Also in Slate, Jeremy Singer-Vine susses out the most common categories and hardest clues in Jeopardy history.
Next week, Jeopardy!'s two greatest champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, will square off against IBM's Watson supercomputer. IBM technicians have spent years programming the computer to interpret the meaning of Jeopardy! clues and scour its data bank for possible answers. The computer seems to have mastered the form: In a filmed practice round, Watson beat Jennings by $1,000.
Mere human beings wishing to win glory and a few grand on America's favorite quiz show can't rely on a team of IBM engineers to help them, but they can enlist the assistance of one of Watson's distant cousins: the desktop PC. Jeopardy! obsessives spend hours online prepping for their shot at the big show by retyping clues and exchanging secrets on official and unofficial message boards. The Times profiled two such fans in a recent "Vows" column; Genevieve Sheehan and Troy Meyer met on a Jeopardy! fan site. The first time Troy saw Genevieve was the night her episode aired.
I wish I had known about such sites when I appeared on Jeopardy!, in the 2010 College Championship. I made it onto the show after an online test and an audition, and did little prep work before my appearance. I trusted that my background knowledge would carry me along.
It was only after my shows aired that a Google Alert on my name drew my attention to J-Archive, an unofficial Jeopardy! fan site that, more than any other, has changed how the game is played. J-Archive had posted transcripts of both games in which I'd appeared (the nonsequential tournament episodes No. 5849 and No. 5853, apparently) as game boards which, when hovered over with a mouse, revealed the correct response and the contestant who'd given it. I happily scrolled through the first game and largely avoided the second (in which I'd lost, badly), wondering who'd bothered to put it all online.
Archiving is a complicated, ostensibly thankless process: It entails transcribing each clue, the contestants' responses (even the incorrect ones), and the ups and downs of money throughout the show's quick 30 minutes. The archives offer none of the "voice" that distinguishes the now-popular practice of recapping primetime TV—no hint, indeed, as to who's doing the typing.
Robert Knecht Schmidt, a student from Cleveland, is the man who coded and maintains J-Archive. (He told me that he prefers to be called the site's "founding archivist"—many people do the nightly transcribing for J-Archive, and "at this point the Archive kind of lives on its own.") I reached him, initially, through Facebook, where his profile picture was a shot from his own Jeopardy! appearance, last March.
"I'd watched the show since I was 4 years old," Schmidt told me. "During Ken Jennings' run, I started following message boards, and there was a woman—Ronnie O'Rourke—who was keeping a record of each show. She called it Jeoparchive. She single-handedly archived Season 20."
O'Rourke's AOL-hosted site, which has since vanished from the Internet, began as a resource for contestants preparing to compete on the show, as she had in 2002. In getting herself ready for her appearance, she used "out of date" preparation books published before the advent of the Web. (The one I'd bought used off Amazon had Alex Trebek on the cover with a still-dark mustache.)
O'Rourke's experience on the show was as thrilling as she'd hoped it would be—she even won an episode—but she grew disillusioned with Jeopardy! during its 20th season, when Jennings began his record run of 74 consecutive victories. "I don't want to see anybody up there for weeks and months at a time," O'Rourke told me. "I think of all the people who could've had the pleasure of saying, 'I'ma Jeopardy! champion.' " O'Rourke stopped updating Jeoparchive with the 20th season.
J-Archive filled the void, almost exhaustively, though there are some gaps in the early seasons. ("No one thought to tape them, and we may never have archives," said Schmidt.) Of course, to be a competitive player, you need more than an archive of answers and questions.
If J-Archive is a neatly organized database of every clue and competitor, the Jeopardy! boards on Sony Pictures' Web site are a sprawling oral history of the game show. The forums contain sample contestant exams written or transcribed by forum members, a list of board members on recent and upcoming episodes, and even a thread titled "Putting it on the resume?"
Fans like Renée Mathis, a teacher in Houston whose ringtone is the Jeopardy! theme song and whose classroom features a signed photograph from Ken Jennings himself, can use J-Archive to prepare for their appearances and can debrief on each night's episode on the show's official forums. Mathis told me she was set at ease by inside knowledge of the producers' personalities ("Everyone said Maggie was a bundle of energy, and she was!") and the advice to practice, standing, using a ballpoint pen to "buzz in."
I wish I'd known about the information-sharing on Jeopardy!'s official site and the bountiful J-Archive when I was preparing for my appearance. In addition to episode transcriptions, J-Archive has a "wagering calculator" application that helps would-be contestants determine the proper amount to bet during Final Jeopardy. The site has also popularized the concept of Coryat scoring, an alternative scoring method that disregards any wagering (e.g. Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy) and is used to gauge one's general strength at the game.
Unschooled by the Web, I felt out-of-sorts and unpoised at the podium, thrown by the show's pace and the unfamiliar weight of the buzzer. I was nearly bounced out of the tournament after my first game for making an overzealous Final Jeopardy wager, and I lost my nerve with the buzzer in the second episode—both rookie mistakes I might have prepared for. Nick Yozamp, my onetime competitor and the eventual winner of 2010's College Championship, had prepared online before the tournament. He told me in an e-mail: "I mostly used [J-Archive] as a way to gauge what topics consistently come up on Jeopardy! so that I could focus my attention on those areas. The J-Archive was also helpful for studying those Pavlovian clues and responses that appear time and time again (e.g. Swedish playwright = Strindberg)."
Of course, no matter how deep the pool of information grows online, the Jeopardy! fan is alone at the podium once he arrives, forced to rely on what he has learned about the mechanics of the show and on the trivia he has stored in his memory banks. Preparing online undoubtedly would have made me a better contestant—I'd have felt more comfortable on stage and likely would have better anticipated some clues. Then again, I missed both of my Final Jeopardy responses ("Who is Albert Einstein?" and, gallingly for this American studies major, "Who is John Paul Jones?"), so maybe I was a lost cause from the start.
Slate V: Before Watson Was on Jeopardy!