What’s the Best Way to Get on “Jeopardy!”?

For freshman William Scott, debuting on the show this week, “know your trivia” is the answer

Alex Trabek and William Scott on the Jeopardy! set

How do you prepare to be on Jeopardy!, the classic game show? William Scott’s strategy was watching as many episodes as he could, studying the conventions of categories such as Potent Potables and Before & After. That, and playing along while holding “one of those pens that makes obnoxious clicking sounds” to practice buzzing in.

“It’s hard to learn all of anything that anyone could ask you on Jeopardy!” the Tufts freshman said, “but learning about the format, that is manageable.”

You can find out how Scott fared on Wednesday, April 11, when he competes in the Jeopardy! College Championship, a two-week event where fifteen undergrads from across the country vie for a grand prize of $100,000.

Like fabled Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings, Scott cut his trivia teeth by playing Quiz Bowl while a high school student in Los Altos, California. He was also inspired by a student a few years ahead of him in high school who made it on the show.

Then all he had to do was ace an online test, get picked out of the thousands who passed that for an audition, take a harder test, sit for an interview, wow the producers with his enthusiasm, play a test game while being enthusiastic and smart at the same time, sign a million papers, and suddenly there he was filming in Culver City, California, over a couple days in the middle of March.

He’s not allowed to talk about how he fared on the show, but with trivia in general, he considers his strengths to be in history, science, and art. If he did suddenly have a windfall of cash—again, no spoilers—visiting museums in Paris or Florence would be at the top of his wish list.

He’s pretty fond of categories that involve wordplay, which, he points out, are less about knowledge and more about thinking on your feet. He holds his own on pop culture, despite not watching much TV or many movies. (His passion for 1980s music, he declares in this promotional video, is not to be underestimated.)

Scott is planning to major in computer science, and possibly economics. When he learned he would be on the show, he consulted with his economics professor; they discussed the game theory of betting on Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy. While they did come up with some strategy, sorry to tell you, home players, there’s no simple algorithm.

“There are so many different situations you can run into, there is not necessarily a right answer,” Scott said. The good news is that, unlike the short commercial break on the show, the contestants actually have a good chunk of time to come up with their Final Jeopardy wagers.

Of course, everyone wants to know what Alex Trebek is like. Scott said the host reveals another side in person. When he walks over to the contestants at the end of each episode, it’s not just for the camera.

“He’s actually talking to us about how the game went and reassuring us and saying nice things,” Scott said. “When we have a pause for a commercial, he’ll be answering questions from the audience. It’s a really nice gesture, and it lowers the stress of the game.”

In fact, while he woke up on taping day “really, really shaking,” the producers and crew were so practiced at putting the players at ease that by the time he got to the actual game, he wasn’t feeling nervous anymore. “Which is weird,” he acknowledged.

But the biggest surprise to him was how quickly he became close with the other college student contestants. “That was really stunning,” he said. “The group of people they put together were just these interesting, smart, funny people who are just so easy to become friends with. We still talk, even though we’re from all over the country.”

Could Wheel of Fortune claim such comradery? We wager not.

Editor's note: On April 20, Scott appeared on the Jeopardy! College Championship final and came in second, winning $50,000. He later told a newspaper reporter it was "surreal" to have done so well in the tournament.

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.

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