Double Jeopardy! with Ken Jennings and Bob Harris

Who are Bob Harris and Ken Jennings? If you get that corny little joke, you already know -- they're both super-smart and slightly obsessive Jeopardy! stars, they both just wrote books about the experience, and they both like mental_floss (maybe you've seen Ken's column in our magazine). Today we're running interviews with both of them. First, let's hear from Bob, whose hugely funny new book is called Prisoner of Trebekistan:

While practicing for stints on the show, Bob Harris often referred to this as the "Jeopardy Weapon."
What is "the buzzer?" It's officially called a "Signaling Device," but that's not a name, really, just a placeholder for where one should go. So I tried to find something better: Clue Zapper, Palm Hoopty, Mr. Smartyhands, the Mervulator. I settled on the Jeopardy Weapon because when you've got the rhythm of the game, it's like you're holding the Hammer of Thor. You're crushing your opponents with your thumb.

Tell us about your training regimen "“ I hear you only ate the food you could get in the studio cafeteria.
It was the same reason why there's a home field advantage in sports. Basically, when your environment for recall is congruent with your environment for encoding, it's easier to recall your memories. Taken to the extreme, in my case, I wound up essentially turning my apartment into the Jeopardy! studio. I put bright halogen lights overhead and placed the TV as far away as it would go. I would study standing up. My girlfriend at the time thought I was out of my mind.

But she put up with it?
Define "putting up." She's a teacher and her experience was with conventional rote learning techniques, which for me amount to placing the book against your head and beating yourself unconscious. I think it was an insult to the way she makes her living. When I then came home after winning five straight games, that was even more of an affront.

What did you think of the brouhaha over Ken Jennings' recent comments about the show?
Ken got a bad rap. He was clearly kidding around. A lazy reporter took a playful, friendly tease and blew it up and the next thing you know it was in the North Korea Times. "¦ It was virtually the same grim joy that [the media] brought to the Mel Gibson story. We often as a society seize on fallen stars, Icarus stories. And the persistent message sent by these stories is that no matter hot or rich or successful the subjects are, they're not better than you.

In your book, you lay out a strategy for winning that starts with "obvious things may be worth noticing." Can you take us through it?
Seeing the obvious requires you to actually be present in the moment, to not be busy in your head. It sounds like the most elementary thing in the world but I think it's the most difficult, particularly for intelligent people who are always thinking. Sometimes there are problems that need to be solved not with faster or harder thought but with calming down. In Jeopardy! there's a hint in every clue, and sometimes it helps to you slow down and look for the hint. My Eightfold Path of Enlightened Jeopardy actually began as an unserious reference to Buddhism, and then what I ended up writing really was a lot like the actual Eightfold Path. Cool, huh?

So how did "seeing the obvious" work for you on the show?
Once in a big tournament there was a Final Jeopardy clue in British literature. I didn't know anything about British literature -- and the lady in second place was a librarian. So the clue comes up -- p-TING! -- "The 5th edition of this work, published in 1676, included an addendum on fly fishing by Charles Cotton." I panic immediately. My Jeopardy! career's about to end in 30 seconds. But then I take a breath and look for the hint. "1676?" I free-associate and come up with nothing but the movie "1776," involving a bunch of dancing middle-aged men in revolutionary garb. Nope. "Edition?" All I could come up with was New Edition "“ singing kids in music videos. Okay, I've got way too many people dancing in my skull. "Fly fishing?" OK, old book, big fish... Moby Dick! Then it dawns on me that you really can't fly fish a whale. Running out of time: Fishing, rods, reels, casting, ice fishing, angling "“ hey, there was a Beatles documentary once called "The Compleat Beatles" and that was a reference to "The Compleat Angler," which might be an old book about fish. Ta-da! At home it must have looked like I was a guy pondering his deep knowledge of literature. The truth is I found the obvious, then caromed off the walls until I found the answer via R&B and bad musicals.

That's one of the funniest arguments I've ever heard for interdisciplinary education.
Thanks! But we're taught to think that science and history and so on are unrelated. Hardly. In some ways my book is almost a 104,000-word act of prayer, hoping that people will see that everything really is connected. If we can't see how a piece of information is useful, that doesn't mean it's useless. A glass of water would be completely useless in a waterfall, but it could save your life in the ocean. All information has to be seen in its context. And you can't understand that without a broad general approach to stuff.

How did you get hooked on Jeopardy! to begin with?
My mom and dad had it on from the time it premiered in 1984. It premiered when I had just left college with an engineering degree that I quickly realized I never wanted to use. I went directly into a Dilbert job and then a depression. The show was a way my folks could make me feel like even enough I had no idea what I do would do next, I was still a modestly intelligent person. Of course, I then failed [the qualifying test] between four and six times. I actually lost count. Most people would have given up after the first, second, third time. I bet some stalkers probably give up more easily.

Why didn't you quit?
What kept me going was mainly an unconscious desire to please my mom and dad. Also, I was pretty broke.

Would you want to go back now?
Once you've been on the show and had your run, you're not going to come back unless they have some special invitational tournament. Which I've been lucky to be asked to a few times, but I'm probably never picking up a buzzer again. I'm retired, I'm out to stud. But if they did call"¦ It's like "The Godfather III" "“ you try to get out, but they keep dragging you back in.

Do you watch the show now?
Sometimes, sure. If it's on at a friend's house, I can get talked into playing so they can, I dunno, test themselves against me. As if that's a measure of anything.

What about the friends you've made as a contestant "“ what ties them together? Who tends to go on this show?
A certain level of intellect and education is useful, of course, but I think modesty is a wildly underappreciated Jeopardy! asset. The game dramatically rewards the ability not to guess. If you're not 90 percent sure of a response, the best thing you can do is put the buzzer down and wait for the next clue. And that is a rare skill. Jeopardy! is often less a test of knowledge than it is of self-knowledge. Also, good players tend to have really great listening skills, just to be able to play the game well. So basically, the same skills that work in Jeopardy! can also serve you well in life. Now, keep in mind that I've never won a tournament. So I may not be someone to listen to. But then again, of course I'd say that.

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Win a Trip to Any National Park By Instagramming Your Travels
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If you're planning out your summer vacation, make sure to add a few national parks to your itinerary. Every time you share your travels on Instagram, you can increase your chances of winning a VIP trip for two to the national park of your choice.

The National Park Foundation is hosting its "Pic Your Park" sweepstakes now through September 28. To participate, post your selfies from visits to National Park System (NPS) properties on Instagram using the hashtag #PicYourParkContest and a geotag of the location. Making the trek to multiple parks increases your points, with less-visited parks in the system having the highest value. During certain months, the point values of some sites are doubled. You can find a list of participating properties and a schedule of boost periods here.

Following the contest run, the National Park Foundation will decide a winner based on most points earned. The grand prize is a three-day, two-night trip for the winner and a guest to any NPS property within the contiguous U.S. Round-trip airfare and hotel lodging are included. The reward also comes with a 30-day lease of a car from Subaru, the contest's sponsor.

The contest is already underway, with a leader board on the website keeping track of the competition. If you're looking to catch up, this national parks road trip route isn't a bad place to start.

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15 Dad Facts for Father's Day
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Gather 'round the grill and toast Dad for Father's Day—the national holiday so awesome that Americans have celebrated it for more than a century. Here are 15 Dad facts you can wow him with today.

1. Halsey Taylor invented the drinking fountain in 1912 as a tribute to his father, who succumbed to typhoid fever after drinking from a contaminated public water supply in 1896.

2. George Washington, the celebrated father of our country, had no children of his own. A 2004 study suggested that a type of tuberculosis that Washington contracted in childhood may have rendered him sterile. He did adopt the two children from Martha Custis's first marriage.

3. In Thailand, the king's birthday also serves as National Father's Day. The celebration includes fireworks, speeches, and acts of charity and honor—the most distinct being the donation of blood and the liberation of captive animals.

4. In 1950, after a Washington Post music critic gave Harry Truman's daughter Margaret's concert a negative review, the president came out swinging: "Some day I hope to meet you," he wrote. "When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!"

5. A.A. Milne created Winnie the Pooh for his son, Christopher Robin. Pooh was based on Robin's teddy bear, Edward, a gift Christopher had received for his first birthday, and on their father/son visits to the London Zoo, where the bear named Winnie was Christopher's favorite. Pooh comes from the name of Christopher's pet swan.

6. Kurt Vonnegut was (for a short time) Geraldo Rivera's father-in-law. Rivera's marriage to Edith Vonnegut ended in 1974 because of his womanizing. Her ever-protective father was quoted as saying, "If I see Gerry again, I'll spit in his face." He also included an unflattering character named Jerry Rivers (a chauffeur) in a few of his books.

7. Andre Agassi's father represented Iran in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics as a boxer.

8. Charlemagne, the 8th-century king of the Franks, united much of Western Europe through military campaigns and has been called the "king and father of Europe" [PDF]. Charlemagne was also a devoted dad to about 18 children, and today, most Europeans may be able to claim Charlemagne as their ancestor.

9. The voice of Papa Smurf, Don Messick, also provided the voice of Scooby-Doo, Ranger Smith on Yogi Bear, and Astro and RUDI on The Jetsons.

10. In 2001, Yuri Usachev, cosmonaut and commander of the International Space Station, received a talking picture frame from his 12-year-old daughter while in orbit. The gift was made possible by RadioShack, which filmed the presentation of the gift for a TV commercial.

11. The only father-daughter collaboration to hit the top spot on the Billboard pop music chart was the 1967 hit single "Something Stupid" by Frank & Nancy Sinatra.

12. In the underwater world of the seahorse, it's the male that gets to carry the eggs and birth the babies.

13. If show creator/producer Sherwood Schwartz had gotten his way, Gene Hackman would have portrayed the role of father Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch.

14. The Stevie Wonder song "Isn't She Lovely" is about his newborn daughter, Aisha. If you listen closely, you can hear Aisha crying during the song.

15. Dick Hoyt has pushed and pulled his son Rick, who has cerebral palsy, through hundreds of marathons and triathlons. Rick cannot speak, but using a custom-designed computer he has been able to communicate. They ran their first five-mile race together when Rick was in high school. When they were done, Rick sent his father this message: "Dad, when we were running, it felt like I wasn't disabled anymore!"

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