Recently, I’ve enjoyed reading two books written by former contestants of the TV game show “Jeopardy!” They are both books I’d be likely to read anyway, but since I actually had an in-person audition(!) looming on my calendar (now since completed “without incident” – I’m in the contestant pool again, this time until September, 2016. Doesn’t mean they’ll call me, but I’ve gone as far as I can in the tryouts process. :-) ) , I was also reading them to hopefully gain a little insight or some pointers.
The first was Brendan DuBois’ “My Short, Happy Life in Jeopardy,” where he describes his history trying to get on the show and his eventual appearance, where he experienced a modest level of success. The second was the more recognizable (to Jeopardy! fans, anyway) Bob Harris’s “Prisoner of Trebekistan.” How did I learn of these books? Well, I’ve been a lurker on the Jeopardy! (“JBoard”) message board where fans of – and often former contestants on – the show discuss the games that are broadcast (and other matters, but I’m mostly interested in what they think of the games and clues). It’s basically a message board full of monday morning quarterbacks, and they can be ruthless if contestants wager illogically or commit other faux pas. Author Brendan DuBois is a frequent commenter there and his sign off had a link to his book so I risked my $2.99 (or $3.99, I can’t remember now) and ordered his book. Bob Harris’s book is mentioned by Mr. DuBois, so I soon got that one as well. I more or less enjoyed both books, the DuBois book mostly for his story as I must sadly report it was rife with typos and errors (e.g. Jane Austin, Dave “Groul” of the Foo Fighters (twice!) and numerous other typos and errors). This is made more shocking by the fact that DuBois is already a published, “award-winning” Mystery writer. The e-book I purchased was poorly edited – maybe it was a rush job to cash in on his appearance on the show? One thing I did take away from the DuBois book was that – if I am fortunate enough to get the call to appear on the show – I’m going out there to try and WIN, not just to be star-struck and “enjoy the experience” (which I would certainly do – but how much more enjoyable would it be if one were to win too?)
The second book was great. Regular watchers of the show may remember Bob Harris and his unique personality. A former comedian, his wit is prevalent throughout his book, “Prisoner of Trebekistan” and even though at times it got a little tiring, remained generally fresh throughout. Mr. Harris was in the game to WIN it. If he were to lose, it wouldn’t be through lack of preparation or effort. Harris’s success on the show came more through rote memorization and “training” than most top Jeopardy! players – a fact he freely admits and realizes may be a liability, as when he describes going up against Jeopardy! titan, Dan Melia: “But I’m starting to realize that Dan has actually read all the books whose titles I have merely memorized. This is not going to make my life easy.”
Don’t remember Bob Harris? Here’s an interview that may refresh your memory
There also some great Jeopardy! stratagems in Harris’s book, including one I’ve always thought about but haven’t heard many mention “…by attacking your weakest category immediately, you’ll probably get the hardest clues off the board with the least possible amount of money at stake. If there’s a Daily Double in the weak category, it will barely matter, while hitting it late puts you in a difficult betting situation.” He also warns against the danger of guessing, saying you should treat the signaling device like the gun in a game of Russian Roulette. “Keep your finger off the trigger unless you’re damn sure you know what’s in the chamber.” He also pointed out that if you miss a clue – even if no one else gets it, you lose ground against both by the value of the clue. If someone else DOES get it, you’ve lost twice the value of the clue vs. that player which, plus the value you lost against the other is a net loss of THREE TIMES the value. That’s a big risk. That said, I wonder how hard it would be under game situation pressure to not make an educated guess. You see people do it on the show all the time. Like the two unfortunates pictured below, who will probably never live it down that in their appearance on the show, neither even got to stick around for Final Jeopardy. (I know, here I am not helping matters either…)
Anyway, this was a great book, chock full of helpful info for Jeopardy! hopefuls.
Having knocked out these two books, I thought it might be nice to complete a literary hat trick and read a third Jeopardy!-related item, David Foster Wallace’s short story “Little Expressionless Animals.” I have this story in a collection from that author on loan from one of my Vonnegut Library Book Club colleagues, Dave, whose work as the stalwart scribe of that club’s meetings may be found at its blog site. Wallace’s story was a humorous speculation about a seemingly invincible Jeopardy! champion.
A young woman (whose learning came from a set of encyclopedias that she read while watching over her autistic brother during a tough childhood; unbeknownst to her, the little brother is memorizng them as well…) begins a longer than one-year reign as champion and, though odd, charms many at the show, even Alex Trebek (who’s offer to join him for a soda at the Sony Television cafeteria is shot down, however). She actually ends up dating the daughter of one of the show’s staff, which leads to complications, naturally. Of the main character, we learn that “…she believes lovers go through three different stages in getting really to know one another. First they exchange anecdotes and inclinations. Then each tells the other what she believes. Then each observes the relation between what the other says she believes and what she in fact does.” She’s also described in this way: “She has a way with data. To see her with an answer… Is there such a thing as an intellectual caress?”
Similar to Ken Jennings’ run on the show in real life (which I believe this story actually pre-dates) what first was a fun and exciting curiosity eventually becomes tedious and there is a backlash to seeing the same champion over and over AND OVER again. Eventually, the show – now desperate for a new champion – enlists the one person they think may be able to stop her: (Yep – you guessed it) Her younger brother.
There’s a lot of great humor in the story, too, as – in one example of gamesmanship, one contestant convinces another that, if she finishes in the read, she’ll have to pay Jeopardy! the amount of negative money on the board before they’ll let her leave the set. There’s also behind the scenes shenanigans between Alex and Pat Sajak, who are apparently are at “war.” For example, Alex pranks Sajak by manipulating the applause sign during Wheel of Fortune, leading the audience to cheer when contestants hit bankrupt or “lose a spin”, etc. – ha ha ha.
What about you? Do watch the show, “Jeopardy!” or have you read anything about it? (Ken Jennings’ “Brainiac” was also good – but I read that long ago, in my non-blogging days). Have you ever tried out or auditioned for the show? There are actually on line Jeopardy! tests the next couple nights so it’s not too late to register! :-) I’ve shared a sample of a prior test in a previous blog post if you’d like to see what kind of questions were on it that time. Good luck if you do!