Everybody knows that smart people win Jeopardy!. Except what if everybody is wrong? What if winning Jeopardy! has a lot more to do with luck, chance, and being good at one specific skill that doesn't have much to do with intelligence at all. What if winning at Jeopardy! is mostly about the buzzer?
Jeopardy! is, first and foremost, entertainment. The answer-giving, question-asking format all comes in service of that goal. The game show—not IQ test—needs drama and excitement for the viewing audience. The contestants are secondary.
Greg Lindsay knows. In 2008, he won more than $41,000 over three games. He also beat Watson three times when computer scientists were fine-tuning the computer's playing capability. He's a man who knows his Jeopardy!.
"I spent more time thinking about when to buzz in than I actually did about the answer. The answers are obvious or they aren't."
"The thing that always kills me, even at a Jeopardy! champion, is that Jeopardy! is seen in America as this proxy IQ test, like if you win Jeopardy! you're a genius," he told me. "And it's very clear that it is first of all a game show. The producers are never deceiving you about that. From the first moment you meet the producers and the casting agents, they are such high-energy TV people."
So now, back to the buzzer. Mastering the timing is difficult. Contestants must wait until host Alex Trebek finishes reading the question. Buzz in too early, and you are frozen out for a fraction of a second. Buzz in too late and, well, another contestant beats you to the punch.
"The buzzer was definitely more of a 'thing' than I had imagined, even though I had seen countless people holding it aloft and thumbing wildly," says Tom Vanderbilt, another Jeopardy! contestant.
"It's one of the most challenging aspects of the game," says Amy Tyszkiewicz, who won $16,200 over two days.
Even Ken Jennings, the most successful Jeopardy! player of all time, knows. From the FAQ on his website:
If you watch Jeopardy! casually, it's easy to assume that the player doing most of the answering is the one who knew the most answers, but that's not necessarily true. All three contestants, after all, passed the same very hard test to be there. Most of the contestants can answer most of the questions. But Jeopardy! victory most often goes not to the biggest brain; it goes to the smoothest thumb. Timing on the tricky Jeopardy! buzzer is often what separates the winner from the, well, non-winners, and the Jeopardy! buzzer is a cruel mistress.
According to Jeopardy! buzzer lore, a production assistant sits offstage and determines when Trebek is finished reading the question. (I emailed Sony Pictures Entertainment to confirm. They did not respond.) In other words, it's not automated. Mastering the buzzer relies upon determining the whims of an under-paid, over-worked twenty-something. In fact, there's a rumor floating around that the PA changed the day Ken Jennings finally lost.
So what's the key to being successful on the buzzer? A background in Quiz Bowl helps. It's one of the only times where people are faced with a buzzer-type situation. But it's not totally analogous, however, as Quiz Bowl rewards participants for buzzing in as fast as they can. Quiz Bowl, after all, is not a televised affair. Unlike Jeopardy!, it's more about the competitors than the observers.
The other is to take advantage of the practice time afforded to you before the game begins. Jeopardy! contestants play something of a warm-up round, and this is a time to work out any buzzer-related kinks. A woman in one of Tyszkiewicz's games was having difficulty. The producers worked with her until she felt more comfortable. Remember, it's all about the viewing audience. A frustrated contestant looks bad.
Once the game starts, there are two strategies. One is to try to buzz in on every question and hope you can figure out the answer. Most people, however, opt for a second strategy.
"I always buzzed in on questions that I knew within that first second of reading it," Lindsay says. "I couldn't afford to buzz in first if I couldn't figure it out. I had to read it in a second, realize that I knew the answer, and then I would spend the two or three remaining seconds while Alex was reading trying to figure out when to buzz. I spent more time thinking about when to buzz in than I actually did about the answer. The answers are obvious or they aren't."
But, of course, sometimes the truth eludes you.
"My game had what seemed to be a particularly high number of cases in which no player buzzed in to the extent that Alex seemed to be getting a bit frustrated," Vanderbilt says. "So I suppose we cannot always blame the buzzer."