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Jeopardy! champion Bob Harris gives a lowly blogger some advice

by Danny Gallagher, posted Jan 27th 2009 2:04PM
Every apprentice who aims to journey on a quest fraught with peril and self-realization must seek someone with experience in facing it. He must consult with a man who not only has walked that road many times before, but has beaten it into submission until he emerged triumphant.

Hercules had to consult the Delphi Oracle if he wanted to avenge his family's death.

Rocky had to learn to trust Mickey if he wanted to defeat Apollo Creed.

Luke Skywalker had to find Yoda if he wanted to become a Jedi.

So if I wanted to achieve victory over the daunting behemoth of knowledge that is the Jeopardy! contestant test, I, too, would have to find an equally experienced and successful "Yoda" from the game show shire.

In short, Ken Jennings wasn't available but the Mace Windu of the Jeopardy! Council was.

Bob Harris is a seasoned champion of several television game shows including Jeopardy! He competed in the Tournament of Champions, the Million Dollar Masters tournament and the Ultimate Tournament of Champions and won over $200,000, two Chevy Camaros and more Bon Ami cleanser and Dimetapp than any human being will ever need. He has written two books: a humorous guide to geo-political conflicts called Who Hates Whom and a memoir of his Jeopardy! experience called Prisoner of Trebekistan. He has also written for several publications and TV shows including the Mexican TV series El Pantera and the original CSI.

Bob was nice enough to sit down with me for a nice, long and (most importantly) free-of-charge discussion about how to prepare for the test and what to expect when I take my test on Wednesday. He also talked about his experiences in getting on and through the show and what Jeopardy! contestant wranglers look for in fresh meat for their televised brain grinder.

DG: So I've heard that the questions on the test are harder than the ones that make it to the show.

BH: No I don't think so. My experience and understanding is that the actual test, not the online test, is comprised of clues that would be $800 to $1000 in Jeopardy and $1600 and $2,000 in Double Jeopardy. Basically they taking 50 of the hardest clues in the show, but they are not particularly harder than the show. I think they actually recycle old show clues. I can't imagine they would write extra clues for the test.

DG: So how did you prepare for your contestant test?

BH: I never prepared for the test at all. I went in cold and failed five times. My degree is in electrical engineering and the sciences come up sometimes but that was my main focus. So things about geography, Shakespeare, the Kings of England were completely out of my field. And as I said in my book, unless they needed someone to rewire the podiums, I would never be able to use my engineering degree on the show. Unless I was able to fix the other contestants' buzzers or something.

DG: What exactly is the audition process like?

BH: When I took the test, the written test, those who passed it stuck around to play a mock game. They know the material but now can they successfully interact with other human beings, work the buzzer and remain calm? Then when they pass through those two hoops, they sit down with a contestant coordinator. They're really looking for people that 11 million people a night would want to have in their living rooms. I don't think that's just what it is necessary, but that is what it boils down to. That's why I'm still friends with so many of them.

DG: Do they have a rule about testing again if I don't pass it this time? I'm assuming the tests would be different each time.

BH: It would be 100 percent different every time, of course. They had a rule that if you fail a test, you could come back in six months and I lived six blocks from Sony Studios. As I've said many times, I was driven but I'm also a writer and I work from home and they are giving out free money up the street. So I said, sure I'll try it.

DG: What subjects should I study for the test?

BH: There is some basic things you can brush up on and doesn't hurt anybody to review anyway, stuff that it doesn't hurt to have that stuff in your head. You might get your brain warmed up to review a few things you already know. If you spend a few more nights, you might get one more correct response but that one could mean the difference between passing and failing. But review things you know. If you're a literature major, review through the New York Public Library Literature Companion.

DG: What would you recommend for a journalism major who partied too much in college and didn't pay much attention in class?

BH: (laughs) I'm not sure ... Oxford publishes guides like Who's Who in the 20th Century and there are books like The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, stuff that has lots of good knowledge that you can put in little gobs, things to freshen up what you already you already know.

DG: How should I study and where should I take the test?

BH: Get in a place that's un-distracted, a place where you would normally work. If you're trying to recall information, one of the biggest factors is simply being state dependent, being in a comfortable physical environment where you have the home-field advantage. I also go into this in Trebekistan. People who are in a place that they are familiar with will have better recall...So if you want to be able to remember stuff about Shakespeare, if you first studied it at a certain desk or in a certain room, that's where you should try to recall it. You will recall it better in that same context than anywhere else in the world. That's the home-field advantage that's in every sport. And don't go somewhere special to take it. Go somewhere you would normally work.

DG: What should I do if I get stuck on a certain question?

BH: One thing you can do is let one question that you don't get go because it clouds your thinking on further ones. One mistake shouldn't become two. Every defensive back in football is going to get burned on a touchdown, but they've gotta get it out of their head. You will screw up. There will be something you should know and don't remember, but don't let that one question make you feel stupid. You have to be able to let it go instantly and just focus on the next question. It can't become a mental pattern and I see that sometimes on the show. I see people make one mistake and then another one, and I can't tell how many times somebody misses the Daily Double, and I've done this myself. They will miss it and never answer another question right.

DG: Well thanks for the help.

BH: I'm always happy to help.

DG: I don't supposed I could hire you for one-on-one tutoring if I actually do pass the test.

BH: (laughs) No, I don't do individual tutoring. All I can do is point to my own book and talk about what I've been through. I've had a number of friends get on the show and tend to do pretty well. A friend of mine was on this year and she's in the Tournament of Champions, Lisa Klink, in Las Vegas. I can't say how she did, but we've chatted on the phone a lot and I don't claim any credit for her success. It's 100 percent her own and I would always be happy to discuss strategy and more than happy to help.

DG: Do you get more strangers or friends asking you for advice?

BH: You know, it's about half and half. I've had friends and walk-ins. I've been a lifeline for Millionaire. I'm just one of these game show names, so it's hard to say no.

DG: I have to say that as nervous as I am about doing well, part of me is about thinking about how this article will come out if I actually do make it on the show. It's almost like I'm banking on failing because I won't know how to make this funny if I actually do well.

BH: Well, a lot of people who get on show are writers who deal with a broader subject matter, so you may surprise yourself. I'd say you have an above average shot.

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Thanks for the advice, although it comes a bit late for me; I'm taking the Jeopardy Online Test tonight (East Coast).


January 27 2009 at 3:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Many pass, few are chosen. I got every question on the online test right three years ago, was called for a tryout with about 50 other people. None of us was ever on the show, though we all made it to the contestant pool. If you don't make it, you can take the test again in a year. If you do make it to a tryout, you cannot take the test next year, because you are already in the contestant pool for the next year.

January 27 2009 at 3:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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