8 Secrets to Winning on Jeopardy

Night after night you watch Jeopardy on TV, shouting out answers and making exasperated noises as a contestant misses something obvious, gives a boneheaded answer, or makes a foolish bet on a Daily Double.

It looks easy from the comfort of your living room, but it’s a lot harder in the studio. I know, I’ve been there. You not only have the pressure of performing in front of an audience of millions, but you’re up against two other living, breathing contestants who want to win just as much as you do.

While the game has changed a bit in the 20 years since I was a Jeopardy champ — the dollar amounts were lower then and there were no celebrity clue-givers — the game has remained essentially the same. So, is there a secret to winning on TV’s longest running quiz show?

Here are a few things to consider if you want to try out for Jeopardy. (While the game’s premise is that they give the answer and the player gives the question, for simplicity’s sake I’m just going to refer to the clue being the question and the player giving the answer.)

A much younger version of me, my beard gone all dark and having more hair.

8. Studying Helps … Some

The good folks at J! Archive have archived almost every game and question from the 28 seasons of the current incarnation of the game. The archive is not complete, though. Entire weeks and individual games are missing, including, strangely enough, my two games in season six, aired Oct. 2-3, 1989; Kerry Tymchuk, the next listing in the archive on Oct. 6, 1989, is the guy who knocked me out of the game.

Based on the J! Archive, Jeremy Singer-Vine has done a fascinating analysis of the most common categories on Jeopardy. There are the stand-bys such as Before & After, Literature, Science, Word Origins, American History, State Capitals, World History, Potpourri, and World Geography. It never hurts to brush up on any of these topics. Other old-reliables are Shakespeare, Opera, Famous Names, and Literature.

You can read through the archive to see what types of questions come up and some of the wordplay commonly used in the clues. There was no J! Archive back in my day—no World Wide Web, for that matter. But even if it had existed, I likely would not have used it. I’d watched Jeopardy for years and felt pretty confident of my abilities. Sure, I was bit fuzzy on presidential history between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. Ditto for that period between U.S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt, so I reviewed a bit of executive branch trivia before my games.

Alas, the subject never came up. And that’s the biggest drawback to the study-your-way-in strategy. There are just too many subjects and categories to cover and too many possible questions within them. You can study all the world history, Shakespeare, literature, or Etruscan poetry you want, but the odds are that the category won’t appear in your game or, if it does, the clue will cover something you never got to stuffing into your skull during a last-minute cram session.

Still, the J! Archive is useful for understanding types of questions and types of wordplay the Jeopardy clue-givers frequently use. In that sense, it’s a useful site to browse to get a good feel for Jeopardy game play even if you’re not necessarily learning specific trivia.

7. Either You Know It or You Don’t

Face it: you’re not going to do well on Jeopardy unless you know a lot of things across a broad range of knowledge. There are some categories that call for figuring out the answer on the spot and others where there’s enough information in the clue to figure it out—more on that in a bit—but of the 61 questions in a full Jeopardy game, the majority ask for answers that either you know or you don’t.

Either you know who was the last of the Romanov dynasty or you don’t. (Nicholas II.) Either you know who was the Beatles’ classically trained producer or you don’t. (George Martin.) Either you know who lost at the Battle of Hastings or you don’t. (King Harold II.) Either you know who was The Weeping Prophet or you don’t. (Jeremiah.)

How does one gain this knowledge? It’s hard to say, but having a flypaper brain and being widely read helps. Being a super-sports-trivia guy would help—in one or two categories. Being an opera buff would help—in one or two categories. But having a working knowledge of Shakespeare, the Bible, geography, opera, history, sports, movies, popular music—the potential subjects are almost endless—requires a brain that works a certain way and a lifelong habit of filling that brain, not for the purpose of winning trivia games, but for the love of knowledge itself.

A good place to test yourself is at the Jeopardy web site, where the Be a Contestant link provides a sample test for their online tryouts. Give it a try under pressure—give yourself, say, five seconds to come up with an answer. (You don’t have to write them down or even check a box; it’s simply a test of your game knowledge.) That sample, honestly judged, will give you a good idea of how well prepared you are to play Jeopardy for real.

6. Figure It Out

In addition to the know-it-or-don’t questions, a large number of Jeopardy clues involve hints within the question to help you figure it out. These might still require some familiarity with trivia, but at least there’s something there to work with. In one of my games, in the category “Ohio,” the question read: “If this state insect is insulted, she just might fly away home.” Now if you’d asked me what is the state bug of Ohio, I’d have no idea. But the “fly away home” portion is clearly from the nursery rhyme “Ladybug, Ladybug fly away home,” so the answer was pretty easy.

Sometimes this method helps you narrow possible choices. Such a clue would be “This John Steinbeck novel is set in a California city once known for its sardines.” You might know off the top of your head that the answer is Cannery Row, but you could also suss it out by reasoning that sardines come in cans. This, of course, would still require that you be familiar with the Steinbeck novel in the first place, but it might help you narrow down which of Steinbeck’s several books they’re asking about.

This category also includes clues that require you to do some sort of quick mental figuring, often involving math, to arrive at the correct answer. These types of clues are great for people who are quick on their feet mentally.

5. Don’t Overthink It

While the Jeopardy writers strive for clever clues, they don’t try to trick you. They like brain-teasers but not deception. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen contestants get it wrong by overthinking the clue.

I’m one to talk. In my second game I faced this question in the category “Dinnerware”: “The Anne Boleyn character jug made by Royal Doulton has one of these weapons as a handle.” To this day I remember my thought process: Anne was the second wife of King Henry VIII. She was accused of treason and beheaded—axe!—but in reality she was innocent. Her death was the result of treachery—dagger!—but would a dagger make a good handle on a pitcher, or would an axe be better … but wait, she was actually executed by sword, not axe, so—sword!—but that wouldn’t make a good pitcher handle, so it has to be dagger. As a famous philosopher once said: D’oh! The answer was axe. Yes, technically she wasn’t killed by an axe but a sword, but the popular image of the headsman is a guy with an axe, so I should have gone with the obvious.

When playing Jeopardy, always remember good Friar William of Occam and his razor.

4. Stay Clam

No, that’s not a typo. This bit of advice comes from a young student who let her nerves get the best of her on a tryout for Back-to-School Week. Her mis-texted advice to a friend: “When u get 2 Hollywood and ur about 2 film ur show, remember 2 STAY CLAM above all else. No matter what happens in the game, don’t let urself get intimidated or nervous.”

Textual spoonerism notwithstanding, this is good advice in an unintended way. Make like a clam and keep your mouth open only as long as you have to! I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a player blow it by giving too much information. For example, when the answer to a clue is a person, give only his last name if that is sufficient. Say Tesla and you’re right. Say Nicholas Tesla and you’re wrong. (It’s Nikola.) On occasion you’ll need first and last name, such as with the few presidents who share a last name or in the case of fathers and sons and variations thereof. But if the first name is not required, play it safe and give only the last name.

That goes for other answers where the temptation to show off might lead you astray. In the category “Two Middle Initials,” the clue called for only the middle initials of the person in question. But one contestant got cocky and answered the clue with “Who is George Herbert Walker Bush.” No, Miss Smartypants, they were looking for “H.W.” That knocked the smarm off her face, and she was so shaken that she never really recovered for the rest of the game.

By the same token, do not shout out answers before you’re acknowledged by Alex Trebek. Sometimes a player blurts out the answer once he has it even though another player has beaten him to the buzzer. Especially don’t shout out the answer trying to beat the buzzer. Sometimes a player rings in and then takes interminable seconds trying to dredge the answer from the recesses of his brain. Just as the time’s-up sounds, he shouts out the answer—but too late. In both circumstances he’s just given a free answer to a fellow contestant.

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Challenge

The Jeopardy researchers and clue-writers are the best out there, and they rarely make mistakes. They seem to be slipping lately, though. Just recently they credited a Richard Strauss opera to Richard Wagner, although that didn’t affect the game’s outcome. And just this week they had a spectacular goof in Final Jeopardy, asking about the Bible’s Last Supper but giving an incorrect scriptural reference. Again, they were lucky in that it didn’t affect the outcome; the winner had more than twice the amount of the next player and therefore couldn’t lose.

Their goofs aside, sometimes a player will give an answer that needs to be challenged. For the question “Men’s shirts come in sizes like 15 ½-34, based on measurements of these 2 body parts,” I answered “neck and sleeve.” During the commercial break, one of the other players noted that it technically asked for body part, and of course “sleeve” is not a body part. He challenged, and the judges agreed. (The judges sit at a table just off camera between the stage set and the audience.) The money was taken away and Alex made an explanation when they came back on-air. It made no difference in the long run; I won the game anyway.

Sometimes you might give an answer that is judged wrong but upon appeal is upheld. In a recent game they were looking for kachina as the answer for a Native-American spirit. A player answered kokopelli and was judged wrong, but during the commercial break the judges ruled that a kokopelli was in fact a Native-American spirit and also met the category criterion of starting with the letter K. He was awarded the money. (He still lost the game.)

Nothing’s lost by appealing a decision that favored an opponent or disfavored you. Just make sure you have a good case before appealing.

Don't do this.

2. Bet Smart

An entire book could be devoted to betting strategies. With the Daily Doubles hidden throughout the game board (one in regular Jeopardy and two in Double Jeopardy), you must bet smart. (Easier said than done, of course.) Your wager depends on how comfortable you are with the category, how far ahead or behind you are, how many questions remain on the board, and how much time remains in the game. You don’t want to put yourself so far behind, should you miss it, that you can’t catch up. But you also don’t want to squander an opportunity to take the lead or pull farther ahead.

Whatever you do, never ever rely on Clavin’s Rule. While that made for great comedy, I’ve seen several players do basically the same thing as the lovable lunkhead from Cheers. Just recently a player pulled within $200 of the leader and hit the Daily Double. Rather than factoring the category, how much he would need to pass the leader, how few questions were still on the board, and how little time remained in the game, he wagered it all. To compound the problem, he didn’t even read the question correctly. (“Of the 10 listings on the Mohs scale, one of the 2 that end in z,” to which he responded zirconium. It was topaz or quartz because they end in Z, not begin with Z.)

When it comes to Final Jeopardy, the J! Archive has a whole host of strategies that bear names such as Break Point, the Faith-Love Scenario, and Bridge’s Rule. Most of them deal with Final Jeopardy scenarios in which the leader has exactly double his next closest rival, two-thirds more, one half more, etc. The permutations are almost endless. Will you opponent assume you will double your bet? Do you fake him out by betting less than that? There are scenarios where you can win only by your opponents getting the Final Jeopardy clue wrong while you get it right. In short, unless you want to memorize every single possible scenario, it’s better to just watch the game and see some of the smart moves some have made and the less-than-smart others have played. And even then it all depends on the Final Jeopardy category and final clue.

But the best rule of thumb is that you want to be in the lead going into Final Jeopardy. That gives you the most options for playing out various scenarios. In my second game, I seesawed in and out of the lead with another player until the final two questions, when he pulled ahead of me by $100. In Final Jeopardy, my only hope was for him to get it wrong, so I doubled my bet minus a dollar. All three of us got the final question right, and he bet smart. I lost by $2.

Figure out which grip works best for you, but stay relaxed. This player looks as though she's ready to strangle the buzzer.

1. It’s All in the Thumb, or Index Finger, or …

Knowing the answer outright or being able to figure it out quickly are important, of course, but perhaps the most important skill is mastering the buzzer. You can know every single fact in the universe, but if you mis-time ringing in, it does you no good.

You cannot press the buzzer until Alex finishes reading the clue. Too early and you’re locked out for a quarter second—an eternity in Jeopardy time. Too late and someone else will beat you to it. During a pre-taping practice session, we were advised to wait for the last syllable of the last word to start ringing in. I don’t know if that actually works timing-wise, but it is good advice to keep you from hitting the button when you actually have the answer—sometimes only midway through Alex’s reading of the clue.

Some people never get it. They’re the ones you see repeatedly—and often futilely—pressing the buzzer multiple times. Or else they’re the apparent wallflowers who seemingly don’t know the answers but really just can’t press the buzzer at the correct moment. Getting the timing down is crucial. Once you get the hang of it, you can approach a Zen-like state where your timing is second nature and all you have to think about is solving the clue.

That, by the way, is why I wish the Jeopardy producers would go back to limiting repeat winners to five games only, as they did until 2003. Yes, I understand the excitement (and potential ratings draw) of a champion on a long streak, but it’s really unfair to so many contestants to put them up against someone who has mastered a key skill of the game—timing the buzzer.

Based on all this, do you think you have what it takes to be a Jeopardy champ? Coming up, I’ll reveal secrets behind the game and what to expect as you try out.