15 Brainy Secrets of Jeopardy! Winners
Millions of people watch Jeopardy! religiously—the game show has been popular since it first aired in 1964. But even if you never miss an episode, there’s a lot you might not know about what the winners do behind the scenes. We talked to a few previous Jeopardy! winners about betting on Daily Doubles, learning how to time the buzzer, and surviving awkward small talk with Alex Trebek.
1. THEY DON’T GET MUCH TIME TO REST.
Because of Jeopardy!’s tight filming schedule—five 30-minute shows are taped in a row, with minimal breaks—winners don’t have much time to bask in victory after conquering their competitors. “You only have about 10 minutes between winning your first show and appearing in your second,” explains Jelisa Castrodale, who won a 2010 episode. Castrodale tells mental_floss that winners are taken backstage to change clothes and get makeup reapplied, then they begin taping the next game.
“When I won, I honestly almost passed out from the shock of it (I had just beaten a seemingly unstoppable six-time champion) and was still so unsteady afterwards that I swear I almost had to ask a member of the production crew to double-check the spelling of my name for me when I wrote it down again,” Castrodale says.
2. SOME OF THEM SPEND YEARS PREPARING FOR THE SHOW.
Some contestants spend years studying before they even try to qualify. After passing an online test, aspiring contestants are invited to an in-person audition. If they do well, they may be invited to appear on the show. In the interim, some winners prepare by watching Jeopardy! each night and making flashcards to memorize facts about everything from U.S. presidents and state capitals to ancient Greek gods and Shakespeare’s plays. Others study J-Archive, a fan-created database of prior clues, answers, and contestants.
3. IT'S ALL ABOUT TIMING THE BUZZER.
Even if a contestant knows the answer to every question, that knowledge won’t do them any good unless they press their buzzer at precisely the right time. “So much of the game comes down to buzzer speed and skill. I think that's hard to appreciate unless you're actually on the show,” David Walter, the winner of Jeopardy!’s 2007 Teen Tournament, explains. Contestants must buzz in as soon as Trebek finishes the question, when lights flash on the side of the game board. “Buzz in too early, and you’re locked out of ringing in again for a crucial split-second. Buzz in too late ... and, well, you’re too late,” Walter says. Because timing the buzzer is a crucial part of winning the game, prior winners have written in-depth articles offering advice on how to master it with proper thumb placement and hand position.
4. IF YOU’RE ON A WINNING STREAK, IT HELPS TO BE AN INTERESTING PERSON.
Whether you love or hate the show’s small talk segment, in which Trebek spends a few seconds chatting with each contestant, Jeopardy! winners need to have a new, interesting anecdote to share for each game they play. "Coming up with ideas for that portion of the show is probably the hardest thing about being on the show,” Julia Collins, who won 20 shows in 2014, revealed in a Reddit Q & A. One month before taping, coordinators for the show send potential questions to contestants to determine interesting facts about them. On show day, Trebek chooses which fact to ask them about for the segment, which airs after each episode’s first commercial break.
5. THEY’RE COMFORTABLE WITH BETTING.
Whether they bet all their money on Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy! or are more cautious, winners need to be okay with wagering large sums of cash. Because making smart bets can mean the difference between winning and losing, some contestants approach the game with a math script, knowing how they’ll bet no matter what happens in the game. “Because I had this scripted play, I wasn't making the big decisions, I was just doing the math. I knew what the play was supposed to be … Other people were still making the decision. I think a lot of times, it made people think I was more confident in the category than I was,” Jeopardy! champion Arthur Chu told mental_floss in 2014.
6. THEY REHEARSE IN REALISTIC CONDITIONS.
Walter attributes his win to practicing with a mock buzzer for a few months before the taping: “I would stand up in front of the TV with a pen in my hand to simulate the buzzer. That got me used to the rhythms and speed of Trebek’s speaking voice, and made me less nervous around the buzzer during my actual tapings.” Other winners have practiced by shining a bright light in their faces (to simulate TV studio lights) and playing along with a group of friends watching, to mimic the added pressure that an audience brings.
7. THEY DON’T ACT LIKE TYPICAL GAME SHOW WINNERS.
Contestants on game shows such as The Price Is Right and Wheel of Fortune are demonstrative: they often jump, shout, and clap when they win. “The contestant coordinators at Jeopardy! want enthusiasm, but they know they’re hand-picking the nation’s smartest academics, tech geeks, and librarians ... generally introverts, in other words. So they lower their expectations and just ask winners for big smiles,” Jeopardy! superstar Ken Jennings (of the mental_floss Kennections quiz) explains.
But some contestants struggle to find the right balance between showing too much emotion and not showing enough. After Josh Hager won an episode in 2014, the show’s producers came over to him once the episode had wrapped and told him not to be afraid to show his winning smile. “Apparently my endeavor to stay composed was too successful and they wanted just a little more emotion,” Hager says.
8. SOMETIMES THERE IS NO WINNER.
Although one of the three contestants in each episode almost always wins, several episodes have ended with no winner. Most recently, in January 2016, all three contestants answered incorrectly in the final round, losing all the money they had earned during the first two rounds. Because there was no winner, the next episode—with no returning champion—introduced three new players.
9. THEY HAVE TO KEEP QUIET UNTIL THEIR EPISODE AIRS.
Most episodes don’t air until several months after they’re taped. This lag time means that winners need to stay quiet about how they performed, and it can force repeat winners to habitually lie to their coworkers, family, and friends. In 2004, Jennings taped 48 shows before his first episode aired, so he had to keep his commute (every few weeks) from his home in Utah to Los Angeles a secret. “My boss told my co-workers a series of increasingly implausible lies about my whereabouts every other Tuesday and Wednesday. You think computer programmers are all geniuses? No one ever caught on,” Jennings writes on his website.
10. THEY DON’T GET PAID FOR A WHILE.
After patiently waiting for their first episode to air, winners must also wait months after their show’s air date for their prize money. And yes, they have to pay taxes on their winnings. Hager reveals to mental_floss that he got paid about six months after his episode aired. And although he won $27,100, he netted approximately $20,000 after federal tax, California tax (where the show is taped), and North Carolina tax (where he lives).
11. SOME OF THEM CAN BUY A HOUSE WITH THEIR PRIZE MONEY.
Big winners can earn tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, which may allow them to pay off student loans, put a down payment on a house, or travel abroad. Even winners of more modest amounts can benefit from the extra cash, putting it toward a family vacation or college fund for kids. Hager, for example, used his prize money to pay off almost all of his student loans, and he and his wife moved out of their studio apartment into a spacious house. “Jeopardy! really did change my life and I can't be more grateful,” he says.
12. FEEDBACK FROM JEOPARDY! FANS CAN BE MIXED.
Thanks to social media, winners face public scrutiny over everything from their appearance to the questions they answer incorrectly. Many internet commenters criticized recent winner Buzzy Cohen for his seemingly smug attitude and flippant responses in Final Jeopardy!, while others liked his sense of humor. Although some winners face a stream of harsh words on Twitter, they may also receive praise. “Lots of people on the internet compared me to Fred Armisen, which I take as a compliment,” Sam Deutsch, the winner of Jeopardy!’s 2016 College Championship, tells mental_floss.
13. WINNING THE SHOW PROVIDES LIFELONG PERKS.
Some winners include their Jeopardy! win on their resumes and LinkedIn profiles, hoping it will make them stand out to potential bosses and colleagues. After winning the show 74 times in a row, Jennings published a series of books, read a Top Ten list for David Letterman, and appeared on Sesame Street. “But the most gratifying thing lately has probably been the letters I get from kids … They all seem so smart! I'm doing my part for the nerd-ification of America’s youth,” he says.
14. WATCHING THE SHOW MAY STRESS THEM OUT.
Chu says that while he was studying for the show, his life centered on watching and reading about Jeopardy! to the detriment of his other activities. But after winning, he stopped watching the show to give himself a mental break. And Jennings admits that winning so many episodes has changed his reaction to seeing it on TV. “I find that I have a hard time sitting on my couch and lazily shouting out answers at Trebek, like I used to. Everything about the show—the music, the graphics, the sound effects—causes some fight-or-flight adrenaline spike in my blood and I become hyper-aware of every detail of the show. Maybe I have post-traumatic stress disorder,” he says.
15. THEY CAN’T ESCAPE THE CATCHY THEME SONG.
According to Terry O’Shea, who won first place on the show's 2014 College Championship, winners can’t escape the show’s instantly recognizable theme song. “When you go on Jeopardy!, people WILL taunt you with the theme song. It's an unavoidable fact of life. If you do well enough, this will persist for several years afterward,” O’Shea explains. After appearing on the show, other winners face unrealistically high expectations about possessing encyclopedic knowledge. “I always watch [the show] with my friends, and they love teasing me when they know something I don’t,” Deutsch admits.