How I learned to stop worrying and love the Jeopardy! buzzer

Illustration by Peter DeHart

“Who is, umm, Conrad?” I could feel my face fighting the urge to punch itself and scrunching into the likeness of a strained sphincter. Conrad? For the love of God, Moroux!

Given two more seconds and different circumstances I would have come up with Melville, but when Alex Trebek called on me, I was far behind in the game, watching the clock, and very much on the spot. My brain linked “master of the seagoing novel” to Joseph Conrad and not the author of Moby Dick. Last time I checked, that is a fairly well-known seagoing novel. In a foolish and reactionary attempt to save face, I immediately buzzed in on the next clue because I heard the words “New Orleans” and figured I had at least a 90 percent chance at answering correctly based on pure Louisiana osmosis. I was wrong. I was sitting at -$1,000 with over half of the clues on the Double Jeopardy board a distant memory and barely three minutes left.

Of all the concepts brought to fruition on a global scale by the United States in the 20th century, the television game show has to be the most aggressively American. A contest for money, staged as entertainment, designed to make the ordinary person watching at home feel like a vicarious winner only one whiff of good luck away from being extraordinary. Against this backdrop, Jeopardy! is far and away the greatest television game show ever produced.

My involvement began roughly a year ago. Thirty days out of every year, the Jeopardy! website opens a 50-question General Knowledge test to anyone. It is strictly timed and locked into a portal (no other window can be open while the test is up). I am a lifelong fan of the show and have a fetish for trivia. I took the test and didn’t think much about it. A few months later I received an email from Jeopardy! inviting me to a formal tryout in Houston in early December.

Upon arrival at one of the many nondescript conference rooms within the Westin Hotel Galleria, I took another timed, 50-question test. These were graded on site, and the bottom half of the group of potential contestants was cut. The remaining half competed in filmed mock games and personal interviews conducted by the producers. A few days after Christmas, I received a call from one of the producers inviting me to be a contestant.

From this point on, the production team never missed an opportunity to let me know how difficult it is to become a contestant and how I was “already a winner.” This was nice to hear, and there was nothing disingenuous about it, but you didn’t need to be Ken Jennings to understand they were trying to dispel you of any delusional expectations. I realized half way through the first round that they were talking about the buzzer system.

My tape date was Jan. 23, 2018, at Sony Studios in Los Angeles. There are five shows taped each day. I, along with the 14 other scheduled contestants, arrived several hours early for orientation and practice rounds. The one rule deemed paramount with respect to the buzzer is that it will only register after Trebek finishes saying the last syllable of the last word of the clue. If you are a split second early you are locked out for 1.5 seconds. When you take into consideration the gauntlet everyone with a buzzer has run to get there, it might as well lock you out for 1.5 hours.

Every contestant knows the answers to at least 90 percent of the clues. It’s entirely about mastering the buzzer early.

The Jeopardy! hero’s tragedy is that, once a contestant, you are no longer in a test of knowledge. Every contestant knows the answers to at least 90 percent of the clues. It’s entirely about mastering the buzzer early. And because Jeopardy! is essentially a zero-sum contest, you are forced to take larger risks the longer you are unable to zone in on the rhythms of Alex Trebek’s speech.

Now back to the game. I am $1,000 in the hole with less than three minutes to go in Double Jeopardy. Any contestant who ends Double Jeopardy below zero dollars cannot compete in Final Jeopardy. I am acutely aware of this. I turned to the audience where my wife and several friends from Los Angeles were sitting. They had the same look my parents had when I struck out in little league: supportive and pitying.

I should also mention at this point that I am an incorrigible head case. Pressure, historically, triggers a life’s worth of phobias and insecurities that render me useless. Now add to that television cameras manned by a professional crew, a strictly timed trivia contest with a clock staring me down, a studio audience, and, uh, you know, Alex Trebek. Anyone who knows me much more than casually no doubt wanted to change the channel rather than watch me sulk to my demise.

The wave of anticipated humiliation began to well up in my spine. The corners of my mouth began to tick up, knowing they would have to wear a smile my brain did not order. Then something strange happened. My entire body rallied a feeling that I have only read about. Rather than conjuring up visions of a nationally televised embarrassment, I became strangely and undeniably relaxed. I mentally transported to my home arena, suddenly imbued with sofa-borne confidence.

I stopped obsessing over the buzzer and began reacting to the clues organically. In the moment, I managed to visit a bit of perspective and embraced how incredibly fun this was. Then I proceeded to answer five out of the last seven clues, including a Daily Double and went into Final Jeopardy with $9,000. For a few moments, I was able to ignore the Weird Al Yankovic video “I Lost On Jeopardy!” that had been running on a loop inside my head for the previous 10 minutes.

How it all came crashing down. My self-actualized revelation at the tail end of Double Jeopardy was not enough to overcome the fact that the two women I was competing against were brilliant and unflappable. I answered Final Jeopardy correctly, they did too, and I finished in third place.

I will never tell this story without including that Alex Trebek and the entire production team were absolutely wonderful. They completely understand how alien this entire experience is to the bewildered trivia buffs marched in from the real world. It was uncomfortable, surreal, and one of the greatest experiences of my life.