That left me with just over three weeks to prepare. Since I'd thought the chances of my getting called up were approximately slim to none, I hadn't done anything Jeopardy!-related since the Boston audition the previous May—I hadn't even been watching the show because it made me nervous by association. Now there were a million things I knew I didn't know and less than a month to try to learn them all. Time to hit the books!
Keeping in mind the major caveat that I don't think I at all studied the best way you could, this is what I read:
Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy!, Bob Harris
This was the first book I got after learning I would be on the show, and I read it in one or two sittings that first day. Not really necessarily something to study with (though he does include some really helpful tips about how to prepare and how to play the game in general), but reading about his experience somehow made me feel calmer about the whole thing and excited to get started—even if I was thinking that a book about someone who went on Jeopardy!, played one game, and lost might've been more relevant to my upcoming situation!
Pros: A genuinely compelling, funny, and touching memoir that I would recommend to anyone whether they're trying out for Jeopardy! or not, and which also contains some useful strategies for future contestants.
Cons: None from me, really. I loved this book.
Verdict: Absolutely worth reading before you go on the show, or any other time.
An Incomplete Education: 3,684 Things You Should Have Learned but Probably Didn't, Judy Jones and William Wilson
The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge: A Desk Reference for the Curious Mind, The New York Times
Pros: Available for checkout at the library; thorough; and, when stacked together on a table top, made a decent podium for practicing games on.
Cons: TOO BIG, both physically (since I preferred studying outside of my apartment and was not interested in lugging these anywhere) and in terms of scope. Maybe if I'd been more organized in my efforts I would've been able to make better use of the information these contained; but as it was and with the amount of time I had, they were too overwhelming, and I ended up only looking at a few entries in each.
Verdict: Maybe fine if you want to keep these by your bedside in the months leading up to/following your audition, but for not helpful for me in my three weeks of panic cramming.
Secrets of the Jeopardy! Champions, Chuck Forrest and Mark Lowenthal
Pros: Limited in scope (which is helpful!), with Jeopardy!-specific areas of focus and easy-to-reference lists of things like Presidents and Vice Presidents, Shakespeare, composers, mythology. Small, portable paperback with delightfully '80s cover art.
Cons: The HI GUYS LOOK I'M STUDYING FOR JEOPARDY! cover, which I was a little sheepish about when I would head out to work in coffee shops at night. Published 20 years ago, so obviously no good for time-sensitive topics like politics and geography.
Verdict: Glad I bought a copy, and it makes a nice keepsake to remember my nights of Jeopardy! studying by.
I loaded my iPod with any useful podcast I could find (Bardcast and Stuff You Missed in History Class were the two best ones that I can remember) and had my headphones in while I washed dishes and when I went to bed at night. I filled up sheets and sheets of scratch paper, practicing one Final Jeopardy betting scenario after another with help from the J! Archive glossary and wagering calculator. (A note here to future contestants: study wagering. Study wagering. STUDY WAGERING. I would not be a Jeopardy! champion today if everyone on my shows had STUDIED WAGERING.) I looked up old games on youtube and played along while standing (carefully out of the sightlines of my living room windows...) with my makeshift signalling device, a wide-barreled ballpoint clicky pen with the spring removed.
[Unfortunately, I somehow failed to come across JBoard.tv before my taping days, but I would highly recommend that all potential Jeopardy! players spend some time there as well, as the board is populated by superfans who have years of watching, dissecting, and (in some cases) winning games under their belts. I know I can think of at least one missed answer that I probably might've avoided had I frequented JBoard with any regularity before my appearance.]
So, three-ish weeks. I did what I could, though I couldn't shake the feeling that I was being silly for spending time studying when probably I would just get to play one game—or more likely, wanting to preserve the out that, if I were to lose my first game, I could just say, "Oh well, it's not like I studied hard or it was a big deal to me or anything!" More advice: don't think like this! Obviously. Just prepare as well as you can and enjoy all the new things you're learning. I will say that I don't think anything I studied during those three weeks showed up, at least not in any of my games (there were a few categories in the rounds I watched before my first game that had me screaming in my seat, "Nooooo! Not now! I know this one!!!!"), and also that in regular Jeopardy! rounds, you have to be able to recall the information so quickly that I'm not sure how much of what I did study would've surfaced. But definitely useful for Final Jeopardy—too bad I never got to the Russo-Japanese War.
Before I knew it, time was up, and it was off to Culver City for the big show! I packed my study binder, my signalling device, and Secrets of the Jeopardy! Champions and headed to the airport. On the way there, I told my cab driver that I was flying out to be on Jeopardy!, and he asked me if that was anything like American Idol.
I said I hoped not.