Why Those Jeopardy! Buzzers Are Even More Anxiety-Producing Than They Look

Jeopardy! contestant Nancy Zerg puts her hands to her mouth in shock after beating champion Ken Jennings in 2004.
Jeopardy! contestant Nancy Zerg puts her hands to her mouth in shock after beating champion Ken Jennings in 2004. / Jeopardy Productions via Getty Images

Excelling at Jeopardy! isn’t just about knowing an endless array of trivia and bantering well with Alex Trebek. It’s also about having lightning-quick reflexes. There’s a reason why some contestants push their buzzer, only to have Trebek call on a competitor for the answer—and it’s all in the timing, Mashable reports.

Jeopardy! contestants can’t just hit their buzzer midway through a clue. There’s an indicator light they have to wait to see, one that only goes on when Trebek has spit out the last syllable of whatever clue he’s reading. Any button action before that point is moot.

“In the early days of the show, contestants could ring in at any time and that led to a lot of quick guesses, negative scores, and general confusion,” according to a blog on the show’s website.

These days, a Jeopardy! staffer sits offstage and monitors exactly when the host finishes reading out the clue. He or she then clicks a button to illuminate a set of blinking lights on either side of the game board, giving the contestants a visual signal to jump in if they know the answer.

The signaling device system is designed to only register the first buzz it gets after it turns on, so if you’re a split second behind your competition, all the button-pressing in the world won’t help. Based on whichever buzzer came in first, the digital system illuminates that podium. If the first contestant to respond gives an incorrect answer, the remaining two contestants get another chance to buzz in.

If you’re too quick to mash that button, though, you’ll be penalized. For anyone who buzzes in before the signal lights go on, there’s a quarter-second wait period where you’re locked out from buzzing in again, giving your competitors an edge to get to answer first. The show is accustomed to people buzzing in too early, though.

“With such critical timing and so much at stake, there’s always a chance that all three contestants may attempt to ring in before the system is armed,” the blog explains. “That’s why we instruct contestants to keep hitting the buzzer until they see the confirmation light on their podium or until Alex calls on one of them.”

Appearing on Jeopardy! already seemed stressful. Flashing lights and timing your moves within a syllable’s time? We have even more respect for the show's champs now.

[h/t Mashable]