day the show airs. But, considering that even the third-place contestant is paid for their appearance, it's nice to know that the money will be arriving in due time.
I did it!
Playing Jeopardy was a real roller-coaster ride. But still, what a ride! I'm so glad I did it. I'm proud of myself for the effort I put in, and for being a contender.
Questions & Answers
Question: What does Alex Trebek talk about with contestants as he shakes their hand?
Answer: He comments about the game, compliments contestants on how well they answered some categories, commiserates about the difficult questions that stumped us all, and things like that. The conversations are very brief since the breaks between games don't last too long -- everybody has to have their mics taken off and the winner of the game has to run to the green room to change clothes, then the three players of the next game have to get mic'd up, and so on. As I mentioned above, they film 5 games a day and the pace is pretty quick, so there's only time for a few words with Alex.
Question: Does the show Jeopardy provide the clothing, or do you wear your own as a contestant?
Answer: We wear our own clothing. Contestants are asked to bring two or three changes of clothes with them to the studio, so that if we win, we can wear a different outfit for the following games. I brought a few different tops that matched my black pants, so I would only have to change one piece of clothing. Contestants never come out from behind their podiums anymore, so only our tops are visible anyway.
SaraleeEtter (author) from Ohio on January 29, 2020:
Mike, it may encourage you to learn that many contestants who end up doing well on the show have taken the test multiple times -- including the recent standout contestant James Holzhauer. So keep trying, and best of luck to you!
Mike P. on January 29, 2020:
Thank you for sharing your experience with the show! It answered a lot of questions about which I've been wondering. I have taken the test a couple times now and always felt I've done fairly well, but perhaps was never was lucky enough to get the call-in. Congratulations to you on this wonderful achievement!
SaraleeEtter (author) from Ohio on December 25, 2018:
Thanks, Andrea! It was fun.
Andrea on December 23, 2018:
Wow so much went into that. Amazing.
SaraleeEtter (author) from Ohio on February 03, 2018:
Hi Kaye! Thanks for your kind words.
Turns out someone uploaded the episodes to YouTube -- here are some links:
There may be other versions, but these were the first two I found. :)
Kaye George on February 02, 2018:
Thanks for this account! I will say that you were smart enough to get picked from the online test. I've taken it and it's HARD. I was out of the country when your episode aired and it didn't record, for some reason. Are they archived anywhere?
SaraleeEtter (author) from Ohio on February 02, 2018:
Thanks, Sandra! I appreciate your kind words. :)
Sandra J Kachurek on February 02, 2018:
You have lived the dream for many of us trivia buffs and Jeopardy! fans.
SaraleeEtter (author) from Ohio on February 02, 2018:
Thanks! I kind of stumbled into the Jeopardy world, but it has been a fascinating trip.
K S Lane from Melbourne, Australia on February 01, 2018:
This is an awesome insight into the world of Jeopardy! I've never even thought about how contestants are chosen before- like you mentioned, I almost assumed they were just born into the role.