11 things no one tells you about competing on Jeopardy!

I was a two-day Jeopardy! champ. Here's what I learned.

"Did you win?"

That's the first thing everyone asked me after I finished taping my episodes of Jeopardy!. That or "How much did you win?" (For the record, I won two episodes that aired this week before getting bounced in my third, and made a cool $38,801.)

If the tables were turned, maybe I would have asked a contestant those things, too. But after all the studying, travel, anxiety, note cards, YouTube searches, and scribbles about Daily Double wagering, it's pretty clear to me that the money and the outcome are just gravy. Gravy on top of a delicious pile of mashed potatoes that is the Jeopardy! experience.

So let me tell you about these potatoes — specifically, what no one else will tell you about them. Enjoy!

1. You should sign up for the online test and actually take it. Roughly 300,000 people register for the annual online tests, and only 100,000 or so of those people end up following through with their chosen test time. The odds are already in your favor! The test is only about 15 minutes, so give it a shot if you want the chance to meet Alex Trebek before he retires (his contract is up in 2016).

2. You need to refine your little stories for the in-person audition. Should you take the online test, get above a certain unnamed percentage of questions correct, and then get randomly chosen from a group of 3,000 or so potential candidates who also made the cut, you have to think of some fun facts about yourself. Even if you've never climbed Mt. Everest or been a cattle rancher in the Badlands, you still very much have a chance of getting on the show. Just find a funny way to introduce yourself, own your mundane stories, smile, and go with the flow. You're trying out to be on TV, after all!

3. The only way to win Jeopardy! is to watch Jeopardy!. If you're lucky enough to get the call to be a contestant, you'd better start setting your DVR, finding old episodes on YouTube, and scrolling through j-archive.com. All these things, in addition to whatever fits your personal learning style, help. But watching the show is by far the most helpful. You get a feel for Alex's rhythms, clues/categories that recur often, and a comfort level using the phrase "What is…"

4. It's as important to refresh existing knowledge as it is to cram in new information. Many of the questions I didn't answer or got wrong were things I knew, but hadn't thought about in awhile. I read Don Quixote (missing that question in Final Jeopardy still kills me), I know about Montezuma and St. Ignatius, and of course I know that a wolverine is an animal. But I generally brushed past things I felt familiar with when studying in favor of trying to learn about operas, ancient gods, and poets. And guess what? None of those came up! You can't know or predict the clues, but in retrospect, a little refresher would have been majorly helpful.

5. You'll be surprised at what you can recall under pressure. Wilhelm scream? The Leatherstocking Tales? Stephen Douglas? I know what all of these are, but I had no recollection of giving these answers until I watched it back.

6. The buzzer is your best friend and your worst enemy. Yeah, it's great if you can align buzzing in with that sweet spot after Alex finishes reading the clue and before the little lights on the side of the board go on, but there's no good way to practice that at home. Mashing the buzzer is highly preferable, as opposed to clicking it once. But you're competing against people who may have faster reflexes, better timing, or more skill in thinking of the right answer right away. Ultimately, every contestant misses out on many questions they know because of the buzzer. It sucks. But at least it's democratic.

7. It's better to try and fail than to not try at all. In my first episode, I was fearless. (I was also more comfortable with the categories.) I think a lot of my success was due to the fact that I took more chances on buzzing in when I had a hunch, but wasn't positive. With a win to defend, and exhaustion settling in, I was a bit more complacent on the next two episodes, which I deeply regret. But what can you do?

8. Go big or go home! That's what my sister told me before I played, and I think it made the first episode wildly entertaining. Bet it all! You can't technically lose money you never had! That's how I ended up betting $10,000 on "Arctic Animals" in Double Jeopardy. I mean, wow. It all worked out in the end, which is why I feel confident in saying this. Go for broke. Viewers will thank you.

9. It's utterly thrilling — and completely exhausting. The show tapes five episodes a day — three in the morning, followed by a lunch break, and then two in the afternoon. I was on the first three of the day, and let me tell you, with little food in my stomach, a lot of coffee, and a ton of nerves, I was beat by the time I walked off that stage with more than $30,000 to my name. I'm not saying I'm happy I lost (it still aches me), but I sincerely don't think I would have much enjoyed another show at that very moment. Not everyone says this, though. It's a matter of stamina.

10. Not everything is as it seems on TV. Alex stumbles over his words, the board malfunctions, people contest answers — you name it, it happens. It's TV! Through the magic of editing, none of this is visible to home audiences. All of these things happened on my episodes, in addition to some awkward pauses during the interviews, and 10- to 15-minute breaks in which the review board debated some answers. The day before, Alex had swapped the interview questions! It's fun to see it all happen. In addition, the clues stay in those small boxes on the board, which made them hard to read from the podium — I found myself hunched over and squinting a lot.

11. You'll meet the nicest people. The producers are there to put you at ease, and boy do they. They're fun, breezy, hilarious, and engaging — even when describing the minute play details. As for the contestants? Think of it this way: You're with a bunch of people who love trivia and want to do it to their heart's content. I had the pleasure of interacting with nearly everyone who taped episodes on the same day as me, and they were all memorably wonderful. You forget you're competing for money. Even Arthur Chu's opponents only had glowing things to say about him! Trivia has a way of attracting fun, brilliant, and vital people into its orbit, and getting to spend a bit of time in their glow was a highlight (among many) of my experience.


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