November 3, 2012


And the 'Jeopardy!' Answer Is: Buzz First : Contestants come armed with plenty of knowledge. The real test: How are your motor skills? (JOHN-CLARK LEVIN, 10/31/12, WSJ)

Answer: This is the best way to risk your intellectual dignity on national television. Question: What is "Jeopardy!"?

After many years of sitting with family or friends in front of the TV on weekday evenings, matching wits with the game-show contestants and host Alex Trebek, I decided last year to try to make it into the competition myself.

The first hurdle was an online test: 50 rapid-fire questions on a grab bag of subjects. More than 100,000 people try out each year, so I knew it was a long shot. Yet somehow I passed and was invited to an in-person audition in Los Angeles. There was a written test, mock gameplay and an interview. We were told that we would be called within 18 months if we had been selected. [...]

My study of the game also revealed that, since all the contestants are going to be bright and well-read, what sets them apart is motor skills: When Mr. Trebek finishes reading a clue, a producer arms a set of lights that viewers at home don't see. The goal is to press the button on a hand-held buzzer after those lights go on but before one of your opponents buzzes in. That window is often just several dozen milliseconds long. Human reaction time averages 190 milliseconds. So I would have to rely on listening to Mr. Trebek's voice alone and try to anticipate the lights.

I also decided on my strategy. Statistical analysis suggested that most players are too timid, so I settled on a desperado approach of buzzing in whenever I had an educated guess and of wagering as much money as possible. Making these decisions in advance would minimize the risk of a blunder under the hot lights and the glare of almost 10 million viewers.

When I tried out, 20 years ago, they brought us into a room and gave us little bells with the ringer on top, like your teacher used to have on her desk and they flipped over cardboard cards with the answers on them.  I was playing against a bunch of hefty farmer's wives in pant suits.  When they flipped over a card I'd ring the bell.  But they admonished me to wait until they'd read the whole answer out loud.  Then it became just a dexterity contest and the ladies kicked my behind. For months I'd have to writhe through episodes of the show where Betty from Vermont stood there buzzing like a maniac, from the moment the Answer appeared....
Posted by at November 3, 2012 6:47 AM

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