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The Roundtable

In "Answers In The Form Of Questions," Claire McNear Explores The Legacy Of This TV Institution

Answers In The Form Of Questions book cover
Twelve Books, Grand Central Publishing
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Answers In The Form Of Questions book cover

This year has been a challenging time of transition for an American institution that is famous for its conservative consistency across the decades. That’s right: “Jeopardy!” This interview was recorded just before Sunday's news that longtime host Alex Trebek died at age 80 of pancreatic cancer.

All of that means it’s a perfect time to chat with Claire McNear of The Ringer, who went deep inside the show and its history for her new book, “Answers in the Form of Questions.” (To read about my own trip through the J! looking glass, click here.)

How did you first get interested in writing about the show?

You know, I think like so many people, I grew up watching Jeopardy, it was always kind of in the background of my life, something I watched with my parents. But I kind of fell out of it when I was in college. And the years immediately after college, I didn't have cable. And when I moved in with my now fiancé, we got cable. And I remember realizing, oh my god, I can record Jeopardy, we could DVR Jeopardy and watch it every night together. And so we started doing that. And it just felt like this impossibly grown-up thing for me, it was like, oh, now I've made it, this house is a home. And that sort of led to me writing about it more at The Ringer, where I cover a mix of sports and culture. And I like to joke that Jeopardy really is the perfect combination of the two. It's a TV show that if you squint hard enough, it's kind of a sport.

You were able to get access to the producers, to the inner sanctum at Jeopardy. How did they let you in?

It was a little bit complicated at points because they did not want to officially cooperate with the book. So I was sort of doing two things at once, where I was continuing to report out occasional Jeopardy features at The Ringer, but I was also working on this book. So a fair amount of the reporting where I'm actually talking to official Jeopardy staff was before I was actually working on the book, even though I had not necessarily published those interviews. And then of course, I was able to talk to a whole lot of contestants, some of whom are well known and some of whom are not. And that was really a joy for me.

Say more about how the game resembles a sport and how it's played, and also how it's talked about.

Yeah, I mean, so we are really in the midst of kind of a revolutionary moment in terms of how Jeopardy is played. Or really, in the last five or so years, sort of increasing every year. There's been this sort of semi-professionalization of contestants. I've heard it compared to the Moneyball era where, you know, the A's figured out this way to sort of work with advanced statistics and gain an advantage from that. And then of course, eventually, every other team also started doing the same thing. And it was no longer just the A's’ wonderful little secret. So I think I think something similar is happening with Jeopardy contestants right now where five or 10 years ago, longer ago than that, if you were preparing to go on Jeopardy, maybe you'd pick up an almanac, maybe you'd thumbed through like an old list of clues from previous seasons. And then you know, you felt like you were ready to go, you knew your presidents knew your vice presidents. But now people are really, really serious about it.

The vast majority of contestants, I think, at this point use some form of advanced preparation, whether that is buying a buzzer rig and bringing it to their computer to practice buzzing in at home, whether it's practicing on an actual game simulator that sort of creates the experience of playing Jeopardy at home. If it's using really kind of advanced data to pour over what to study, not just flipping those flashcards of presidents, vice presidents, but figuring out specifically which opera is you need to know, which lullabies you need to know and, and memorizing really complicated math to guide things like Daily Doubles or Final Jeopardy. And you see that with somebody like James Holzhauer, of course, who was very successful last year, using a lot of these strategies, but it really is sort of amazingly becoming the norm amongst Jeopardy contestants. So that was part of what I was trying to capture.

Do you have any sense of how the show feels about that aspect of contestant preparation? Now, the reason I ask that is, I think there was a feeling years ago that they didn't want to just book hyper-obsessives about the show to be on the show. They wanted a mix of different kinds of people with different kinds of thoughts about being on the show. Do you know what I'm saying?

Absolutely. And I think that is spot on, the kind of central tension of Jeopardy and one of the things that they've managed really well over the years, that it's two things at once. It's both a game, and it's a show. And as much as it is about creating a great game, you know, there's they're trying to create a trivia contest that millions of people want to watch every night, which of course, they've been very successful, which is why 10 million people tune in most nights. But, you know, they don't just want to have the hardest trivia. They want it to be something that is approachable, something it's fun to play from your own couch. Right? That is kind of the joy of Jeopardy. Right? It's the unseen millions competing along with the contestants on stage. So I think you're right that Jeopardy is sometimes a little bit squeamish about having these sort of very serious, very dedicated kind of Watson-esque contestants who just rattle off answers and are kind of cutthroat about it. And I think that that is a factor in the casting. There is a casting element, right, they're not just choosing the very smartest people, that is obviously the most important thing that they're looking for. But there's so much more. They do want it to be people who resemble the viewers, you know, very smart versions of the viewers, perhaps. But that that is something that Jeopardy is keenly aware of.

Talk to me about Roger Craig's preparation. You were saying a minute ago that some people have taken preparation to a scientific degree. And he is a great example, one of the great players. He made tons and tons of money on the show, and he was a machine. How did he get ready to go on?

Yeah, Roger Craig is a really interesting example. He was very successful on Jeopardy. Until James Holzhauer, he had the highest one-day total of any contestant. And the way he did it is, he is a data scientist by trade. And so in the month before he went on the show, and really, he kind of been working at it a little bit, even before he was officially tapped to be a contestant. But especially in those final weeks before he taped his very first episode, he used a method known as knowledge tracking. And what he did was he went to a website called J-Archive. And that is a fan maintained database of basically every clue that has ever been on Jeopardy. And so there are people who kind of diligently transcribe the entirety of every single Jeopardy episode.

Volunteers!

Yes, exactly. It is entirely a volunteer effort. Some of them have been on Jeopardy, some of them are trying to get on Jeopardy, it is this sort of amazing feat that I think now has somewhere in north of 400,000 clues in it. So he went to J-Archive. And I think at the time, it only had about 250,000 clues.

And he basically downloaded it. And from that he sort of sifted the different categories into two different categories of their own, I suppose is one way to say it, to determine what was the most important thing to know. So his take was that, you know, you don't necessarily need to know everything about opera. But you need to know how important it is to know about opera. And it turns out that, in fact, opera is disproportionately found in hig- value areas of the Jeopardy board. So it is actually pretty important to you know, learn the 30 or 40 things that Jeopardy tends to kind of cycle through again and again with opera categories. So he likened it to the SAT where you know in advance that it's 25% geometry, that it's 30% algebra. And from that you can sort of determine what to study because you're not going to get the whole of the Western canon in there, especially if you only have four weeks to do it. But, you know, he applied a really analytical mindset to what actually goes into a Jeopardy game. And he was very successful as a result.

Not long after him, the game was totally up ended by Jeopardy James, James Holzhauer, who was kind of like a dead eyed great white shark, in terms of how he would bet, where he would jump on the board, and just how quickly he would dispense with his opponents for 32 games or so. How do you think he changed the game? And what's his legacy in terms of the gameplay?

Yeah, I think there was a lot of theorizing that after James Holzhauer’s run in the spring and summer of 2019, that that we would see sort of a revolution amongst players and they would all start playing exactly like him. And that hasn't quite come to fruition. And I think the reason for that is you just have to be so good at so many different things to play the way that he does, because it's not just his buzzer reflexes. It's not just his kind of wagering strategy and how willing he is to put tens of thousands of dollars on the line. It's also that he is phenomenal at trivia, he just knows this stuff. So he's not really getting answers wrong. And if you do that, you're not quite as sharp at any one of those things, you're going to really find yourself in some big trouble very quickly. But I think that what he has done more than create copycats is he is done a lot to popularize the idea that there are these people who train that way who worked that hard. And it has sort of fueled this idea that if you're going to be very competitive on Jeopardy, you probably want to really work at a few of these things, whether that's studying, whether that's buzzer timing, whether that is memorizing the math to tell you exactly what to do when you get to Final Jeopardy, or whether it's all of those things. And for a lot of contestants, it is.

Let's talk more about game theory. You spend some time in your book on that subject. And it is kind of mystifying sometimes to watch somebody who's playing well on the show, but just bets wrong, and it happens a lot. And maybe that's because the lights are on or you know, maybe it's because they're just full of adrenaline and they're not thinking clearly or maybe it's because they haven't studied the literature ahead of time. But for whatever reason, it seems watching the show that there is an advantage for players who know what to do in certain situations before they get there.

Yeah, I think that math can be a very scary thing for people, it certainly is for me, and you know, when you're up on that stage, I have never been a contestant and I never will be, thank goodness. But I have been up on that stage and you are under bright lights, you've just had, you know, 20 or 21 of the most stressful minutes of your life, you've got a huge amount of money on the line, you've got, perhaps, your loved ones in the audience watching you, you know, you're going to be on national TV in a couple months when the episode hits the air. It's very stressful, and then all of a sudden, you have to do this math problem. And they give you basically a sheet of paper and a sharpie. And they give you a little bit of time to figure out how you want to wager and then they reveal the Final Jeopardy question. And you know, away you go.

But that's a really hard thing for most people to do. And so there have been people, including a number of former champions who have tried to sort of simplify that process for people who are not math minded people necessarily, and just create sort of best practice rules. And so the best known of those is that the person in first place should always stay at a dollar above second place if second place bets everything and gets it right. That's sort of the basic assumption for what you should do if you're in first place. But beyond that, it gets into really complicated math. And it really is this sort of the prisoner's dilemma situation a lot of the time where you're just trying to figure out what these other people are going to do, but you don't know how scared they are and how they feel about math. So it's really this sort of complicated, high-stress environment.

Yeah. And you have to kind of remove the humanity from it. Because it's a lot like baseball, it's like Moneyball. In x situation, maybe there is a certain outcome 80 out of 100 times, but if you're the one time where it doesn't work out, and you know, you get you cost yourself an avenue for a win, that's not going to make you feel any better.

Exactly. I mean, that's, that is spot on. And I think that that is what has changed in the last few years, where more people are aware of these kind of means, these averages, this standard behavior and what to expect. And that itself sort of creates this scary situation for players who have studied really hard for that wagering component of the game because they start wondering if their opponents also studied the same batch of information and if they're, they're going to kind of try to trick them by using the same set of rules and assumptions.

I want to ask you about some of the important figures around the show you were able to spend time with, including the host Alex Trebek. He's been waging a public battle with pancreatic cancer over the last couple of years. And, you know, he's turned 80 years old and so on. You've spent time with Alex for this book. How's he doing today? And how has his performance been?

Yeah, I mean, he has said that even his doctors have been blown away by how well he's been doing. He was he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer about a year and a half ago. And it was stage IV, very advanced. And, you know, it’s a tough disease. And he was surely very aware of that. But he’s going strong, and I interviewed a lot of people who work on the show about their efforts to kind of get production back up and running in the midst of this pandemic, which they were able to do finally in I think it was August, maybe September. But they all said basically that Alex Trebek was the most eager, the most desperate, the most excited to get back in the studio. He just wanted to work.

Most of us imagine by the time we're 80, we would like to be lounging somewhere enjoying the fruits of our labor. But he really just loves this. He kind of palpably loves what he does. And, you know, is doing incredibly well health-wise. And hopefully we see many more years of him continuing to host. I hope we get a whole ‘nother 37 of them. But his illness has been this moment of everybody realizing that, you know, perhaps he won't be the host of Jeopardy for decades to come. And so we should appreciate these episodes that we still have with him however many more years that lasts.

Sharp-eyed viewers noticed that after the Greatest of All Time Tournament, which was won by the incredible Ken Jennings, that Ken joined the show in an official capacity this year. He's been doing some categories and other outreach on behalf of Jeopardy. So is it likely that he's seen as the heir apparent to host the show at this point?

That is definitely a popular theory amongst Jeopardy fans, I was able to ask the show's new executive producer, Mike Richards, that very question and he was sort of keen to deny that and say that he's really just sort of there, as you know, a producer, and especially to help write and to help do outreach with contestants. And there may be some more exciting new features in the future that they have not quite announced yet. I think that when the time comes to begin thinking about who the next host of Jeopardy will be, I think there will be a strong temptation to turn to somebody who already has that very rare thing that Trebek does, which is that, you know, he's synonymous with Jeopardy. And I think that Ken Jennings is perhaps the only other person to whom that that applies. So I think that there is some thought that they might they might ask him to do it, especially now that he's sort of in house but I don't think we will see him kind of jumping on stage with Trebek anytime soon, even of course after the coronavirus abates. So I think he's thoroughly behind the scenes for now at least.

You mentioned the fact that the show got a new producer. Some of the changes this year have just been cosmetic, you know, the podiums are further apart. And the contestants are mostly from Southern California because people can't travel at this time. Are there any other changes you see on the horizon? After the past producer, Friedman, stepped down?

Richards has said that, you know, he respects this game, it is not broken. He loves Jeopardy. He was not brought into fix Jeopardy. So I think the core DNA of Jeopardy, the 61 questions, that kind of no nonsense, we are going to cram as much trivia into this as possible. That's not going anywhere. But I think that, yeah, Richards probably does have some ideas about new things he would like to try with this show. You're right, that this season, most of what we have seen that is new is really just sort of a response to the pandemic, and attempts to keep the staff and Trebek and the contestants safe in the midst of all this. But we do know one new thing is coming, which is they've announced that they are going to be taping a college tournament in the coming months. And it's actually going to be a team college tournament for the very first time, which is really interesting. They did the team tournament of the all-star games last year, which had sort of mixed response.

But I think what we're seeing with making the college tournament into a team competition is maybe an attempt to sort of dig into the intensity of quizbowl, which exists in in sort of scholastic environments. And I'm really excited to see that. I think i think it has the potential to be a whole lot of fun.

You spent a lot of time around the show and thinking about the show. Why has it worked for all this time? I mean, this iteration of it is going on….I'm 35 now, right? It's been going on my entire life. It's basically the same every day and yet, you know, 10 million people watch it every night.

Yeah, it really is amazing. And what is really impressive about it is you can turn on an episode from decades ago and it really is kind of the same show, you know, plus or minus a moustache. I think that that is that is sort of the beauty of it, where it really is this great game like I was just saying with the you know, the 61 questions, they are not messing around with it, right. They know that the trivia is kind of the main attraction and you know, on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, if you make it all the way to $1 million, you've only answered 15 questions, and usually they stretch that out over a couple episodes. So there's no show that gets in as much material as Jeopardy. But as I was saying earlier, it they have been so good and so protective of the idea that it is also a show and it is also about kind of striking that balance, where audiences are getting to play themselves and enjoy it themselves. And they're not just trying to put out the hardest questions possible and stump people and make it so you sit on your couch. And you know, you're just kind of like, Oh, I don't know, I didn't know that. So I think that they've done just an amazing job of not dumbing it down. And being consistent. Where it is hard, it is interesting, but it's also fun.

I really started thinking about this when Alex announced that he was sick. It was at a time in America where, you know, facts were just in dispute. And I think there's something comforting to having either a right or a wrong answer and having someone in authority saying that's correct, that's not correct. And these are an agreed upon 60 different pieces of knowledge that we think an average player should know. And I think that's been reassuring in the Trump era. I don't know what you think about that?

I think that's definitely right. I think that it is it is just such a pure environment. I believe it was, I was able to speak to Andy Richter, who was a very successful contest on Celebrity Jeopardy a couple of times. And he made the point that, you know, just nothing else intrudes on Jeopardy. It's just such a pure environment, it just is these clean facts, there is a right answer, and there is a wrong answer. And that's that there's no kind of gray area. And that's really sort of beautiful.

You mentioned earlier in this interview that you'll never be a contestant. As part of the book, you were taken to an audition process and took the test yourself. Why are you so dead set against appearing on the show?

Well, for one thing, I think that I have probably disqualified myself because on Jeopardy as with I think most other game shows if you know anybody who works on the show, you are officially barred. So I do not think I would be allowed to compete, because they're very serious about preventing any sort of suspicion of complicity. But I don't really have a trivia mind. I am not very good at that sort of fast recall, that just sharp rattle-off. You talk to Jeopardy contestants, and sometimes they say that when they watched their episode when it finally aired, they don't even remember knowing the answer to that. Like if you ask them, Hey, do you know this specific fact? They would kind of have to think about it but in the moment on the stage under those lights, they were able to just sort of reel it off and I so admire that ability. And you know, fortunately for the book, I was able to talk to a whole lot of people who are a whole lot smarter than me.

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