The Jeopardy!


By Jeopardy! contestant

Bill O'Donnell

I was a contestant on Jeopardy! on December 7th, 9th and 10th, 2001. While others have done better, won more money or been more popular, everyone has a story to tell. This is mine.
 The Try-out  The First Day  Kathy Cassity's Story
 Study Guide  The Second Day  Jeopardy Links
 Quiz Show Study Course  The Third Day  Bill's Bookshelf

The Try Out

I initially took my Jeopardy test in August 1999 in Kansas City. My wife Julie had noticed that they were having a contestant search in the area. Typically you are required to send in a postcard and then be picked for the test. This time they had an automated telephone system. Anyway, I called and was selected to take the test and drove to Kansas City, about a five hour drive.

I knew I was in the right place when I found a hallway filled with mostly well dressed, quietly nervous young people. Many were reading books. A few were dressed outrageously, and I knew they didn't have a chance. The Jeopardy people tell you to dress like you will on TV. Pictures will be taken if you get past the try-out test. Jeopardy wants clean cut, attractive people. That doesn't mean you can't have long hair if you are a man, so long as it is well groomed, but the pierced lip is going to be a handicap. They are making family entertainment: even if you're Einstein you won't be selected if you will look like a weirdo on TV.

The test is fifty questions in fifty Jeopardy categories, all taken from the $1800 and $2000 clues. They were read by Alex over a monitor and are answered on paper. If you get 70% you stay for the audition or "mock game." After the test is over they collect the papers and leave the room to score them. This is actually a pleasant time with a great deal of chatting among the people who are waiting. Most are really nice folks, in fact every Jeopardy contestant and would-be contestant I have met seemed really nice.

After about ten minutes the contestant coordinators return to the room and read off the names of those who passed. I sweated and politely clapped as each name was read, not really expecting them to include mine. Finally they read the last name, mine! About 10% of the people passed and the rest went home, clutching their "Jeopardy" ball point pens.

After the test there are some forms to fill out and they take your picture. Then we play the mock game. This is a little different from the show, since they use cardboard cards instead of the big board. The clicker is the same though, and you play against the other wannabees. This is where I failed. I had spent the past several months studying all kinds of stuff, but not really playing the game. I repeatedly forgot to ask for the next question or the next category, and didn't "keep the game moving" as Suzane Thurber, the Contestant Coordinator kept reminding me. Once again, they are making an entertainment TV show - they don't really care how bright you are, they want people who will perform well on camera. I really recommend practicing with the show: answering questions in the form of a question, ringing in, verbally selecting a category, and smiling!

A year later I sent in a postcard for another try-out. This one was across the country in Portland, Oregon! It was just a lark, albeit an expensive one, but my wife Julie and I both went and both took the test. I passed, she missed by one question. (This is an inside joke you will get once you take the test!) Since I had spent the intervening year not just studying, but practicing the show, I did much better in the mock game. It was still a full eleven months later when Glen Kagan, a contestant coordinator, called and said "this is the call you've been waiting for!" Sadly, I had given up hope of them ever calling about two months earlier and thus lost two months of study time.

(For details on what and how to study, click here. For a list of recommended books and resources, click here.)

The Quiz Show Study Course!

The Big Day Arrives

Jeopardy doesn't pay any of your travel expenses unless you make it to the Tournament of Champions. Julie, my son Paul and I flew out to LA and stayed at a motel recommended by the Jeopardy folks. This was nice because once the contestants figured out who each other were we could get to know one another a little bit. Clue: the woman reading the "People's Almanac" in the restaurant is probably a contestant. The motel provided a shuttle bus to the taping, but you had to arrange your own taxi back.

On the shuttle bus we all got to know each other a little bit. I wish I had exchanged e-mails with everyone right then, because there were folks I'd like to get in touch with and during the shooting we all got very busy! Anyway, after arriving at the Sony Pictures Studio, which looks just like it does on the opening credits, were hustled off to be sequestered in the "Green Room." From here on there was no contact with the outside world, we were "escorted" everywhere to insure we couldn't get information from any staff who might know the material for today's shows.

In the Green Room you eat doughnuts and get to know the contestant coordinators, Maggie Speak, Glen Kagan, and their boss Suzane Thurber. They are all very nice folks. Maggie is a living dynamo! Anyway, they go over the rules, give us strategy tips, spin a few tales of contestants past, and generally get us ready to play. Of course there is more paperwork! (You have to sign releases, agree not to reveal information, agree that the judges are demi-gods, that sort of thing.) We were all delighted when Maggie announced that they had just doubled the prize money.

Eventually, the taping time arrived. The first three contestants are chosen at random, as are their positions, except for the returning champ of course, who gets the first podium. The rest of the contestants watch from a special segregated area of the audience. Being in the audience was almost as stressful as being onstage. We all used our "air buzzers" (think "air guitar") and whispered answers to each other. We discussed the players' strategies and were all imagining what our turn would be like. I sat next to a beautiful young lady who was nervously shaking her leg so much you could feel the whole floor of the riser shake! (She later won a trip to Hawaii, nothing to gripe about!)

I sat through four games before it was my turn. I quickly dashed back to the Green Room for a final touch up of my make up and then they lead me up to the podium. One nice thing about the stage: you really can't see the audience, and that is probably a good thing. The lights are bright, but not as bad as you might think. The scores are on a display high up on the ceiling. It can be hard to see with the lights, and most contestants only look up at wagering times. (I know - I looked up once, lost all my concentration and had to catch up again. Don't look up!) One bad thing is that the TVs making up the big board don't look all that big. There is a monitor onstage that you can see, but they don't always use it. It is always used for videos and such, but in text-only clues sometimes they use it, sometimes they don't. Get your eyes checked and new glasses before going on the show!

One thing that I didn't know was coming was the "Hometown Howdy." This is a short commercial they ask you to make to be aired on your hometown station. Nobody liked theirs, probably because we weren't prepared. Mine was pretty lame, but if I'd had some time to think about it, say two years, I would've done a much better one.

A few last instructions from John Lauderdale, the stage manager, some last minute encouragement from Glen, and the music started for....

Game One

Kathy Cassity from Hawaii was the four time Returning Champion. This game would put her in the Tournament of Champions and behind the wheel of a new car if she won. Kathy is the most likable person you'll ever want to meet, sweet, kind, funny, and of course, smart as a whip. While we were in the Green Room, it was the consensus that no one wanted to be the person up against her because she was very good, and because she was so nice you wouldn't want to be the one to beat her.


Kathy Cassity, four time champ and really sweet person! Her story

Between myself and Kathy was Jaclyn Whitehorn, a university consultant from Alabama and probably a decade younger than Kathy and I, which was to her advantage at least once. The clue was worded something like "this a-`maize'-ing band was the first hard rock band to play the Apollo." Kathy and I both knew that the word "corn" was in the answer, but couldn't think of a band. Corn Pone? The Corn Cobs? The European Corn Borers? Creamed Corn? What band had "corn" in the name? Jaclyn was young enough and in touch with college kids enough to eventually come up with "Korn" a band popular with some college kids. It still seemed like forever before she rung in and while I was still scratching my head, but it was probably only a second or two. An eternity considering usually all three of us would usually ring in during the first millisecond after Alex finished reading the clue. (On the broadcast this time was edited out.)

Much of Jeopardy is luck, since most of the time all three players will know the answer. A lot comes down to speed on the buzzer. I got the hang of it quickly and took an early lead helped by a category of "state trees." There was a chuckle moment when I beat Kathy to the buzzer with Hawaii's state tree. (Sorry Kathy!) A Daily Double where I bet a thousand dollars gave me a lead I was able to hang onto for most of the first round. Unfortunately, my strategy was still based on the "old" score values. If I had had time to think it through I would've bet twice as much. (I effectively threw the Daily Double away, the clue was worth $1000 anyway, and State Trees was one of my strengths. It is hard to think under the pressure up there!)

The Final Jeopardy category was "Countries of the World. Geography is one of my best subjects, and also one of Kathy's. I was in second place going into Final. Wagering was a serious weakness of mine, I just can't do math, and certainly don't do it well under pressure. Still, I wasn't expecting to win, Kathy had to get it wrong for me to win, but even third place this season won a nice trip. So, I bet nearly everything and was delighted when I knew the answer. Tragically when they revealed the answers, Kathy had it incorrect. Everyone felt bad for her, including me. I had wanted to win, but I didn't want to be the one to beat Kathy. It felt like kicking a puppy. Still, she took home some $59,000 and got a trip to the San Diego, which she said afterwards was one of her favorite places, so no one could really feel too bad about it.


Image from the Jeopardy Fan Club, Thanks Mike!

 Michael Dupee somehow obtained this photo of the podium. Mike is the author of How to Get on Jeopardy!... and Win!

While Mike was on several years back, the podium still looks like this.

His advice on beating the buzzer and preparing for the game is very useful. Check it out at the Jeopardy Fan Club

The Second Day

Game Two

On the morning of Day Two, I was the "returning champion." Several of the contestants rode from the hotel to the studio together on the hotel shuttle bus. Two contestants from yesterday, Lani Hyde and Todd Jones knew I had won, but I wanted to keep it quiet from the other new contestants we had just met that morning. Anyway, Todd spilled the beans, good naturedly saying he was going to "take me down." I felt I had a good relationship with Todd, but there was some truth in his words as well - I could tell he was quick and bright and would be a tough opponent.

Everyone was very friendly and we chatted on the bus. One contestant said that he had prepared by reading "Trivial Pursuit" cards. I didn't think this was the best preparation and whether it was that or something else, he didn't do all that well, coming in third in his match. Trying to be funny, I said that I had gotten dressed so early in the morning that I had mistakenly put on my wife's underwear. Lani said "that's way more than I needed to know" and Todd seemed taken aback by my absurdity.

In my first game that day, I was up against Lani and Todd, with Todd on my left. During a commercial break we had the following exchange: "I'm gonna take you down," Todd reminded me. I replied "I'm gonna send you to Barbados," the second place trip destination. Then he said "No, I'm sending you to Barbados." We had talked earlier about how the trips seemed pretty cool, so I said "well, okay!"

The right category has a lot to do with winning. "Sports Talk" came up and Todd cleaned up. I knew almost all the answers from studying, but I didn't know them fast enough to ring in confidently. Todd obviously followed sports and knew them intuitively. This illustrates a problem with preparing for Jeopardy. You can learn all sorts of things, facts and trivia and statistics, but unless you can recall the information almost instantly it's useless. All the material I was able to recall quickly was stuff I already knew, not material I had learned by studying.

One truly weird thing happened in this game. The category was "Stupid Answers" which is pretty much a gimmie. Whoever is fastest on the buzzer wins, because the response is never in doubt. Anyway, the clue was something like "this was the last name of the inventor of the Ferris Wheel." I answered "Who was my great grandpa, George Ferris" to everyone's amazement, including my own. Alex actually spoke to us during a break, remarking what an incredible coincidence it was. Todd mentioned that he had hoped to ring in first because I told him about George Ferris earlier and it would've been even funnier to say "Who was Bill's great grandpa George Ferris!"


Todd Jones, nice guy, tough opponent and new dad. Congratulations, Todd!

 Another funnier exchange took place off camera before Final Jeopardy. Remembering his earlier fluster on the bus, I said "Remember, I'm wearing my wife's underwear." His great comeback: "Remember, your mike is on!" It relieved my stress at least. I don't know if the audience heard it or not. Thank goodness it was edited from the broadcast!

Todd got a tough Double Jeopardy correct right before Final Jeopardy. "Jackson was the first president not born in these two states." When he answers "Virginia and Massachusetts, you can hear me congratulate him. Why I don't know, he's now perilously close to beating me, but the comraderie among the contestants is real and one of the best things about the whole experience.

The Final Jeopardy category was "The Oscars" one I knew I was very weak in. I bet nothing, hoping that Todd and Lani would get it wrong. The clue was "he was one of four people nominated for playing the same role twice." The answers were revealed, Lani got it wrong, then Todd got it wrong. My answer was equally wrong: I said Sir Lawrence Olivier, thinking it had to be a Shakespeare thing. When my wager of $0.00 was revealed, Alex gave a well rehearsed "Hello!" and announced me as the winner of $13,000! (Alex is informed of the wagers and answers a few minutes before they are revealed. Since he already knows the totals and who will in, his excitement is staged.)

I shook hands with Todd and Lani and they congratulated me. I knew they were disappointed, but there was no bitterness, they both got nice trips and their moment in the sun. It was a close game among evenly matched competitors and we all walked off the stage with honor. I think this second game was my favorite.

Game Three

 In game three I was up against M.J. Selle from Katy, Texas and Mike Rohan from Chicago. M.J. was seriously quick on the buzzer and it was a close game all along. One funny moment was when I beat Mike to the buzzer on a Chicago question and I shot him a "nyah, nyah" look and Alex commented on it.  

Jeopardy now features more video categories. I think these and the increase in prize money are attempts to compete with "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and "Weakest Link." A little behind the scenes trivia: video categories are always played in order, top to bottom. This is because of a technical limitation: the video clips are kept in order on tape and have to be played this way. Why they don't just get a DVD is beyond me. Anyway, we had avoided the video category "What'll Ya Have" until the end. It turned out to be a version of the Jeopardy classic "Potent Potables" with the Clue Crew people in a bar in New York mixing drinks. I am a strict tea totaller, but I managed to do very well in the category and it helped me have a small edge coming into Final Jeopardy.

To my dismay, the Final Jeopardy category was another variation of my weakness: "Entertainers." Wagering isn't my strong point, and I really was at a loss. MJ had slightly more than half my total. If I had a mere $200 more, I would have been "uncatchable" as Alex puts it. Looking back I should have played for a tie, but I bet enough to win by one dollar if I was right and M.J. was right. The clue was a quote from the director of the "Producers." I could see Mel Brooks' bald head in my mind's eye, but couldn't put a name to it. "Dee-doo, dee doo, dee doo doo", now a very ominous little tune! At the last second I wrote down Carl Reiner knowing it was wrong. It was, and I was the only one not to get it. When my answer was revealed there was an audible moan from the audience, I guess they had been pulling for me! Anyway, I went home with $28,700 and a trip to Aruba, not to mention having made a dream come true by appearing on Jeopardy, not bad for two days' work!

A Final Word: Jeopardy is a great experience, it's a chance to meet great people and show off what you know. If you want to be a contestant, go for it! Study hard, train like it's an athletic event, but don't forget it's supposed to be fun. It's a game show, something truly trivial in the big picture of life in this world. Don't invest your entire self esteem to the thing, there's a lot of luck involved, getting to the buzzer first, getting categories you do well in and even in the selection of your opponents. In any case, win or lose, you will be a more interesting person both because of your Jeopardy experience and because of all you've learned. And let me know how you do. Good luck!

And now a word from our sponsor:


How to Get on Jeopardy!... and Win!


You can read it online here.

The Jeopardy! Book

This book is out of print.

Sometimes will have a used copy. To check that angle click below. You might also want to look for it on eBay. It's worth it.

The Jeopardy! Book


Jeopardy! Game for PC


Requires Windows 95 or better. Has sample contestant test, which may be more valuable than playing the game. I found the PC game best for practicing my wagering.

Visit the Official Jeopardy! Site

Visit the Official Jeopardy! Site
Jeopardy auf Deutsche 2001 Tournament of Champions - Behind the Scenes
My Recommended Jeopardy Reading List Jeopardy Database of Champions Advice on beating the buzzer from Karl Coryat
Play Jeopardy Online Help on the 2/3 rule and more Math for Jeopardy Contestants Jeopardy Fan Club Site
Jack Archy's Funny Jeopardy Week Karl Coryat's really good site about becoming a contestant on Jeopardy! O'Donnell Photography - See what I really do!

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Site copyright 2001 William O'Donnell, all rights reserved. Photos are copyright Sony Pictures. No affiliation or endorsement by Sony Pictures Studios, King World, Columbia Tristar Television, Jeopardy!, or any entity connected with the show is implied.

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