18 Secrets of ‘Jeopardy!’ That Only the Contestants Know

Go behind the scenes of your favorite trivia game show.

18 Secrets of ‘Jeopardy!’ That Only the Contestants Know
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Jeopardy!, in the show’s current format, has been on the air for a whopping 35 years, hosted by the beloved Alex Trebek and his ever-evolving, iconic facial hair.

If you’ve been living under a rock for the past three decades and haven’t seen the show (What is impossible, Alex?!), here’s what you need to know. Jeopardy! is a game show that challenges three contestants to a test of general trivia. But the twist is huge: host Alex Trebek reads the answer as a clue, and contestants hit a buzzer for a chance to respond with a question. Over the course of each show, contestants battle it out over three rounds, 13 topics, and 61 questions spread across the show’s iconic grid of 36 blue TV screens.

Another cool thing about Jeopardy!: Each correct answer (or, OK, fine, question) is worth a certain dollar amount — from $200 to $2,000 — but only there’s only one winner per Jeopardy! episode. If you come in second place, it doesn’t matter if you’ve amassed tens of thousands of dollars during the taping. You’re going home with bupkis.

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And, as they say in the biz, that’s not all. Lurking on the board are super-special, secret clues called Daily Doubles. Contestants who stumble upon these hidden bonanzas have the chance to double their money by bidding their entire winnings on that one question. Sometimes secret celebrity guests pop up on one of the screens to read an answer. And over the years, we’ve witnessed some bidding strategies so daring that they’ve rewarded contestants with ridiculous amounts of cash. On April 9, 2019, 32-time Jeopardy! champion and professional sports gambler James Holzhauer set a record for the largest ever Daily Double bet when he bet $25,000 on a single question.

But you probably knew all that already. We’re about to fill you in on all the details, strategies and secrets that you’d only know if you were a real Jeopardy! insider. And, just like Jeopardy!, we’re serving up each factoid in the form of a question.

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Who is The Real Creator Of This Show?

 

Officially, Jeopardy! was created by Merv Griffin, a game show icon who also created Wheel of Fortune. That’s him on the left, celebrating an anniversary with the show’s original host, Art Fleming. But, as the story goes, it was really Griffin’s wife, Julann, who came up with the concept for the show’s famous questions-as-answers format.

According to Julann, the couple was on a plane brainstorming ideas for a new show. Griffin was lamenting that networks were sour on trivia-based shows because they suspected producers were feeding contestants the answers. Julann’s solution? Channel that concern into a new show. Give contestants the answers first and have them respond with the questions. This simple flipping of the script was what became the game show we know and love today.

And that wasn’t Julann’s only contribution. Julann also wrote the original main theme song to the show and even built a sample Jeopardy! set in the couple’s New York apartment.

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What Is A Really Weird Way To Get a Hosting Job?

 

Jeopardy! has been around, in one form or another, for 55 years. The show is one of the longest-running American game shows still on the airwaves today. Jeopardy! debuted eight years after The Price Is Right and 11 years before Wheel of Fortune. (Suck it, Sajak!)

When Griffin was searching for a host for his trivia series, he saw a commercial for Trans World Airlines starring an actor named Art Fleming. Griffin thought Fleming seemed “authoritative, yet warm and interesting,” and invited Fleming to audition. Fleming had no prior television hosting experience, but his agent advised him to “act like a game show host.” It worked.

What Is The Name You Never Knew Existed?

 

Think! you know the Jeopardy! theme music? Think! again. For starters, the show has had three main title themes over it’s 55-year history. But one piece of music has held strong to the show, and that’s ”Think!”. We bet you’re already humming it right now.

“Think!” was originally only played while the contestants wrote down their responses in the final round of play. But the song became inextricably linked to Jeopardy!, and when the Trebek version of the show premiered in 1984, “Think!” was promoted to the main title theme.

The earworm was composed by Griffin himself, as a lullaby for his son. The song’s original title was “A Time for Tony.” And, yes, it has lyrics. Griffin wrote said lyrics — we hope — after the song transitioned from lullaby to contemplative trivia tune. And it goes a little something like this…

We're in trouble — trouble deep!
We're imperiled and endangered.
We're in trouble, yes indeed,
We are all in Jeopardy!

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Where Is The Most Interesting City You’ve Never Heard Of?

 

Jeopardy! is actually not filmed in Hollywood. While Hollywood is typically synonymous with the magic of movies and T.V., this show is filmed around 20 minutes southwest of Hollywood in Culver City. Jeopardy! has been filmed in Sony’s studio in Culver City since 1994.

And fittingly, fellow Merv Griffin creation Wheel of Fortune is filmed on the stage right next door. Other famous productions that have been produced in Culver City include little productions like The Wizard of Oz, Grease, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

And when you put it that way, Hollywood just doesn’t sound so glamorous anymore.

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What Does This Button Do?

 

Many Jeopardy! champs like Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings have gone on the record about how important blazing-fast buzzer skills are to winning a game. Contestants must wait until host Alex Trebek has finished reading the question — plus about a half second — for the buzzers to become active. That half second allows time for a producer, seated off camera, to press a button that turns the buzzers on.

Then, and only then, contestants race to hit the buttons for a chance to answer the clue.

Two long lights appear on either side of the game board, alerting contestants that their buzzers are live. Ring in too quickly, and your buzzer will be locked out for a quarter second. Ring in too late, and someone else has potentially already answered the clue correctly.

Jeopardy via YouTube

When Is the Best Time To Buzz?

 


According to Ken Jennings, former Jeopardy! champion and record holder for the longest-ever Jeopardy! winning streak, waiting for those buzzers-ready lights is a great strategy... to get beat. Contestants have to sync their buzzing with the lights rather than waiting for the lights to buzz in. Jennings says this gives a home-court advantage to the returning champion in each episode.

The contestant who buzzes at just the right moment will see a confirmation light on his or her podium. Contestants are advised to keep hitting the button until they see that confirmation light. With the razor-thin time margin to buzz in and answer a question, there’s always a chance that one or even all of the contestants have pressed the button too soon and are locked out for a fraction of a second.

In a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) interview, Ken Jennings also recommended trying to read each clue ahead of Trebek, as fast as you can, to allow time to think and prepare to buzz in.

In 2011, Jennings returned to Jeopardy! to take on an IBM computer named Watson. Watson beat out the 74-time Jeopardy! winner. According to Jennings, Watson’s speed-reading ability and programmed buzzer timing led to Watson’s victory.

Obrien's Irish Pub via Facebook

Where Are You Drinking Tonight? 

 

Jeopardy! alumni actually have a trivia night in O’Brien’s Irish Pub in Santa Monica, California. Pub goers who visit O’Brien’s on a Wednesday night are often met with the familiar faces of former champions Buzzy Cohen and Pam Mueller. And this isn’t your run-of-the-mill bar trivia. Regulars from the bar’s trivia night — including many Jeopardy! folks — take turns writing and asking the questions. Everyone else competes.

But O’Brien’s trivia night wasn’t always so prestigious. In 2006, former Jeopardy! champion Jerome Vered stopped in to test his brain against the trivia night. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vered won. Other former champions heard about the weekly event and together they made it a regular hang for the biggest brains on the game show circuit.

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Who Needs a Potty Break?

Jeopardy!’s filming schedule is a real doozy. The team tapes five episodes of Jeopardy! on each tape day. It takes about 45 minutes to tape an episode of Jeopardy!. There are two tape days per week, every other week. Because of this, contestants don’t have much time to bask in a victory before they jump back behind the podium. Both Trebek and the champion have about 15 minutes to change clothes before the next episode begins taping.

The Price is Right takes about twice that amount of time to film with all the time their crew spends swapping out set pieces. They film two to three episodes on each tape day. Not to be outdone, Wheel of Fortune films six shows each tape day.

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What’s Black and White and Read All Over?

 

Every day, the Jeopardy! writers are tasked with creating two to three categories with five clues each. Clues go through a rigorous fact-checking and editing process before they’re loaded onto the grid of blue screens. And what do you need at your disposal if you’re assembling 75 super fact-checked Jeopardy! clues every week? Books.

You see, Jeopardy! had writers long before the internet was invented — back when books were the most efficient place to go spelunking for facts.

The writer’s room is a giant library filled with volumes upon volumes of knowledge. Today, the books act both as a source of inspiration as well as a great place to fact check obscure information.

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What Color Is Science?


In the show’s early days, clues were laid out on color-coded index cards. The index cards have since been replaced with software, but the color-coding remains. Writers on the show use the colors to make sure that there is enough topical variety in each round and in each episode.

Academic subjects are blue. Pop culture trivia is pink. Wordplay clues are yellow. And lifestyle-centric trivia — about topics like housewares or consumer goods — are green.

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Where Did You Read That?

 

But the writers aren’t the only people responsible for turning trivia into Jeopardy! clues. There’s also a research team that works hand-in-hand with the writers. Once clues are written, the research team steps in to make sure those clues are 100 percent correct, double-sourced and that each clue only has one possible response.

Sometimes, a single seven-line clue is stuffed with two to three facts. And remember that each fact needs two sources to verify its accuracy. Multiply that thorough research by the approximately 14,000 clues written for each Jeopardy! season and you’ll start to get an idea of how much responsibility rests with the researchers.

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What Do Jeopardy! and Football Have in Common?

 

Like many competitions, Jeopardy! has instant replay... sort of. You know those judges Trebek looks to during gameplay? The people sitting at that table are producers and high-ranking writers who act as the second line of defense should there be any confusion with contestants’ responses. If those judges need extra eyeballs on a specific response, there’s a red phone with the research team on speed dial.

About 100 yards away from the stage, the research team is stationed back in the library, closely following the game and the responses to each and every clue. By the time the researchers get the call, they are already frantically Googling the contestant’s response.

The researchers race to clarify if a response could be considered an acceptable alternative or if the contestant could have interpreted the clue in such a way that opened the door for additional correct responses.

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What Is the Difference Between a Gangsta and a Gangster?

 

Occasionally, pronunciation comes into play at this stage of review. Famously, in 2018, contestant Nick Spicher lost when he gave a technically incorrect response to the wordplay clue pictured above.

Spicher buzzed in and responded, “Gangster’s Paradise Lost.”

The Coolio song is officially titled “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Spicher’s response was initially ruled correct, but the research team quickly found that the words “gangster” and “gangsta” have unique definitions in the dictionary, and thus, Spicher’s pronunciation changed the meaning of the response enough to make it incorrect.

Jeopardy!. Is. Brutal.

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How Do You Spell J-E-O-P-A-R-D-Y?

 

While pronunciation has caused contestants to drop in the ranks, spelling only kind of counts. In the show’s final round, Final Jeopardy!, contestants have 30 seconds to scrawl a response to one last clue.


The official rule in Final Jeopardy! is as follows: “Written responses to the Final Jeopardy! clue do not have to be spelled correctly, but they must be phonetically correct and not add or subtract any extraneous sounds or syllables.”

What a relief for all the bad spelerz 😉 out there.

Another fun fact: There’s a reason that contestants’ writing always looks so silly on screen. And no, it’s not just because Jeopardy! contestants are a self-selecting crew of people with bad handwriting. The pens that contestants use to write their Final Jeopardy! responses are huge and the screens are small, making it really challenging to write neatly. “It’s like writing with an icicle on glass,” Ken Jennings told Cracked.

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Hey, How Tall Is Ken Jennings Anyway?

 

The Jeopardy! set is filled with hidden elements that make game logistics more streamlined. For example, behind each podium, there are risers to make all three contestants appear around the same height.

There are small indicator lights on the lower left corner of each podium that remind Trebek who got the last question right and thus who gets to pick the next clue.

There is a scoreboard just to the left of the game board off camera where contestants can see everyone’s current score. This makes calculating strategic bids for Final Jeopardy! quick and easy.

Ken Jennings’ height is listed as 5 feet 10 inches on imdb.com.

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Where’s My Check, Alex?

 

Contestants don’t run straight to the bank after they win on Jeopardy!. There’s a 120-day wait from airdate to payout. The gap between taping and airdate can be anywhere from a week to a few months. So, contestants typically see their winnings a little more than six months from the time they film.

There are a few reasons why shows like Jeopardy! build in this buffer. One reason they do this is to maintain secrecy. If you saw your favorite Jeopardy! contestant cruising around in a brand new expensive car and snapped a picture for your Instagram story, it might tip off the internet that said contestant had recently come into a gigantic cash prize.

Meanwhile, contestants are sworn to secrecy while they wait for their episodes to air. They sign a non-disclosure agreement that prohibits them from telling anyone about the outcome of their Jeopardy! episode.

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What Should You Study?

 

Contestants obviously can’t study every piece of trivia in the universe before going on Jeopardy!, but there are a few things prospective contestants should consider when jumping between the encyclopedia and the Trivial Pursuit deck. According to two studies that looked at the entire Trebek-era Jeopardy! archive, the most common category on the Jeopardy! grid is the wordplay category known as “Before and After.”

Ken Jennings' top recommendation? Memorize the U.S. presidents in order. Jennings’ second-most important category for study is world capitals, according to his Reddit AMA.

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What Is the Right Game Theory?

 

Contestants all have their own theories about how best to use Jeopardy!’s rules to win big. James Holzhauer would quickly jump from category to category, knocking down the most valuable clues (the ones on the bottom of the grid) early and searching for Daily Doubles.

The practice of jumping from category to category actually has a name: The Forrest Bounce. The Forrest Bounce is named for 1980s Jeopardy! champion Chuck Forrest who used this category-switching method to throw off his opponents.

Holzhauer also bet big — record-shattering big — whenever he got the opportunity. For those not quite so bold about gambling, there’s a rule that sets the minimum bid for a Daily Double clue at $5. That’s a far cry from the $25,000 Holzhauer bet on two separate Daily Doubles. In the Final Jeopardy! round, contestants can, according to the rule book, wager zero.

But the conventional wisdom for wagering in Final Jeopardy! is as follows: If you’re in first place, you bet to win. That means betting exactly what you’d need to beat the second-place contestant by $1 should they wager their entire purse and respond correctly.

The second-place contestant has the most math to do in a short amount of time. Assuming the first-place contestant bets to win, the second-place player should bet exactly what he or she must to defeat the third-place contestant by $1 assuming the third-place player has bet everything and knows the correct answer. This strategy gives the second-place contestant a chance at victory should the first-place contestant answer incorrectly.

Game theory is hard, y’all. That’s why lots of Jeopardy! contestants study game theory before competing.