Ken Jennings


June 23, 2006

I spent the morning being interviewed for a series of GSN documentaries. Here’s your inside-baseball trivia about having TV interviewers in your home: they will inevitably want to unplug your fridge, to get better sound. Then they will put their car keys in your fridge, so they don’t forget to turn it back on.

Segments from the interview will be used in at least two different one-hour specials: one on “Inside Secrets of the Game Show Champs,” and one of “Greatest Game Show Moments.” (What a concept.)

I think I disappointed the interviewer on the “Inside Secrets” stuff. I talked about the stuff that helped me on Jeopardy! (cramming with flash cards, practicing buzzer timing, etc.) but he wanted what he considered to be real insider dirt. “Is there some particular contestant coordinator you should butter up?” he asked. “Is there a better podium to choose?” Um, no.

Interestingly, he did seem interested in talking about quiz bowl as means of Jeopardy! preparation. For those who don’t know, high school and college quiz bowl serve as a de facto farm club for big-money quiz shows. It’s not that a majority of game show contestants are quiz bowl veterans. But a majority of the big winners certainly are. (Take a look at this partial list.)

In my experience, this isn’t just correlation: it’s causality. Quiz bowl makes you a better game show contestant. But not in the way you might think.

Many people assume it’s the buzzer. Quiz bowl players hold buzzers; therefore, they will be better Jeopardy! ringers-in. This doesn’t really hold. For one thing, many of the most common styles of quiz bowl buzzer look and feel nothing like the Jeopardy! devices. More importantly, sheer buzzing speed, so important in quiz bowl, don’t mean squat on Jeopardy!, where you have to wait for Alex to finish reading the question anyway, no matter how fast your thumb is.

Oddly, I don’t think quiz bowl knowledge provides that big an edge either. It certainly doesn’t hurt that quiz bowl forces you to re-learn all the stuff you (theoretically) knew in high school and have since forgotten: rare earth metals, Constitutional amendments, Frankish kings, whatever. But Jeopardy! tends to emphasize items of common knowledge and current import–topics, say, that might come up among reasonably educated people at a cocktail party–compared to the more rarified, academic focus of quiz bowl material. (This is something I actually like, and many hardcore quiz bowlers actively dislike, about the Jeopardy! knowledge base.) Obviously, there’s plenty of overlap–maybe quiz bowl will get you that ultra-tough $2,000 Jeopardy! clue about Moses Maimonedes or Stephen of Blois–but reading The New York Times the day before your Jeopardy! match would probably be more relevant than reading a tournament’s worth of quiz bowl “packets.”

No, the big payoff from quiz bowl is, simply put, the way it changes the way you think under pressure. There’s a moment in certain quiz bowl questions where you hear something familiar, and some part of your reptile hindbrain subconsciously starts deciding for you whether or not you know this answer. (Evolutionary psychologists believe this is a vestigial trait left over from dinosaur pub quizzes.) Before your higher brain function can catch up, certainly before the answer has materialized on the tip of your tongue, some part of the brain has done the math, instinctively decided that the answer is within reach, and instructed your thumb to buzz. It’s an odd feeling: you don’t quite know the answer yet, but somehow you know that you know it. The buzz itself is almost reflexive. Then you have a second or two to dig for the answer.

This is an invaluable skill on the Jeopardy! set. You don’t need your thumb to buzz immediately, but your brain needs to decide as soon as possible whether or not to risk a buzz on each clue, in the few brief seconds before Alex finishes reading it. The earlier you’ve decided whether you’re in or not, the more time you have to dredge up the answer, double-check your work (does my first-impulse answer really make sense?), and prepare the timing of your buzz. Real life doesn’t offer too many recall situations with similar urgency, so every quiz bowl game you play is, I would imagine, literally re-wiring your brain to make you a better Jeopardy! player. “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him! We have the technology!”

I didn’t tell all this to the GSN interviewer though. I told him that game show contestants should just relax out there and make sure they have a good time, win or lose! Seemed like a better sound bite.

And yes, he remembered his car keys when he left.

Posted by Ken at 12:23 pm