Alumni contestants share their stories and advice.
If you’re trying to score a coveted spot on the next season of Jeopardy!, you might want to step away from the books and computer and get a hand massage instead.
“The key to success is buzzer technique,” says Kenneth Burns, AB’93, AM’03. Catherine Skeen, AB’91, AM’02, PhD’03, concurs: “The timing of when to buzz in is very tricky, and if you don’t have the knack, you’re doomed.” If you buzz in too soon, you’re locked out. If you buzz in too late, you just have to hope your opponent answers incorrectly so that you get another shot. “I'd guess the vast majority of contestants know 80–90 percent of the answers,” says Sendhil Revuluri, AB’94.
Benjamin Recchie, AB’03, is the most recent University alumnus to appear on Jeopardy! We tracked down 18 additional alums who tested their brain power (and button-pushing skills) in front of Alex Trebek. They represent political science, English, geographical studies, and physics majors. They come from the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Physical Sciences Divisions; the Law School; and the Divinity School. From our unscientific sample, it appears that no one field of knowledge provides the best preparation for Jeopardy!
Were any clues or answers particularly memorable?
Kenneth Burns, AB’93, AM’03 (2009, two episodes): It was such a proud moment when I correctly uttered these words: “Who is Spears?” [Meaning Britney. Burns has preserved this moment on YouTube.]
Catherine Skeen, AB’91, AM’02, PhD’03 (2001, one episode): I remember there was this geography question that was something like, “Which country is further north: Bolivia, Ecuador, or (can’t remember the third country), and I knew the answer was Ecuador, but there was something so mesmerizing about the way that Alex Trebek pronounced “Bolivia” that I found myself parroting it back to him. I kicked myself for that one. But when those bright lights are on you, your brain does weird things.
Dan Pawson, JD’06 (2007–08, ten episodes; 2009, Tournament of Champions): In the semifinals of the Tournament of Champions, I had a whole category on international law. After three international-law courses at Chicago, that was fun.
Sendhil Revuluri, AB’94 (1996, two episodes): In my first game, I ran two categories: Golf and Gardening. As anyone who knows me will attest, I have no business doing so, given my minimal knowledge of either topic.
Mathew Safer, AB’01 (2008, three episodes): I ran the category of Cheeses of the World. They gave the cheese and you had to name the country of origin. Alex commented, “The man knows his cheese.”
Steve Mitchell, AM’92 (2001, four episodes): There was one answer about a French word for blending something to a liquid state. … The correct response was purée, but I buzzed in with frappe. … They stopped the taping for about 15 minutes to research the topic, after which I was awarded the credit. Another contestant gave a response that they had to research for over half an hour, and we had to stay in our spots the whole time.
Dan Burke, AM’06 (two episodes): I would say that the two Final Jeopardy clues were the most memorable. The first was in the category Biblical Names. It asked for the name of a wife of King David who shared a name with two early first ladies of the US. The name is Hebrew for “father’s delight.” I went to the Divinity School and now teach high school theology, but when the clue came up, I blanked. All I could think of was Bathsheba, knowing that no first lady ever had that name. At the last second, Abigail popped into my mind—I don’t know how—so I went with that. [He was right.]
On the second show, I was again down going into Final Jeopardy, where the category was British History. The clue asked for the last British monarch to step foot in the House of Commons. I had wagered all but $3, and went with Charles II. The correct answer was Charles I. I was only one roman numeral off. I would have lost by $3 even if I had gotten it right, but I’ll never forget that answer.
Which clues stumped you?
Pawson: In a moment of everlasting shame, I botched the number of articles in the Constitution. Then all my classmates commented on Facebook, “I didn’t know that either,” and Marsha Ferziger Nagorsky [JD’95 , Law School lecturer and assistant dean for communications] asked us to stop publicly embarrassing the school.
Safer: The Final Jeopardy answer that eliminated me was, “These two Asian nations are the only two that start with ‘A’ but don’t end with ‘A.’” Geography is my strongest subject, so I immediately started running through my mental map. I started in the west and pretty quickly hit Azerbaijan, and then started in the east. Time ran out before I reached the obvious Afghanistan.
Of course, two weeks after I filmed the show, and before it aired, the same question was asked at a pub trivia competition I was in. My wife and I looked at each other and broke into laughter.
What surprised you most about being on the show?
Burns: I didn’t anticipate just how disappointed I would feel after narrowly losing my second and final game. That was hard.
Mitchell: I was a bit surprised that we had to read the answers from the board, which wasn’t that close to where we were standing as contestants. There weren’t any special monitors for us.
Pawson: The stage is much smaller than you’d think from TV, but when you go up on it, it’s like the audience isn’t even there.
Safer: How the rhythms of the day really affect how the players play. They film an entire week’s worth of shows in one day, so by the time the Friday show is filmed, the contestants have been sitting around for about ten hours, and they take lunch between the Wednesday and Thursday shows. In my case, my first show was Friday, so it was the last one for the day. All my nervous energy had been burnt off by the long day.
Do you still watch the show?
Pawson: Unfortunately, I have two young children, and Arthur is on at the same time. I look forward to winning that time slot back one day.
Burns: Actually, I haven’t watched since my appearance.
Hans Krimm, SM’86, PhD’91 (1998, three episodes): Absolutely.
Mitchell: Before I went on Jeopardy! I watched it all the time and even recorded it, but after being a contestant I had no real desire to watch it anymore. … Even though I was lucky to win on a few episodes, I was mad at myself when I lost. ... Maybe watching the show dredges up that feeling. Anyway, now I live in London and it’s not even on TV here.
Revuluri: Rarely. I think I overdosed when I was preparing for the show, when I watched every episode for a few months in a row.
Safer: Not frequently. I was never a die-hard watcher, and now I know a little too much of what goes on behind the scenes.
Skeen: Before I was on the show, I watched it a lot. Afterwards, not so much. There was something anticlimactic about it.
Any other Jeopardy! secrets or stories to share?
Burns: On the whole it was a glorious experience.
Mitchell: The season after I appeared they doubled all the dollar values. Ugh!
Pawson: Alex works blue off-camera. Shh.
Emily Jusino, AM’04 (2010, two episodes): One of my favorite moments was during the interview in my first game. Alex Trebek asked me about directing plays in Latin (something on my info sheet). Before I could finish my sentence, he recited the first three words of the Aeneid, and I promptly recited the rest of the first line. You could feel everyone in the studio thinking “Huh, what?!?” But for me it was a really cool moment, to share a line of Latin poetry with Alex Trebek. I was so afraid that was going to get cut from the version that aired, but it didn’t.
Krimm: As most people know, they tape the shows several months in advance. It was really hard keeping it secret how I had done on the show. … When the show aired, there was a big party and viewing at the college where I was teaching physics and astronomy at the time (Hampden-Sydney College). It was much better to have the suspense. I was a bit of a local celebrity for a while and was invited to speak before the local Chamber of Commerce about my Jeopardy! experience.
Though I was on when the clues were worth half what they are now, I was able to earn enough to make a down payment on our first house (houses were cheap in rural Virginia).
Skeen: When I was on the show, the second prize was a trip (that’s not the case anymore). My husband and I and our then three-year-old son enjoyed a really fantastic seven-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Mazatlan. That was something we never would have done otherwise, so, thank you, Jeopardy!
Also, in the “small talk” segment with Alex, I ended up saying something really romantic about my husband. I think my husband is secretly pleased that I did that on national television.
Revuluri: The funniest things were around the broadcast. At the time, I was still working in finance. … Jeopardy! aired at 3:30 p.m. central time, and the stock market closed at 3 p.m. ... Some of my colleagues organized a live viewing of the episodes for the entire trading floor. After the second episode—in which I was behind going into Final Jeopardy, and which I consequently lost by $1—one of the partners in the firm came over and gave me a $1 bill.
Before the broadcasts, I wanted to let my friends know. I used my UChicago e-mail, but I think I included too many folks—the IT guys thought I was a spammer and blocked my announcement, sent an apology to the addressees, and locked my account. Apparently, enough of those who got the apology said they actually wanted to know about my appearance that they sent it on through, unlocked my account, and ended up watching the episodes themselves.