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.