Interview by Katherine Duke '05
Since its first, black-and-white incarnation, created by Merv Griffin in the early 1960s, Jeopardy! has built a reputation as the thinking person’s game show. Amherst has helped prepare many trivia geeks to do battle with the big blue board: As a senior, Gwyneth Connell ’00 represented the Jeffs in the 2000 College Championship. Novelist and attorney Scott Turow ’70 towered over the competition in Celebrity Jeopardy! in 2006. And even though I ultimately came in a distant third, I consider my own Jeopardy! game, which aired in April 2008, among the luckiest and most fascinating experiences of my life.
When Ben Bishop ’09, an economics major and co-captain of the Amherst squash team, found out that he had been chosen for the show, he dropped by my office to get tips from a veteran. I lent him Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs by 74-time Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings. After Bishop’s tapings in October 2008, he came by again. “How did it go?” I asked. Sworn to secrecy about the outcome, he said only, “It was fun.”
In early December, millions of viewers found out exactly how it went: The 21-year-old Seattle native competed on five episodes and won four of them. His $115,800 total is the highest earned by any contestant so far this year, which means that he’s headed to Las Vegas in January 2009 for the Tournament of Champions, where he’ll try for another $250,000. “Fun,” indeed.
I sat down with Bishop to learn more about his rise to game show stardom. I did not require him to phrase each answer in the form of a question. Here is what he had to say:
“For four or five days before I was on the show, I was reading the almanac. I was reading stuff that I knew that I knew, but I just wanted to make sure that I had the names correct, and things where I knew a couple different people that I wanted to separate my mind, [such as] the difference between Cezanne and Gauguin. My roommates helped out a lot. Garrett [Snedeker ‘09] put together a summary of 1960s-through-1980s sitcoms—something that I know nothing about. I borrowed a buzzer from the Amherst Quiz Bowl team to practice ringing in.”
Behind the scenes
“Everyone [on the Jeopardy! crew] was really nice; that helped. [The contestant coordinators] deal with new, nervous contestants every week, so they’re good at lightening the mood. The other contestants are just as happy to be there as you are. There’s a three- or four-hour orientation in the morning, so everyone gets to be nice and friendly—and then they try to beat each other up, onstage.
“I was impressed at how good [host Alex Trebek] is at his job. He does make a few errors, reading the clues, which they go back and re-record. But he’s very good with the interviews, and during the commercials, he entertains the crowd. You get the idea that he’s pretty smart and that he’s genuinely interested in the material. He seems like he’s not just doing it to make the money.”
On the board
“On my first show, one of the first questions was about [the trade of] cotton, and that’s one of my big academic interests; I did a Special Topics [course] on it. It was sort of a running joke, before the show, that I would get a question about cotton. And it was, like, the third question, so that really helped settle me down. The other running joke was that I would get geography categories, and then, in the first show, in Double Jeopardy, I got two geography categories. Once those came out, I was pretty sure that I had a good chance of winning.
“It’s funny: I took Astronomy 11 last semester, and there was a category about stars, and for the $1,000 or $2,000 clue, the answer was nebula, and I remembered [Professor of Astronomy George Greenstein] showing us pictures and talking about them in class. There was a [Final Jeopardy] question straight out of Brainiac. [The clue was: “The first and middle names of this breakfast cereal ‘spokesman’ are Horatio Magellan.” See the answer at the end of this article.]
“The things that I ought to be good at, I probably am not: pop culture and movies and TV. All my friends from home made fun of me for getting an Angelina Jolie question wrong. I missed a couple of sports questions early in my first episode.”
“I felt sort of bad; I think [the other contestants] were intimidated by me, and it was weird for me to be inspiring such fear. After my first two shows, we went and ate lunch, and they were all giving me this stare from afar. But they were all pretty nice people.”
On the money
“The money isn’t real to me yet. First of all, they won’t pay me until 120 days after the show airs. And when you’re playing the game, you don’t really think of it like money—it’s just points. I wagered pretty aggressively throughout the show. Obviously, if somebody said, “Hey, I’ve got a question for you about the names of countries. Would you be willing to bet $20,000 that you know the right answer?” No, I probably wouldn’t. But that’s not how I think about it—it’s just points to help me win the game. I haven’t really thought about how to spend the money yet.”
[The answer to the clue above: Who is Cap’n Crunch?]