The Road to Jeopardy

Trivial Business

Tonight the first-ever Jeopardy Professors Tournament begins, and I’m thrilled to be on the opening match with Hester Blum and Gary Hollis.

A lot of people have asked me how this all started, and the shortest answer is “From childhood.” I was one of those many kids who grew up yelling answers at the television whenever Jeopardy! was on (7:30 in the Metro Detroit area). I claim that, since my parents are Indian immigrants generally opposed to television, Jeopardy! was the rare show to qualify as approved television. They were certainly more accepting of me watching it than The Simpsons. I was so impressed by Alex Trebek that I dressed up as him for Halloween in third grade, complete with stick-on mustache. Sadly no pictures survive, though my mom reports the mustache gave me a rash.

In my youth I idly thought of trying out for Teen Jeopardy or the College Tournament, but never got my act together to do so. At some point a few years ago — I think in 2018 or 2019 — I did the online test, but heard nothing. I did the quiz again idly sometime during the long pandemic winter of 2020–21 and received an email invitation this past summer inviting me to do another online test. Before COVID these follow-up rounds would take place in person, but now it’s all on Zoom. After the second online test, I was invited to an online Zoom panel over the summer in which we played a mock game and “buzzed in.” I noted, interestingly, that many of us on that call were professors.

During the Zoom panel, the Jeopardy! staff asked each of us about ourselves why we were interested in being on. I told my Trebek Halloween costume story, talked a bit about Habeas Custard, and noted that the show is an important American institution. At the end of that audition, we were told that we might get a call to be on, but that the odds were relatively low given the size of the contestant pool. And if we didn’t get a call within a certain time period, we’d have to start all over again. I filed this experience away as a “fun thing that happened that won’t go anywhere” and went back to summer work and travel.

This fall, halfway through a clinic seminar, I got a text from an unknown number — one of the contestant producers from Jeopardy! was asking if we could chat as he had a couple questions on my application (“Nothing bad.”). When we connected, I got the top-secret news: Jeopardy! was going to do its first-ever Professors Tournament, and they wanted me to be on it.

Getting to kick off what might be a long-running and rare new entry into the Jeopardy! pantheon? Of course I’d do it — particularly because the tournament rules are a bit different, and more favorable to contestants, than the regular version. Then I realized all the logistical nightmares this created. I’d have to extend an already planned trip away from Nashville by four days, meaning I’d have to cancel two more Legal Ethics classes and a clinic seminar session. Worse, I couldn’t tell anyone why I was gone — not my students, nor my clients. Because Jeopardy had never done a Professors Tournament before, the secrecy was extra high. Only my immediate bosses could know. And of course, I knew that as a representative of the legal academy, any mistakes or missteps I made would mean opening myself up to “Why didn’t you do ____?” and “Why did you do ___?” from law professors across the country.

But let’s be real. It’s Jeopardy!. I’ve been a glasses-wearing nerd since I was 6. And I’m a trivial person. I answered “Yes.”

From then, it was a whirlwind of juggling flight schedules, COVID testing, rescheduling classes, and lying to almost everyone I knew about why I was going to be gone for a week smack dab in the middle of term. I had absolutely no time to study, between multiple active cases, teaching seven credits, travel, paper deadlines, and speaking engagements. (Yes, I’m very busy and very important). Plus, Jeopardy! annoyingly airs at 5 PM Central Time in Nashville, so most days I wasn’t even home in time to watch. I did try to catch as many episodes as I could, and I observed that most of my errors happened when I read the clue too fast or failed to actually answer what was being asked.

This is a great lesson for law school exams and oral argument, and one that never hurts to relearn — you have to listen for what the question is, rather than what you think it is.

I did read Claire McNear’s Answers in the Form of Questions, which I had been meaning to pick up. It’s a fun, accessible book, and McNear is a real expert on Jeopardy!. She was the reporter who uncovered the podcasts that led to the host controversy and resignation from earlier this summer. McNear does a great job describing how invested the Jeopardy! fandom is, and how much the game comes down to wagering ability, broad but not deep knowledge, and most importantly: buzzer technique.

One of the funniest parts of prep was trying to figure out what to wear. Because of COVID, I’ve dressed even more casually than usual, and I only have one suit that fits and looks nice enough to wear on camera. Jeopardy! asks you to bring a whole slate of outfits. Some things (like prints or plaid) don’t read well on camera, and others are flatly prohibited (T-shirts and jeans — my standard attire). So there was a whole evening when I tried almost everything in my wardrobe, 85% of which didn’t fit (thanks for everything, COVID-induced isolation) or didn’t follow the wardrobe rules.

The tournament taped over three days in Culver City, a small city located within west L.A., at the end of October. My best friend and his family live in Santa Monica, and another close friend and his family live just a couple blocks away from the Sony lot, so I was happily able to tack on some socializing to the trip (this somewhat made up for having to lie to my parents about my whereabouts). And, as one of those friends noted the night before taping began — even if I didn’t do law profs proud, I’d have one hell of a story.

My personal goal was to make it to Final Jeopardy on my quarter-final match. The tournament is structured in three rounds over two weeks of shows. During the first week, five quarterfinal matches are played. The winner of each match advanced to the semi-finals, as do the four other contestants who have the highest dollar amounts, for a total of nine semi-finalists. The semi-finals consist of three matches, and the winner of each match plays in a two-day final.

I knew that many people who go on Jeopardy! know most of the answers, and much of the game comes down to your ability to ring in fast enough on the buzzer when a clue is called. You can’t see it from home, but there are two columns of LEDs that run on either side of the gameboard. Once the buzzer system is activated, the lights illuminate; you can also buzz in based on when the host stops reading the clue. But if you buzz in too early, you’re locked out for a quarter-second — an eternity in Jeopardy! time.

The day before taping began, all fifteen contestants met for the first time to do promotional material, play a couple of practice rounds, do hair and makeup, and have our wardrobes inspected. As you can tell from the Jeopardy! materials, this is an amazing group of people. Each of them was incredibly kind, funny, and (of course) smart. I particularly appreciated two things — first, the racial and gender diversity, and second (and less obviously), the diversity of educational institutions that we represented. It would be easy to have created a tournament lineup of contestants from the name-brand schools that we all know about, but I respected the producers’ decision to feature a very broad swath of higher education.

The Jeopardy! production staff were equally wonderful. It’s a tight-knit team of amazing professionals who clearly love their jobs and treasure the unique place Jeopardy! holds in pop culture. Particularly because of the COVID protocols, it’s a tightly run ship (we couldn’t even drink water inside the building). Everyone there works incredibly hard to make Jeopardy! work.

When doing the practice rounds, one thing I noticed is how much you get “in the zone” when playing. It’s a bit like oral argument, when everything falls away. In that space, you just focus on what is happening in the immediate zone and how you need to just answer what’s being asked. I also decided I was going to ring in based on the lights illuminating, not on when the host finished reading the clue. Some people rig up similar systems at home to practice on, but I had neither the time nor the technical ability to do that. So I’d just have to work with what I had innately.

We didn’t know until the day of taping what order we would be going in. So imagine my surprise when I was called for Quarterfinal Match One, along with Hester and Gary. It felt a little like going into the bar exam — that mix of adrenaline, excitement, and foreboding. We got set up, took our positions, and then that familiar theme began to play…

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