When people ask me how they can become a Jeopardy champion, I often find that what they really mean is: How can they know more stuff? Which is not quite the same question. It’s like asking how to get better at shooting a basketball, rather than asking how to get better at basketball; necessary, but far from sufficient. So yes, by all means, keep learning! But there’s more that you’ll need to do, if you truly hope to live the glamorous lifestyle of a Jeopardy champion.
First off, you need to practice. Which may seem obvious, but the way that you practice is crucial. I imagine that most aspiring Jeopardy champions watch the show regularly, shouting out answers from their couch at home. That’s a kind of practice, sure, but not the most effective kind. You need to practice the game the same way you’re going to play it.
For one thing, you need to keep score. Hold yourself accountable. Use a ballpoint pen as a “buzzer,” only giving yourself credit if you ring in before a contestant is called on, and penalizing yourself for ringing in with an incorrect answer. On your couch, there’s no penalty for making an incorrect guess (barring the occasional light-hearted teasing from friends and loved ones). On the show, guessing wrong costs money, and one wrong answer could be the difference between winning and getting to play again, or losing and being done with Jeopardy forever. So before you ring in, you need to know how likely your guess is to be correct, and you have to know it instinctively, because if you stop to debate how sure you are, it’ll already be too late. Remember that, on the show, the buzzers are only enabled after the host has finished reading the entire clue. If you try to ring in early, then your buzzer will be enabled a quarter second later than those of the other contestants. For many questions, multiple contestants will know the answer, so buzzer timing is critical.
In fact, preparation is about more than just practice. You need to really think about what playing the game will feel like. What clothes are you going to wear? Will you be comfortable in them? And not just physically comfortable, but mentally comfortable, confident in your appearance? I’ve worn heels on the Jeopardy stage, because while they made my feet hurt a little, they also helped me remember that I’m an actual, grown-up, successful woman who earned her place on stage, and not the fraudulent child that my brain sometimes tries to convince me I am. Think through your morning routine. Plan what breakfast you’re going to eat, and what snacks you’re going to bring. If you want caffeine to be part of your day, make sure you know how your body reacts to it in unusually stressful situations. Because it will be stressful.
How do you handle stress? What coping mechanisms have worked for you in the past, and what haven’t, and how are you going to remember which is which? This is what really starts to separate the trivia knowers from the Jeopardy champions. It doesn’t matter how much knowledge you have stored away in your brain if, when the time comes, your brain is so busy managing your emotions that it can’t retrieve that knowledge for you. Ask yourself: when you’re on that stage, and the cameras are on, and the audience is looking at you, and everything you do or say will be broadcast to the entire country, and a dream you’ve had for years is about to be either realized, or permanently destroyed, when that time comes, how are you going to be able to shut all those facts out, so that you can remember the capital of Tanzania, or who wrote The Turn of the Screw?
Read More: 6 Expert-Backed Ways To Manage Your Stress
Now, I don’t know the answer to that question. But the good news is you do! In fact, you are the only person who does know how you handle pressure best. As always, the first step on the road to finding an answer is simply asking the question. How am I going to feel? What am I the most afraid of? What sort of things might cause my brain to lose its focus? And when those things happen (which they will) how can I bring that focus back? For myself, I had a few answers ready, a few different phrases to tell myself when things started to go wrong. “Nothing is more important than this moment right now.” “The next question is the only one that matters.” “ This is Genevieve’s money, don’t let these people take her money.” But I don’t know if they’d work for you. For one thing, you’re not married to Genevieve, so thinking about her is unlikely to offer you much motivation. But the general strategy I can recommend to anyone. You need to prepare to lose.
One of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut quotes is “In terms of basketball alone, almost everybody has to lose.” The same applies to Jeopardy. No matter how good you are, no matter how much you prepare, nothing is guaranteed. In my first game, I happened to get matched up with Andrew He, one of the best Jeopardy players to ever step on to that stage. I stuck with my plan, stayed focused, and tried to play my best game. But when he took a $9 thousand lead over me with only 15 clues remaining, it became clear that I was quite probably about to lose, about to go home with a second-place prize and some memories. I’d always hoped to play Jeopardy someday, and dreamed about winning a game, maybe even winning a bunch of them! Now I was a few minutes away from losing that dream forever. A wave of devastation started to build in my brain, a feeling of grief and anger and panic, and—
And I let it go. I focused on the next question, got it right, and kept playing the game, kept maximizing whatever chance I had left. Because in the weeks leading up to my taping, I had planned for this exact moment, the moment when it all fell apart, when all seemed lost. I didn’t want to be in that position, but I knew it was a possibility, no matter what I did to prevent it. What would I do then?
Again, my answer to that question isn’t that important, because it won’t be the same as yours. The important thing isn’t what I had planned for that moment, it’s that I had a plan at all. Don’t get me wrong: You should also plan for success, believe in yourself, visualize achieving your dreams. But ultimately, I don’t believe you can achieve your dreams unless you know you can fail at them, can see them shatter to pieces all around you—and then look around at the wreckage, accept it, and move on. You can’t win unless you know how to lose.