15 Brainy Secrets of Jeopardy! Winners

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

23 Notoriously Unrhymable Words (That Actually Have Rhymes)

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iStock.com/MeXaHuK

You’ll no doubt have heard the old fact that nothing rhymes with orange. But in fact, the English surname Gorringe—as in Henry Honeychurch Gorringe, captain of the USS Gettysburg—rhymes with orange. And so does Blorenge, the name of a hill in south Wales. But even if proper nouns like surnames and place names are excluded, that still leaves sporange, an obscure name for the sporangium, which is the part of a plant that produces its spores. So although it might all depend on your accent, on how obscure a word you’re willing to accept, and on precisely where the stress falls in the word (because sporange can either rhyme with orange or be pronounced “spuh-ranj”), it seems there actually is a rhyme for orange.

In fact, despite often finding their way onto lists of notoriously unrhymable words, all of the words listed here do have rhymes in English—just so long as bizarre dialect words and obscure scientific jargon are allowed.

1. Acrid rhymes with epacrid (in some pronunciations), a name for any plant of the genus Epacris, most of which are found in Australia.

2. Angst partially rhymes with both phalanxed, meaning “arranged in rows,” and thanksed, an old word meaning “given thanks to.”

3. Beige is pronounced so that it sounds more like the first syllable of Asia than it does similarly spelled words like age, gauge, stage, and rage. But that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of a rhyme; there’s also greige, the name for the dull color of undyed fabric.

4. Bulb rhymes with culb, an obscure 17th century word for a retort or a barbed reply.

5. Chaos rhymes with naos, a name for the innermost part of a Greek temple, and speos, an Egyptian tomb built into a cave.

6. Circle rhymes with hurkle, an old dialect word meaning “to pull your arms and legs in towards your body,” as well as both heterocercal and homocercal, two zoological terms describing the tails of fish that are either asymmetrical or symmetrical, respectively.

7. Circus has a homophone, cercus, which is the name of a bodily appendage found on certain insects, and so rhymes with cysticercus, another name for a tapeworm larva. If that’s too obscure, why not try rhyming it with murcous—a 17th century word meaning “lacking a thumb.”

8. Concierge is a direct borrowing from French, so the number of English words it can rhyme with is already limited. But there is demi-vierge, another French loanword used as an old-fashioned name for a unchaste young woman—or, as Merriam-Webster explains, “a girl … who engages in lewd or suggestive speech and usually promiscuous petting but retains her virginity.” It literally means “half-virgin.”

9. Dunce rhymes with punce, a dialect word for flattened, pounded meat, or for a sudden hard kick, among other definitions.

10. False rhymes with valse, which is an alternative name for a waltz, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

11. Film rhymes with pilm, an old southern English word for dust or fine powder.

12. Filth rhymes with both spilth, which is the quantity lost when a drink is spilled (or the spilling itself), and tilth, meaning hard work or labor.

13. Gouge rhymes with scrouge, which means “to crowd or crush together.” In 19th century college slang, a scrouge was also a long, dull, or arduous lesson or piece of work.

14. Gulf rhymes with both sulf, which is another name for toadflax plants, and culf, an old southwest English word for the loose feathers that come out of pillows and cushions.

15. Music rhymes with both ageusic and dysgeusia, both of which are medical words describing a total lack of or minor malfunction in a person’s sense of taste, respectively.

16. Purple rhymes with hirple, meaning “to limp” or “walk awkwardly,” and curple, an old Scots word for a leather strap that goes beneath the tail of a horse to secure its saddle (it also more broadly means "buttocks").

17. Replenish rhymes with both displenish, which means “to remove furniture,” and Rhenish, meaning “relating to the river Rhine.”

18. Rhythm rhymes with the English place name Lytham as well as smitham, an old word for fine malt dust or powdered lead ore.

19. Silver, after purple and orange, is the third of three English colors supposedly without rhymes. But there is chilver, an old dialect word for a ewe lamb.

20. Wasp rhymes with both cosp, a hasp for fastening a door or gate, and knosp, an architectural ornament resembling the bud of a tree.

21. Width rhymes with sidth, an English dialect word variously used for the length, depth, or breadth of something—or literally the length of one side.

22. Window rhymes with tamarindo, a Spanish-American drink made of boiled and sweetened tamarind fruit.

23. Women rhymes with both timon, an old word for the rudder of a ship, and dimmen, meaning “to grow dim” or “to set like the sun.” Woman, however, has no rhyme at all. (Apparently.)

A version of this list first ran in 2015.

12 Surprising Facts About Emilia Clarke

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Larry Busacca, Getty Images

Game of Thrones fans know every title claimed by Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen: First of Her Name, The Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons. But there's probably a lot you don't know about the actress who plays her. Emilia Clarke has had almost as fascinating a life as the character that made her famous. Here are just a few surprising facts about the 32-year-old London native.

1. She has wanted to be an actor since she was a toddler.

Show business is in Emilia Clarke's blood. When she was just 3 years old, she attended a performance of Showboat, which her father—a theater sound engineer—was working on. "We sat her in the front row in house seats—Showboat at the London Palladium," Emilia's mom, Jenny, said. "She sat on my lap the whole way through, transfixed by the whole thing." It was then that she decided she wanted to become an actor.

2. Her father gave her some straight talk about becoming an actor.

When Clarke expressed a desire to take to the stage, her father made sure she understood what she was up against. "He wanted me to be very realistic about the whole thing, about how nobody makes any money," she told Esquire in 2015. "The only line you'll ever need to learn, he told me, is 'Do you want fries with that?'"

3. She played a classic Audrey Hepburn character on Broadway.

Emilia Clarke and Cory Michael Smith and Vito Vincent the cat take part in the 'Breakfast At Tiffany's' Broadway Opening Night at Cort Theatre on March 20, 2013 in New York City
Michael Loccisano, Getty Images

In 2013, Clarke made her Broadway debut as Holly Golightly in a staged version of Breakfast at Tiffany's. Despite Clarke's acting skills, the play received poor reviews and suffered from low ticket sales; it closed after just one month.

4. She is the second person to play Daenerys Targaryen.

In the original unaired pilot of Game of Thrones, Dany was played by Tamzin Merchant. Though it's never been seen, the script recently resurfaced and seemed to confirm that it was rather problematic. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss ended up reshooting about 90 percent of the pilot to create "Winter is Coming," the series' first official episode. Those reshoots included, for a still-undisclosed reason, the recasting of Daenerys Targaryen. Clarke has since earned three Emmy Award nominations (and counting) for the role.

5. All of that nudity in Game of Thrones wasn't easy for Clarke.

Though Daenerys Targaryen turned out to be a career-changing role for Clarke, she admitted that it wasn't always easy. Between all of the nudity required of her character, and an infamous rape scene, Clarke's early days on the series could be trying. "Once, I had to take a little time out," she told Esquire of filming the first season. "I said I needed a cup of tea, had a bit of a cry, and was ready for the next scene."

6. She is the second Game of Thrones actress to play Sarah Connor.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Emilia Clarke in Terminator Genisys (2015)
Melinda Sue Gordon, Paramount Pictures

Clarke starred alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator Genisys, playing the role of Sarah Connor. The part was previously played by Cersei Lannister herself, Lena Headey, in the short-lived TV series, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Schwarzenegger was impressed with how well Clarke followed in the footsteps of Linda Hamilton, the original Sarah Connor. Ultimately, however, the movie flopped—which didn't bother Clarke at all. In an interview with Vanity Fair, she admitted that she was "relieved" that the movie was a failure, as it meant she didn't have to return for any sequels.

7. She idolized Arnold Schwarzenegger growing up.

After being forced to watch the first two Terminator movies by her brother as a child, Clarke became a huge fan of the series and of Arnold Schwarzenegger himself. To prepare for her role in Game of Thrones, she told the Irish Examiner that she actually "watched Sarah Connor back, in order to kind of embody some other strong women on screen. So it was funny when this audition [for Terminator Genisys] came around. I was like, ‘Yes, definitely!'" She admitted that she geeked out a bit when filming on Terminator Genisys began, and that she would drop Schwarzenegger's famous "I'll be back" line nonstop. "To his face, not to his face, all of it," Clarke said.

As for her co-star, Clarke commended Schwarzenegger's "calming, gorgeous presence on set that put everyone at ease. And he’s such an iconic figure—there were a lot of ‘pinch me’ moments, when you’re like, ‘I can’t believe I’m actually doing this.'"

8. She's got some serious musical talent.

Clarke is an exceptionally talented musician. With her alto voice, she can expertly sing ballads, blues, cabaret, and jazz numbers. She can also play the piano, flute, and guitar. 

9. Fans often don't recognize her in public.

Emilia Clarke attends the European Premiere of 'Solo: A Star Wars Story' at Palais des Festivals on May 15, 2018 in Cannes, France
Antony Jones, Getty Images for Disney

If you only know Clarke from Game of Thrones, you could be forgiven for thinking she has long, platinum blonde hair in real life. That was just a wig until she dyed her hair blonde in September 2017. Her natural color is much darker, and as a result, she's confessed she still isn't recognized much in the outside world when her hair is brown.

"I don't get recognized, truly," the actress told Conan O'Brien. "I'll be walking with Kit Harington, who plays Jon Snow, or Gwen [Christie], who plays Brienne of Tarth, and people will be like, ‘Can you take this picture for us?’ And I'm like, ‘Sure! Definitely I can!'"

10. She worked anywhere from three to six jobs at once before being cast.

Actors have to do a lot to make ends meet before their big break. Before landing her role on Game of Thrones, Clarke worked as a server, a bartender, a call center agent, and a licensed real estate agent.

11. She had other jobs in mind.

Everyone tells actors to have a backup plan and Clarke was no different. If acting hadn't worked out, she thinks she would have been a singer, an architect, or a graphic designer. 

12. She was bullied for her eyebrows as a child.

They may be one of her defining features now, but wasn't always a fan of her eyebrows—especially as she was teased about them as a kid. Fortunately, her mother knew better. "My mom had rules when I was younger: 'Don't do drugs, don't have sex, and don't touch your eyebrows,' she'd say," Clarke told Cosmopolitan. "And I didn't and I'm so grateful for that advice."

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