Trivia Buffed: Prepping for Jeopardy!

Writer: 
November 30, 2005
Entrance exam: Do answers need to be in the form of questions?

Entrance exam: Do answers need to be in the form of questions? Jon Gardiner.

He wants them to yell, and yell loud. He wants them to show some excitement. He starts by bellowing, "How are ya, Duke?!" and needles them to show more enthusiasm when their response isn't what he deems up to par. Still, they aren't sure. They feel kind of silly, all gathered together. It seems ... childish.

The crowd has been slowly gathering for the last hour. At first, it was individuals and small groups, gathered in circles or leaning against the cement walls, most absorbed in The Chronicle, reading textbooks, or typing on laptops.

Now, it's much larger. A line, or, rather, an elongated clump, of students extends through the basement of the Bryan Center, past the annual poster sale, up the stairs, and back toward the Griffith Film Theater. Clearly, they're excited--why else would so many be here? But it's still before noon, and maybe that's too early to yell, especially indoors, especially with all these other people watching, listening, about this far away from rolling their eyes themselves.

But with slow coaxing, he turns them around. After all, it's his job. On the count of three, he says, we'll all do it. One...two...three.

"This," they yell, "is Jeopardy!"

In July, producers for the hit ABC TV show announced that they would tape the 2005 edition of the annual Jeopardy! College Championship at the RBC Center in Raleigh, with North Carolina State University as the host. They made an expanded effort to recruit contestants from area colleges and universities, hitting nine schools, including Duke, with six tryouts in a week-and-a-half swing in late August and early September. Of the students who pass the initial rounds, the Jeopardy! team will narrow the field to fifteen who will compete for the $100,000 prize. Based on taped interviews made on site, executive director of promotions Rebecca Erbstein says, "literally, we're going back to California, and we're going to have to fight it out to see who gets on."

In other words, it's not enough just to be smart. You have to also be interesting--a challenge familiar to many Duke students, who have already gone through the college-admissions process.

As Duke students gather to wait for the doors to open in Von Canon Room B, senior Nick Vivion stands outside, clutching a handful of the blue paper bracelets that students must wear to gain entrance to the tryout.

He passes out the bracelets one by one, chatting with a friend who has come to play, telling him how he's missing class to devote his day to this effort. "It's drop/add, I figured. And they're paying us, so that's cool."

The friend, already sporting a bracelet, asks Vivion whether he plans to try out himself. "No, I don't do good under pressure," Vivion says. He waves his arm at an imaginary studio audience. "All the lights."

Nearby, Emil Chuck B.S.E. '93, a post-doctoral researcher in the department of pediatrics and the staff adviser to Duke's College Bowl team, trolls the crowd for trivia buffs. "We were supposed to have someone at the student-activities fair signing people up," he says, "but no one could go." And so he is spending his morning chatting up students, handing out pens with the Duke College Bowl logo, and encouraging those interested to add their contact information to a sign-up sheet.

It's not clear whether people know they are signing up for College Bowl, or are simply trying to get registered for their chance to be on Jeopardy!--to be fair, the sign-up sheet does say what it's for--but in either event, his list of contacts is growing fast.

"We're hoping to give them lots of good vibes," he says of those preparing to try out. "But if they don't make it, they can practice with us for the year and hopefully do better next year."

Friends just showing up exchange greetings ranging from "I thought you'd be here" to "Whoa, you're here?" no offense intended.

When the doors finally open, the first twenty students are guided in. Toward the back of the room stands a familiar-looking blue-and-gold board, comprising six columns and five rows. Above each column is a label. "Showbiz," one reads. "Books and Authors," another. And, of course, "Potpourri." Each row boasts a dollar amount, jumping by $200s to $1,000. There is something familiar about it, something soothing. In the background, a familiar theme plays--rather loud.

The group is instructed to sit at one of seven gray folding tables that have been arranged in a square in the front of the room, with space in the middle for the judges to monitor and give immediate feedback on the ten-question, opening-round quiz. (Those who pass will be invited back for a fifty-question exam, followed by a mock Jeopardy! round and an on-camera interview.) On the tables, the Jeopardy! team has arranged piles of magnets, pens, and two styles of keychains.

Brandon Wright, a junior, is the first to finish. He raises his hand as instructed. A judge comes over, reviews his quiz sheet, and tells him simply, "You passed." Wright is handed a personal information survey--given to all those who pass--and asked to fill it out before returning for a second round in the afternoon. He nods, gathers his things, and heads to the Jeopardy! board, where he is soon joined by two others to participate in what the Jeopardy! team calls the "just-for-fun" game.

Showbiz for $600: "He starred as a highly neurotic film director in 2000's Hollywood Ending." Wright tries to buzz in, but is beaten to the punch by another contestant, sophomore Emmanuel Tedder. "Who is Woody Allen?" The three get a few tries before handing their mikes off to the next group.

It's obvious that the participants are familiar with the drill. "Let's go with...." "I'll take...." Still, hosts Jimmy McGuire and Kelly Miyahara have to give out reminders every once in a while about "answering in the form of a question." After one contestant bungles an easy question, Jimmy, who seems to enjoy this even more than energizing the troops in the hallway, says with relish, "As Alex would say, 'Oooh ... sorry.' "

"This African desert is home to two-million people."

"What is the Sahara?" Correct!

Zed Lamba, a freshman, came just for fun, but took the quiz anyway, to see how he would do. They told him he was close, but didn't pass. Just how close, he'll never know: Grades are not revealed, and neither is the cutoff point. "We don't want it to be like another test, where they are so concerned with numbers and passing," Erbstein explains. "We try to keep it a little more fun and laid back."

Lamba gets up to leave, but thinks twice and goes back to grab a keychain or two.

Michael Moore, a sophomore, who says he watches the show at home occasionally and usually does pretty well, finishes his test and hands it to a judge, who looks it over. "Sorry," he's told. He stands up to greet a friend who is holding a survey for round two. Moore talks over his answers, trying to figure out where he went wrong. "They needed to have sports instead of classical music," he mutters.

Vivion watches the just-for-fun game from the doorway, bracelets in hand. The tide of contestants has slowed. He gives instructions to the few straggling in.

A guy in a Red Sox cap turned front to back emerges from the door, fist-bumping his waiting friends in what is presumably a combination greeting and congratulations. Like them, he's carrying the survey, a telltale sign of success. Another friend emerges smiling and laughing. He's passed, as well. Together they make their way up the stairs.

Down the hall, junior Drew Lang stands, waiting for a friend. "I played Quiz Bowl in high school," he says. "One of the guys I played with came in second in this tournament. That's what prompted me to come today."

Lang says he thinks he can pass the fifty-question test, but what makes him nervous is the prospect of the audition with actual buzzers. "I've heard it's a screwy buzzer system. They strongly recommended that we play the just-for-fun game to get some practice." And as the friend walks up, he drags her back inside to see if they can get a practice round or two.

Update: Duke sophomore Chelsea He was selected to participate in the Jeopardy! College Championship, scheduled to air November 7 through 18 on ABC.