Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy!by Bob Harris
A.: This is the story of a working-class guy from Ohio with little real knowledge of Ambidextrous Presidents, Things Made from Rubber, and hundreds of other categories, but who nonetheless plunges so far into cramming for Jeopardy! that it changes his relationships, bends his worldview, and literally leads him to the ends of the earth, trying to understand it all.
Q.: What is Prisoner of Trebekistan?
Welcome to a world where obscure information is crucial to survival, vast sums of cash are at stake, and milliseconds can change not just a game but the course of your entire life. (Plus, you could win two Camaros and enough Bon Ami cleanser to scrub a small nation.)
Prisoner of Trebekistan is Bob Harris’s hilarious, insightful account of one man’s unlikely epic journey through Jeopardy!, gleefully exploring triumph and failure, the nature of memory, and how knowledge itself can transform you in unpredictable ways—all against the backdrop of the most popular quiz show in history.
In Prisoner of Trebekistan, Bob chronicles his transformation from a struggling stand-up comic who repeatedly fails the Jeopardy! audition test into an elite player competing against the show’s most powerful brains. To get there, he embarks on a series of intense study sessions, using his sense of humor to transform conventional memory skills into a refreshingly playful approach to learning that’s as amusing as it is powerful.
What follows is not only a captivating series of high-stakes wins and losses on Jeopardy!, but also a growing appreciation of a borderless world that Bob calls Trebekistan, where a love of learning reigns and the smarter you get the more you realize how much you don’t yet know.
Filled with secrets that only a veteran contestant could share—from counterintuitive game strategies to Jedi-like tactics with the Jeopardy! signaling device—Prisoner of Trebekistan also gives you the chance to play along with the actual clues that led to victory or defeat in high-level tournaments, plus candid, moving reflections on how the games affected Bob’s offstage life—and vice versa.
Not only an irresistible treat for Jeopardy! fans, Prisoner of Trebekistan is a delight for anyone who loves a rollicking tale that celebrates the unpredictability of life and the sneaky way it has of teaching us the things that really matter.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt
Why Alex May Not Have a Physical Body Also, Choosing the Correct Millisecond
I'm standing at the centermost of the three contestant podiums, which are wider and deeper than they look on TV. My feet are teetering on a wooden box, creating the illusion of height for the camera. To a viewer at home, the game board is as near as the screen. But here, it's a faraway wall, the opposite side of a river-blue stage.
Though glowing with color from remote-controlled spotlights, the room is remarkably quiet and still. The black plastic buzzer feels cold in my hand.
I can't see my opponents while we're playing the game, but I can feel their movements, the bodily cues of who's winning and losing: the small changes in posture, the shuffling of feet, the tensing of shoulders. With every response, our voices betray our excitement or calm, confusion or certainty, eagerness or dread. Choices of category and clue reveal personal strengths and confidence. Sometimes, I can even sense someone's breath being held very slightly when they realize--faster than me, far too often--that they know the next response.
As Alex reads a clue, I now sense such a breath being held on my left. A full second passes. And another. Our buzzers are powerless, disconnected until Alex has finished. Instants tick by. On my right, barely glimpsed, a thumb readies. But we wait.
I can't see Alex, either. I hear him, of course. His voice fills the room, reciting each clue with the perfect insistence of the timeline itself, a new clue every twelve seconds (on average) for more than twenty years. He is standing, as always, at his podium, just ten feet away, and almost in front of my eyes. But I cannot see Alex. In this moment, to my knowledge, he may not have physical form.
I am target-locked on the vast, distant game board: scanning the categories, thinking ahead, searching each clue for that one telling hint, considering dollar amounts and Daily Doubles and doing small silent bursts of math. And five times a minute, I am focusing on the last letter of the last word at the end of each clue, anticipating Alex's last syllable, preparing my signal, tweaking my rhythm, adjusting my perception of time.
Millions may watch. Friends, family, lovers, all those I've cared about, or ever will, might be silently present in spirit. If the TVs in Heaven have decent reception, even my dad may be watching right now. But while actually playing, I am deep in my head. Surrounded by cameras, I can see no one. In this moment, I'm completely alone.
Even Alex is simply a voice from within, a Freudian ego with perfect inflection, pushing your memory, probing your defenses, testing your tiniest grasp of reality. Move your eyes for an instant, break the trance for one moment, and the game will be finished too soon. As will you.
So every twelve seconds, every twelve seconds, every twelve seconds, finally: plastic cacophony, cliklikikkitylikkityclikit, fingers and thumbs, fingers and thumbs, frantically seeking correct milliseconds, white buttons crashing down hard on black buzzers, cliklikikkitylikkityclikit, an urgent loud triple attack.
I drive an old car named Max.
I am wearing shoes I bought for a funeral almost ten years ago.
I am competing in a tournament with a $2 million prize.
In the spaces between instants, entire futures float by.
This . . . is . . . JEOPARDY!
Eventually, mercifully: one player's light will come on.
It will very likely not be mine. Every contestant is always outnumbered.
To my right stands a five-time champion. He is taller and older and better educated than me. I have learned, in this very minute, that he knows words I've never heard. To my left stands a man who won an International Tournament of Champions. More than just a five-time champ, he was arguably once the best player on earth. He seems to know everything I've ever learned, at a minimum, and he's better on the buzzer than I am.
Surrounding the game board is a series of lights that will flash when it's time to respond. Since more than one player knows almost every response, precision of rhythm can sometimes trump brilliance. Winning and losing often turn not on memory, but on mastery of these electronic milliseconds.
I am not winning.
For almost an entire game, I have been choosing the wrong millisecond. And twelve seconds later, I have chosen the wrong millisecond again. So far, twenty-five clues into this Double Jeopardy round, I have won on the buzzer and then responded correctly exactly four times.
I am wondering, amid a hundred other racing thoughts, how I ever got here.
Whoever leads at the end of the Double Jeopardy round is usually the victor. But I am thousands of dollars behind. To have any real chance, I need to start winning quite suddenly, every twelve seconds. I will need to beat both of these players on the buzzer and answer correctly at least four more times.
One problem: there are only five clues remaining.
The next clue begins. As Alex's voice echoes softly inside my head, my eyes race through the words on the game board, hoping to gain perhaps one extra second. In a moment, I know the response. There is no sense of relief.
I take a breath, focus only on pacing and rhythm, and start sorting small fractions of time.
To my right, I feel a breath slightly held. To my left, a barely glimpsed thumb again readies.
A second passes. And then another. Alex approaches the end of the clue.
The right millisecond approaches.
I just have to find it.
If you're interested in what a player might try in that position, that's part of what this book is about.
If you're curious how anybody remembers the capital of Bhutan, great composers of Finland, or the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, that's another big chunk of what follows.
You might also wonder how winning and losing and studying so hard might affect a player's life, or if friendships evolve, or what Alex is like, or how having a bunch of new stuff in your head might feel. There's a lot of all that in here, too.
We will bounce between all these categories, sometimes quite suddenly. But just keep playing. We'll get the whole board cleared off by the end.
And if part of you doubts that you'd ever belong in a game like this, I understand.
That, in fact, is what everything else in the book is about.
A COMPLETE INABILITY TO LEARN FROM FAILURE
Also, Incompetence, Ignorance, and Clumsiness
I don't remember what year it was the first time I failed the Jeopardy! test.
That might tell you a lot right there.
I also don't remember how many times I failed it. I'm pretty sure it was five, over the course of several years, beginning well over a decade ago. It might have only been four. Maybe six. I actually lost count.
I didn't go to Harvard or Berkeley or any school you'd probably recognize. I've read a good bit on my own about history and politics, but I have no advanced education in literature, the visual arts, or a hundred other subjects. For much of my life, the most sophisticated works I've been able to appreciate have been narrated by Morgan Freeman. I've never done anything distinguished enough to merit the sound of his voice.
I did once get a degree in electrical engineering, but Jeopardy! is about playing the giant game board, not giving it service under warranty. In a pinch, my college years might have been handy if you could rig your buzzer for "stun," replace the light pens with Tasers, or reboot Alex every time you start losing. Unfortunately, none of the wiring is all that accessible. Alex barely comes within reach.
I was never even much of an engineer. What formal training I did receive was made useless by time itself. The "advanced" computer language I studied as a sophomore was obsolete by the time I was a senior. Soon after my graduation, technology had accelerated so much that I might as well have studied Plowing With Oxen, Posing Naked On Ceremonial Pottery, or Things To Do With An Armored Codpiece. My academic relevance ended with Pong.
What I do have going for me is a diverse and stimulating range of failures.
The following is true, I swear: I once bought the book Speed Reading Made Easy. And I never finished it.
Let that sink in.
However, one afternoon when I was hanging pictures and couldn't find a hammer, I actually used the book's spine to drive a nail in the wall.
So at least it wasn't a complete waste.
I took the Jeopardy! test, all five or four or possibly six times, in the audience bleachers of the actual Jeopardy! studio. A hundred hopefuls would assemble at the Sony parking garage, chatter nervously about nothing, and follow an escort past an array of Sony-owned props, potted plants, and glamorous showbiz detritus.
At last, we would reach the hallowed Jeopardy! hall. This was pretty cool in itself, at least the first few times. The distant, darkened stage would seem ready to shimmer at any moment, honored ground where only a few might tread.
The contestant podiums, right across the room, were still mainly in our imaginations. But perhaps, we all hoped, not for long. Perhaps someday we would stand beside legends like Michael Daunt (at the time, the International Tournament champion) or Frank Spangenberg (the highest-scoring five-time champ in history) or Chuck Forrest (inventor of the "Forrest Bounce" board strategy, about which you will soon read more) or Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter (neither of whom would pick up a buzzer for another ten years, but since we were dreaming impossible things, they belong just as well as the others).
Perhaps someday we, too, would stand in brilliant light and recall unbelievably small details from the database of everything that happened to anyone, anywhere, ever. So we hundred hopefuls would lean forward, earnest and focused, read the clues off the monitors, and pencil our way through a Johnny Gilbert-narrated SAT.
The test itself was simple yet tough: fifty clues, each obscure enough to appear in the difficult bottom rows of the game board, announced with relentless rhythm in a total of perhaps fifteen minutes.
If that seems fast, the total time of an actual sixty-clue Jeopardy game (leaving aside the thirty-second fever dream of--p-TING!--Final Jeopardy): just under thirteen minutes. Sixty twelve-second cycles slowed only slightly by three Daily Doubles. As the game flies along, your total time-to-think period, as Alex reads each clue aloud: usually between two and seven seconds, followed by the wait-wait-now spasm of thumby buzzer-whacking. Twelve seconds, again. Twelve seconds, again.
Fast as the Jeopardy! test seemed, we were actually going much more slowly than in a real game.
Pencils down. A hundred exhales. Quiet. Then: nervous chatter. Did-you-get-its and aagh-I-should-have-known-thats shared between competitive strangers made friendly by stress.
Most of the clues, predictably, were from the wide variety of categories completely outside my experience. For me, things like British Literature, Ancient History, and Norse Mythology might as well have been titled Books You've Never Heard Of, Answers You Can't Pronounce, and More Proof You Don't Belong Here, Bob.
I couldn't have gotten more than half of the responses right.
At the end of each of my five (or four or possibly six) lame flails, ne of the contestant handlers would thank everyone for coming and reassure us that we shouldn't feel bad if we didn't pass. After all, they would always insist, it's impossible to study for Jeopardy!
Then someone would read the list of the names of people who had passed the test, one by one. And then stop. Sooner than I'd hoped.
I would rise, put on either my sunglasses or a warm jacket, depending on the season, shuffle back to where Max was parked in the Sony garage, climb in, drive home, and sit through the show's six-month total-failure-quarantine period. And then I'd try again. Eventually, I gave up.
I didn't even succeed at that.
The final time I drove down for the Jeopardy! test, I realized I was wasting my time.
The show had never (and has never, I believe) specified how many correct responses were necessary to pass--to this day I'm not certain if it's even a fixed number--but by my last trip, the widely rumored threshold was precisely thirty-five. I heard this very gossip, in fact, in the Sony parking garage, chatting with other hopefuls while waiting for the escorted march.
Sure enough, for the fifth time, I was certain of only about twenty-five of the fifty responses. Beyond those, a handful of my guesses looked pretty decent. But I would still need perhaps a half-dozen Hail Mary lobs to land. The chances seemed remote. They still do.
As I turned in my paper and No. 2 pencil, it dawned on me that there were stalkers who gave up more easily.
I wondered why I kept trying.
The money was a nice incentive, of course. Jeopardy! hands out huge crunchy bales of cash to people whose brains unspool on command. Plus, the Pavlovian reward loop- respond correctly, get a jolt of pride- was already rewarding.
Maybe it was sheer stubbornness, or trying to feel worthy of educational chances I hadn't made the most of, or a lifetime of using my brain as a kind of preemptive self-defense. Maybe I was still trying to prove something to my parents, but one of them was dead, and the other would give me a warm buttered pretzel if I had just knocked over a hardware store.
Perhaps it was animal instinct. In any band of primates, males compete to display their alpha-ness for the females in the troop. Maybe this was all some elaborate reproductive ruse. If so, though, it was certainly among the least efficient in history.
I realized, finally: I didn't even know why I was there.
As the names of the non-failures were read aloud, I knew I was going home for good. So this was the end of my Jeopardy! career.
And then the contestant coordinator, Susanne Thurber, a woman of firm countenance around nervous strangers but (I would learn) sweet and funny and eager to dish about Broadway shows when sitting backstage in the green room of Radio City Music Hall, took one more breath, nearing the end of her list . . . and called my name.
My journey into Trebekistan had begun.
In almost a decade since, I've been on Jeopardy! thirteen times.
I've won over $150,000 in cash and prizes and defeated two Tournament of Champions winners. The show has put me up in fancy hotels on both coasts, flown me across the country twice- once for a million-dollar "Masters" tournament- given me two sports cars, and even invited me to the ceremony where Alex got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Bob Harris has written for National Lampoon, Mother Jones online, and the television drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. In addition to being an undefeated five-time Jeopardy! champion, he reached the finals of the annual $100,000 Tournament of Champions before losing so absurdly that the final episode was shown on airlines as in-flight entertainment. In 2002, Harris was one of only fifteen players invited to compete in a Million-Dollar Masters Tournament held at Radio City Music Hall. More recently, he was a memorable part of the 2005 Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions. He lives in Los Angeles.
From the Hardcover edition.