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.)