Behind the Scenes at the Tournament of Champions

Jeopardy Productions, Inc.
Jeopardy Productions, Inc. / Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

The best part of being really successful at something is the fleeting sense of satisfaction you get when you condescendingly advise other people on how to be successful like you.

A lot of people asked me for advice on how to kick the butt of America’s most beloved game show earlier this year when I became the third-highest earning Jeopardy! champion in non-tournament play history. There was plenty of pontificating about the “Forrest Bounce,” about flashcards and “wheelhouse categories,” and about “game theory"—especially wagering theory and betting for the tie.

And now that I'm appearing on the Tournament of Champions, I had assumed there would be even more clamoring for my tips and tricks for success.

Well, that would be the case if the wind hadn't been taken out of my sails when Julia Collins sailed past my record and David Madden’s, ending up number two in Jeopardy! earnings history and demoting me to the fourth spot—all without doing a single one of the things I recommended that people do should they appear on Jeopardy!.

Instead, Julia won mainly by knowing all the right answers and buzzing in really fast. And while “Know all the answers and say them before everyone else” is really the best advice you can give for Jeopardy!—or, for that matter, life in general—people aren’t particularly impressed when you say it.

So, rather than dwell on boring technical analysis, I thought I’d talk about the intangibles—things that have nothing to do with clue selection or Daily Double wagers, but rather advice dealing with the overall Jeopardy! tournament experience.

Very few people ever make it behind the scenes to a Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions, but if you ever find yourself one of the lucky fifteen, perhaps these words of wisdom can help you make the best of your return to Culver City.

1. You Get To Pick a Green Room Movie—Choose Wisely.

During the quarterfinals matches of the Tournament of Champions, Jeopardy! staff puts a movie on in the green room where the contestants are sequestered so we can’t hear any chatter from the games being taped. This is because, unlike a normal Jeopardy! game, the tournament quarterfinals have four “wild card” slots determined by the final score.

Jeopardy! always has a stock of DVDs on hand that contestants vote on, and while it’s a mostly innocuous list—I’d love to get pumped for Jeopardy! by watching Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, but, alas, it wasn't offered—there’s some strategic thinking behind the choices.

First of all, the movies are all vetted by Jeopardy!’s writing staff to ensure they contain no spoilers for the tournament itself. This means that it’s to your advantage to pick a movie that contains a lot of pop culture references that you can tick off in your mind as things that won’t come up. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, with its many references to video games and bands, is a good example. Planes, Trains and Automobiles, on the other hand, is fairly devoid of cultural references. Pretty much all you can deduce from that movie is that Jeopardy! isn’t going to ask how far it is from Wichita to Chicago.

In addition, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has an engaging rock soundtrack consisting of both alt-rock classics and new music written for the movie by artists like Beck and Metric. By contrast, while it features several classic songs including the old standard “Red River Valley,” Planes, Trains and Automobiles has many “quiet” scenes with little music or background noise. This means that Corina, the person Jeopardy! assigned to watch us in the green room, would have to keep cranking up the volume to drown out the noise from the studio, making extra work for her.

If you can't tell, I was the only one who voted for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. We had to watch Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

2. People Will Obsess About Your Weight.

Yeah, I was overweight when I was on Jeopardy! the first time around. Since then I’ve become ... well, I’m still overweight, but significantly less so. More John-Goodman-in-The Big Lebowski, less John-Goodman-in-Roseanne.

I gained a lot of weight leading up to Jeopardy! due to stress—partly from Jeopardy! itself and partly from the kind of stress that comes with not having very much money and therefore having to do crazy things like try out for Jeopardy!. I’ve said publicly that having a methodical strategy for attacking Jeopardy! worked out well enough to inspire me to find a similar strategy for tackling my weight problem.

This is all nonsense. It was, in reality, a planned PR maneuver from the very beginning. Nobody makes any comment about your appearance if you look basically the same between your initial appearance and when you come back for the Tournament. That’s only interesting if you manage to somehow maintain exactly the same appearance over the course of 10 years and come back looking completely identical for the Battle of the Decades, like Ken Jennings did.

But I still hold that even if Brad Rutter weren’t the winningest Jeopardy! contestant of all time and the man who’s beaten Ken Jennings twice, never lost to a human being, and won $4 million total, he’d still be remembered by the general population as the guy who went from looking like this to looking like this.

(Brad Rutter, by the way, is also an L.A. local who watches every Tournament of Champions from the studio audience, and he managed to win the audience door prize for a free download of the Jeopardy app this year. It’s some kind of rule that Brad wins everything.)

If you do manage to go on the Tournament of Champions, losing a lot of weight right before the tournament taping will guarantee that when Maggie Speak, official contestant producer and unofficial den mother of Jeopardy!, introduces you to everyone, she’ll ask you for your “weight loss secret” before she even mentions how much money you won.

It also means that Alex Trebek will ignore the anecdotes you wrote down on your index cards and instead straight-up ask you, “How did you lose so much weight?” People who saw you on TV before but haven’t been keeping track of your media hits since then will look at you with a kind of awe and go, “You look great!”

I learned that it doesn't matter how well you do in the tournament because whether you flame out in the first round or take home the grand prize, it will be less important than the fact that you’re skinnier now.

By the way, once the tournament is over and I’m confident no one is ever going to point a camera at me again, I plan to gain it all back in one day by eating 10 pizzas in bed.

3. Beware the Ant-Covered Railing.

Jeopardy! puts the Tournament of Champions contestants up in the Universal City Hilton, which is a very nice hotel. It has an enormous all-you-can-eat buffet that’s perfect for getting a head start on reverting to your former size now that your TV ordeal is over. The hotel is also right by Universal Studios, meaning it's easy to distract yourself from studying by going to see that ancient animatronic Jaws you loved when you were a kid.

But one caveat: There’s a pedestrian bridge crossing to Universal Studios from the hotel, one of L.A.’s few token concessions to the inconvenient fact that pedestrians exist. This railing is, for some reason, constantly covered in ants. Even a single second’s contact with the railing will cause hundreds of ants to instantly transfer themselves onto your clothes and skin.

You will be picking ants off yourself all day. This is not conducive to maintaining either the appearance or the mindset of a champion. Be forewarned, fellow competitors.

4. Think twice before agreeing to let someone make a documentary about you.

On the off chance that a film director from Chicago calls you up and says he wants to make a documentary about your “post-Jeopardy! journey,” you should set aside your pathological need for attention and validation for just a moment to think about what the process of making a documentary entails.

Understand that even if the Kickstarter falls through that doesn’t mean the film crew can’t scrape together enough money to send a guy to your hotel room to catch B-roll of you studying before the tournament. And it doesn’t matter if your optimum study environment involves you being buck naked except for your earbuds and singing along loudly to Taylor Swift while rapidly flipping through flashcards—you’ll be forced to adjust your study habits to something more “relatable” to Middle America.

Consider, before writing that heartfelt Huffington Post article promoting the documentary, just how awkward it is sitting in an airport departure lounge having a dude with a camera staring at you trying to “capture your thoughts before the big day,” terrifyingly conscious the whole time of how badly you want to pick your nose.

5. Don’t miss the real opportunity.

If you’re a Jeopardy! fan, the Tournament of Champions isn’t just a trivia game with a big cash prize, or even a chance to meet some of the smartest, nerdiest people in the country. It’s a chance to see the characters from the nation’s longest ongoing television drama come to life and greet you in the flesh. It's like meeting the nobles from Game of Thrones or the gangsters and cops from The Wire, only with slightly less violence.

Getting to shake the hand of the “translation coordinator from Eastpointe, Michigan” who famously wore the correct answer to Final Jeopardy, still got it wrong, and yet won the game anyway ... Playing cribbage with the “IT consultant from Florence, South Carolina” with the astonishing 9/9 Final Jeopardy record, which, for Jeopardy! fans, is a statistic as significant as Rickey Henderson’s 1,406 stolen bases (a fact I only know because of studying for Jeopardy!) ... Meeting the mild-mannered “supply chain professional from Kenilworth, Illinois” with the longest winning streak since Ken Jennings ... Seeing the sparks fly when she finally faces off against her arch-rival, the Jeopardy! villain himself ... those types of things are what it's all about.

Yes, it seems dorky to outsiders who don’t “get it,” but this is our Super Bowl. Whether it ends in victory or defeat, just participating in history is reward enough.

Well, no. Who am I kidding: $250,000 is still a tremendous amount of money and way way more than the $5000 you get for flaming out in the first round.

So here’s my real advice: Know all the answers and say them before anyone else does.

Watch Jeopardy! this week to see if I was able to.