At Sloan, ’Jeopardy!’ champion Ken Jennings dishes on winning tips

Ken Jennings with a trophy on "JEOPARDY! The Greatest of All Time." Eric McCandless/ABC via AP

Planning to go on “Jeopardy!”?

Champion Ken Jennings has some tips.

At the 14th annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference Friday morning, Jennings sat down with FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver to discuss the classic game show and his record-setting 74-game winning streak. In their hourlong conversation, Jennings dished on his experience as well as the preparation behind his success.

“Nobody knows if they’re good on ‘Jeopardy!’ until they go on ‘Jeopardy!’ ” Jennings said. “People are just scared [expletive] and rightly so. The longer you’re there, you’re getting a little more comfortable.”

So, what exactly did he do leading up to his first appearance back in 2004?

At home, Jennings would watch “Jeopardy!” standing up behind his recliner, which was about the same height as the podiums at the production studio. He also utilized his 2-year-old son’s Fisher-Price Rock-a-Stack toy, sans plastic rings, as a makeshift buzzer because the diameter of the pole roughly matched that of the buzzer.

Jennings would watch multiple episodes in a row to develop stamina because “Jeopardy!” films a week’s worth of shows in a single afternoon. (The contestants change their outfits in between tapings.) His wife, Mindy, would keep score for him.

“Playing ‘Jeopardy!’ is nothing like watching it,” Jennings said. “Watching ‘Jeopardy!’, it seems like a sedate, polite experience.”

From his practice, Jennings learned he was answering about 76 percent of “Daily Double” clues correctly, which is higher than average, so he felt comfortable betting large amounts.

He later learned that “Daily Double” clues are not placed randomly on the board, which meant contestants could specifically hunt out those opportunities to cash in. According to Jennings, the “Daily Double” clues are most often found in the third or fourth row and to the left.

“A human physically looks at the gameboard, reads through some clues, sees what kind of clues might be ‘Daily Double’ friendly, and marks it,” Jennings explained. “They’re trying to scatter them, but attempted randomness is not actually randomness.”

As for his studying, Jennings adopted a generalist approach, trying to learn a little bit about a lot of things or, as he puts it, “a millimeter of knowledge that’s a mile wide.” Contestants now have access to thousands of old clues to assist with their preparation, but there was no accompanying database when Jennings was on the show.

He memorized all the presidents in order, along with their years in office, their vice presidents, their first ladies, their opponents, and their home states. He memorized all 195 world capitals. He doesn’t drink alcohol, but he memorized how to make 20 or so popular cocktails.

There were a handful of nightmare categories that would give him trouble regardless, particularly anything relating to hockey, country music, or botany. But Jennings tried to cast a wide net with his trivia knowledge — and hoped for the best. Contestants aren’t informed of the categories in advance, so there also was an element of luck.

The most effective preparation, however, came from actually being on the show. Jennings found he improved with each ensuing episode, with the returning champion’s left-side podium offering a sense of home-court advantage.

“When you’re actually there, it’s a real crucible, there’s almost nothing you can do to prepare for the pace of the game,” Jennings said. “Sixty-one questions in just 22 minutes of game play means they just come at you so fast.”

The more he watched and the more he competed, Jennings became increasingly familiar with the rhythms of host Alex Trebek’s voice, which helped him determine when to buzz in. There’s a set of lights in the studio that signal to the contestants they’re allowed to answer, but Jennings believes faster players follow Trebek’s cadence.

“The buzzer is famously tricky,” he said. “You can’t click as soon as you know it. You have to wait for Alex to finish reading the question. At that point, somebody at the judge’s table, flips a switch, activating your buzzer. If you buzz in early, you get locked out for a fraction of a second. If you buzz in late, you get beat. There’s a very narrow window.”

While on the show, Jennings signed a non-disclosure agreement, so he wasn’t allowed to share what happened until the shows aired. He told his wife and his boss, but that was it.

“Every month, I’d fly out to LA for 48 hours, win 10 shows and an increasingly crazy amount of money, fly back home, and have to go to work the next day and pretend I cared,” recalled Jennings, who was working as a programmer at the time. “It is kind of weird having a secret identity. You see why Spider-Man is so messed up.”

His winning streak ended up lasting so long — it took 182 calendar days to broadcast all 75 of his games — that new contestants were showing up to compete against him while his previous wins were still airing.

“You could see people’s faces just fall,” he recalled.

Jennings is happy he first went on “Jeopardy!” when he was 29 years old. That’s the sweet spot, he says, because you know “old person’s stuff” and “young person’s stuff.”

Regardless of one’s age, however, there’s a secret to being able to memorize information: Be interested in it.

“Your memory works just fine,” he said. “If there’s something you’re forgetting, it’s because you don’t care. Like somebody with a ‘bad memory’ also knows every word to their favorite song and every athlete on their favorite roster. Your memory is fine. If you can get engaged in the thing, you will remember it.”

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