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.

15 Clever Breaking Bad Easter Eggs Hiding in Better Call Saul

Patrick Fabian, Rhea Seehorn, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Michael Mando, Giancarlo Esposito, and Tony Dalton in Better Call Saul.
Patrick Fabian, Rhea Seehorn, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Michael Mando, Giancarlo Esposito, and Tony Dalton in Better Call Saul.
James Minchin/AMC

As evidenced by Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan and his cohorts have an eye for detail that’s nearly unrivaled. If anything, Better Call Saul—which is originally set several years before the events of Breaking Bad—only proves the point. The series, which is about to kick off its fifth season, focuses on Jimmy McGill (soon to become Saul Goodman) and is full of references to its progenitor, some of which are pure fun, and some of which add a deeper meaning to what we already know. Here are 15 clever Breaking Bad Easter eggs hiding in Better Call Saul.

**Warning: Plenty of spoilers ahead for both series.**

1. Being Kevin Costner

In a throwaway moment in Breaking Bad, Saul mentions to Walt that he once convinced a woman he was Kevin Costner (“If you’re committed enough, you can make any story work”), and in the finale of the first season of Better Call Saul, we see the exact moment he was referring to. In case we thought that Saul was just making the story up for the sake of a pep talk, here’s the proof otherwise.

2. Neighborhood mainstay

If the diner where Jimmy first meets with the Kettlemans looked familiar to you, it’s for good reason. Loyola’s Diner featured in Breaking Bad as a mainstay of Mike’s—he met with Jesse there, as well as Lydia. It’s also, incidentally, a very real restaurant in Albuquerque. And while we’re on the subject of Mike and food, he’s been shown to be fond of pimento cheese sandwiches in both series.

3. Address unknown

David Costabile as Gale Boetticher in 'Breaking Bad'
Ursula Coyote, AMC

In Better Call Saul, it’s shown that Jimmy's office is at 160 Juan Tabo Boulevard (which is a real nail salon). Those of you with a head for directions might also recall that that’s the same street that the ill-fated chemist Gale Boetticher lives on, at 6353 Juan Tabo Boulevard. Breaking Bad fans were thrilled when the karaoke-loving chemist appeared in Season 4 of Better Call Saul (with hopefully more to come).

4. The Ignacio connection

Michael Mando as Nacho Varga in Better Call Saul
Michael Mando as Nacho Varga in Better Call Saul.
Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

When he’s kidnapped by Walt and Jesse after refusing to help a busted Badger, Saul spits out a variety of nonsense in an attempt to stay alive. He also drops a name: Ignacio. So who is he talking about? As we learn in Better Call Saul, this refers to Nacho, who’s become one of the secondary leads on the show. “Nacho” is a nickname, short for Ignacio, which makes sense as a connection given how closely he’s been working with Jimmy/Saul.

5. Cheap tricks

Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn in 'Better Call Saul'
Michele K. Short, AMC/Sony Pictures

There’s another callback to the first time that Walt, Jesse, and Saul meet. Despite still having his hands tied behind his back, when Saul agrees to help Walt and Jesse, he tells them to each put a dollar in his pocket in order to secure attorney-client privilege. It seems that Saul got that idea from Kim, who, when she decides to help Jimmy after discovering he’s falsified evidence, tells him to give her a dollar for exactly the same reason.

6. Old afflictions

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill and Mel Rodriguez as Marco Pasternak in 'Better Call Saul'
Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill and Mel Rodriguez as Marco Pasternak in Better Call Saul.
Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

In yet another reference to that fateful first meeting, we learn that Saul isn’t bluffing when he tells Walt and Jesse that he has bad knees. He says the same thing when cops apprehend him in the first season of Better Call Saul. As to why he’s got bad knees to begin with, it all comes from his time as “Slippin’ Jimmy,” when he used to stage falls in order to earn a little bit of money.

7. Car talk

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in 'Breaking Bad'
Ursula Coyote, AMC

Saul Goodman drives a white 1997 Cadillac DeVille with the vanity plate “LWYRUP.” Jimmy McGill’s ride is much more modest: a yellow Suzuki Esteem with a red door. That said, in the pilot of Better Call Saul, we very briefly see a white Cadillac DeVille—Jimmy parks his car next to it, in a truly blink-and-you-miss-it allusion to what’s to come. (Gus, notably, is driving the same blue Volvo in both shows.)

8. Home sweet home

In Better Call Saul, one of the retirement homes that Jimmy visits in his quest to find new clients for his growing elder law business is Casa Tranquila. If it sounds familiar, that's because it's a key location in Breaking Bad as the home of Hector Salamanca, and the place where he kills his longtime nemesis Gus Fring. It’s a nice touch to revisit the location, especially given the fact that Better Call Saul gives us the story as to how Hector wound up in a wheelchair in the first place.

9. What's your poison?

There’s also a nice bit of brand continuity with the made-up tequila Zafiro Añejo. Gus poisons a bottle to get back at Don Eladio in Breaking Bad, and we see the same blue bottle pop up in Better Call Saul when Jimmy and Kim scam a cocky stock broker named Ken. Ken, for his part, seems to be reaping a constant stream of bad karma, as he’s also in Breaking Bad as a victim of Heisenberg’s wrath. He swipes Walt’s parking spot—and has his car set on fire for his trouble.

10. The little piggy

Though Mike is hard as nails, he’s got a soft spot the size of Texas for his granddaughter Kaylee. He gifts her a pink pig plush in Better Call Saul, which crops up again in Breaking Bad under slightly less cute circumstances. He uses the doll as a distraction when an assassination attempt is made on his life.

11. Word games

Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring in 'Breaking Bad'
Ursula Coyote, AMC

The first letters of the episode titles of the second season of Better Call Saul are an anagram for “FRING’S BACK.” It’s a granular sort of trick that the creators have pulled off before: four of the episodes of season two of Breaking Bad spell out “Seven Thirty-Seven Down Over ABQ.” In the season finale, a 737 plane does indeed go down over Albuquerque, or ABQ.

12. Sentimental value

Given that Saul’s Breaking Bad office has a lot of strange objects in it, it’d be easy to miss the octagonal desk. As it turns out, the offices of Saul Goodman aren’t the desk’s first home: it’s seen in the background of Kim’s office in Better Call Saul. It’s retroactive, sure, but it’s still nice to know that Saul has some mementos around.

13. Movie night

Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn in 'Better Call Saul'
Ursula Coyote, AMC/Sony Pictures Television

There’s also a little sentimental value in the name of Saul’s holding company, Ice Station Zebra Associates, which he uses to help Walt launder money in Breaking Bad. As we discover in Better Call Saul, Ice Station Zebra is Kim’s favorite movie, due to her father’s affection for it. Though Kim is physically absent from Breaking Bad, small details seem to tie back to her all the time.

14. Set dressing

Krazy-8, may he rest in peace, also shows up in Better Call Saul. The van that he drives has the logo for Tampico Furniture on it, and he’s wearing a uniform with the logo as well. Tampico is where Walt, as he recalls in Breaking Bad, bought Walter Jr.’s crib. Unfortunately, those fond memories aren’t quite enough to save Krazy-8’s skin.

15. Beware of bugs

Before Mike leaves Philly for Albuquerque, a bartender tells him to be mindful of tarantulas. The spider plays a key role in Breaking Bad later on, as a young boy’s pursuit of the bug puts him in Walt’s path—and Todd’s path, by proxy. Determined to make a good impression on Walt, and knowing that there can’t be any witnesses to what they’re doing, Todd shoots the boy in one of the most shocking and cold-blooded moments in the entire series.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2018.

10 Fascinating Facts About W.E.B. Du Bois

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born just three years after the end of the Civil War and lived to see the incipient days of the Civil Rights movement. A thinker, scientist, and activist, Du Bois was an integral part of moving from one era to the next, not only by contributing a remarkable amount to the public discourse on racial inequity but also by putting his beliefs into practice as an organizer. His legacy is cemented by his social scientific efforts and the groups he founded to fight for social justice. Here are 10 facts about W.E.B. Du Bois.

1. W.E.B. Du Bois was the first African American to get a Ph.D. from Harvard.

Du Bois attended the historically black college Fisk University from 1885 to 1888 before seeking a second bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. In 1892, he earned a John F. Slater Fund grant to study at the University of Berlin, but he wasn't tired of academia yet. He returned to the United States and, in 1895, became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard with his dissertation, "The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in the United States of America: 1638-1871." During his undergrad years at Harvard, Du Bois was taught by the preeminent American philosopher and pioneer in psychology William James, who had an effect on Du Bois’s thinking and writing.

2. W.E.B. Du Bois conducted the first major case study of a black community in the United States.

Published in 1899, “The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study” was the result of Du Bois’s survey of the city’s black population from 1896 to 1897. The study, which involved 5000 personal interviews, sought to identify the social problems unique to the black population. Not only was it the first case study of any black community, it was also an early effort of sociological research as a data-driven, statistically based social science. Du Bois’s conclusion was that the root of the multivariate problems lay in how black Americans were perceived, noting that the problems would ease if whites would see their black neighbors as peers instead of inferior: “Again, the white people of the city must remember that much of the sorrow and bitterness that surrounds the life of the American Negro comes from the unconscious prejudice and half-conscious actions of men and women who do not intend to wound or annoy.” He also noted the historical causes of the so-called “Negro Problem,” including the legacy of systemic slavery and biased housing policies that left black members of society paying more rent for worse accommodations.

3. W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903.

In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois discussed his concept of “double consciousness,” an existential state experienced by persecuted groups in oppressive societies, marked by sensing your identity is divided. Du Bois wrote, “One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

Du Bois's former professor, James, praised The Souls of Black Folk upon its release. He also reportedly sent a copy of Du Bois’s landmark work to his brother, the iconic American novelist Henry James.

4. W.E.B. Du Bois founded the Niagara Movement and opposed Booker T. Washington.

During the Reconstruction Era in the South, African Americans experienced a greater amount of social freedom and political participation, but nearing the turn of the century, southern states began restricting voting rights and segregating facilities. Eventually, in response, Booker T. Washington helped lay out the Atlanta Compromise—a principle that black Americans should avoid protesting for civic rights so long as they had access to criminal justice and jobs. In response to Washington’s tactic of capitulation, Du Bois and newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter led a group to found the Niagara Movement in 1905, which advocated for equal treatment, equal economic opportunities, equal educational opportunities, and “manhood suffrage.”

5. W.E.B. Du Bois's views gained larger support after the Atlanta Race Riots of 1906.

Between September 22 and 24, 1906, in response to unsupported reports about black men raping four white women, more than 10,000 whites stormed through Atlanta, beating every black person they could find. The riots resulted in a number of deaths (the exact number could be as low as 10 or as high as 100) and, as an outright betrayal of justice, spat in the face of Washington’s brand of going along to get along.

After the riots, Du Bois wrote the poem “A Litany of Atlanta” and bought a shotgun in response. Du Bois and others felt that President Theodore Roosevelt and his Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, should have sent in troops to prevent more violence. Coupled with an incident involving soldiers in Brownsville, Texas that same year, in 1908 Du Bois proclaimed that if Taft received the Republican nomination blacks should drop their support for the Republicans (a party they’d been faithful to since Abraham Lincoln), proclaiming an “avowed enemy [is] better than false friends.”

6. W.E.B. Du Bois co-founded the NAACP.

Four years after the Niagara meeting, Du Bois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) alongside figures such as journalist Mary White Ovington and lawyer Moorfield Storey. It was created as a biracial organization that would protest and lobby for equality (much like its forerunner, the Niagara Movement). Its earliest battles included fighting Jim Crow laws in the South (which segregated public facilities), opposing President Woodrow Wilson's segregation in federal workplaces, and lobbying for the right of African Americans to serve as military officers in WWI. Five years after its founding, it had 6000 members in 50 branches. From 1910 to 1934, Du Bois acted as the director of publicity and research, was on the board of directors, and edited its monthly magazine, The Crisis, which covered arts and politics.

7. W.E.B. Du Bois was a Civil Rights activist on a global scale.

Du Bois’s interest in equality extended beyond his own national borders. He helped organize multiple Pan-African Conferences after attending his first in 1900 in London. There, he penned the “Address to the Nations of the World,” which urged the United States and European nations to fight systemic racism and to end colonialism. He was also a member of the three-person delegation from the NAACP to the United Nations’ founding conference in 1945. As a writer and activist, he fought for freedom and equality for the whole of the African diaspora and for Africans themselves.

8. W.E.B. DU BOIS was a victim of McCarthyism.

The FBI started a file on Du Bois—an avowed Socialist—in 1942. In the 1950s—when McCarthyism was at its peak—Du Bois, who served as chairman of the anti-nuke Peace Information Center, and four others were charged with failing to register the organization with the government. If they had been convicted, they could have faced five years in prison and a fine of $10,000.

The jury didn’t get to render a verdict, however, because the judge threw the case out after defense attorney Vito Marcantonio informed him that Albert Einstein would testify as a character witness for Du Bois. (The two were pen pals, and Einstein even wrote an essay for The Crisis.)

9. W.E.B. Du Bois became a citizen of Ghana but never renounced his United States Citizenship.

The fallout from the McCarthy-era government repression was profound. Several of Du Bois’s colleagues kept their distance, including the NAACP, which never rose publicly to his defense. Plus, despite the lack of a conviction, the government still revoked Du Bois’s passport for eight years. After getting it back, Du Bois traveled to Ghana in 1961 (at the age of 93) to work on an encyclopedia of the African diaspora. When the United States refused to renew his passport in 1963, Du Bois became a citizen of Ghana in symbolic protest. He’s sometimes erroneously included in lists of famous people who have renounced their American citizenship, but Du Bois never formally did so.

10. W.E.B. Du Bois died the day before Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have A Dream” speech.

Du Bois was 95 when he died in Accra, Ghana, on August 27, 1963. (Du Bois’s house in Accra, where he’s buried, was turned into the W.E.B. Du Bois Center, a small museum to his time in Ghana.) The next day, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the famous speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where he shared his dream. It seems fate isn’t without a sense of poetry.

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