Karl Coryat has forgotten more "Jeopardy!" questions than you'll ever know. The two-time winner taped hundreds of "Jeopardy!" shows, watched them twice, and wrote down the questions he didn't know in order to prepare for the show. It's an example of how far some people will go to get a spot on - and succeed at - game shows.
An appetite for trivia is buried in American culture, says Steve Beverly, a communications professor at Union College in Barbourville, Ky., and a game-show expert. "We are a society that in large part loves to play games," he says. "We're quizzed all our lives. We had to do it for grades. We had to do it at work to see how much we're helping the company."
Even with all this quizzing, Americans are still bamboozled by how the seemingly average person answers "Jeopardy!" questions in categories like "Those Darn Etruscans" and "Kings named Haakon."
Some contestants, like Mr. Coryat, maintain almost maniacal study habits. The editor of a music magazine, Coryat appeared on "Jeopardy!" in 1996. He says he was never a genius in high school, but he did memorize pi to the 100th decimal as a "party trick," as well as the names of all the bones in the human body. In addition, he compiled a list of 21,000 questions and answers and memorized them all. He also scanned the almanac for relevant facts (all the National Parks in America, for instance).
Coryat's most helpful resource, however, was an out-of-print fact book, "On the Tip of Your Tongue."
But this was no cram session. It took him a year and a half to memorize the facts - and it paid off. Two-thirds to three-quarters of the money value he won was a result of his studying.
Coryat says that if at-home "Jeopardy!" players consistently average $14,000, they have a good shot of passing the test to get on the show.
But Mr. Beverly warns people shouldn't try to outguess the question writers: "If you overprepare for a game show, you'll probably bomb."
He says the best preparation is to build a wide knowledge base by reading newspapers, which is a fading habit among young people.
"The difference right now is you have a generational divide. Younger people do not have the sense and background of history," Beverly says. He remembers one contestant on "Who wants to be a Millionaire" who botched a simple question about the Watergate Hotel.
"In addition to having a broad general knowledge, you've got to have a good personality," Beverly says. "Most game shows don't want someone that looks like they just came back from a funeral parlor."
Michael Dupee, a "Jeopardy!" Tournament of Champions winner, beat out 300 people to get on the show. His method: "I almost look at the world in a very trivia-oriented way," he says. He waited until he was 30 to go on "Jeopardy!" so he'd be better at the "nostalgia" categories. To prepare, he read USA Today, The New York Times, and introductory books on subjects he was weak in (like cooking). He also stood behind a podium (his baby's highchair) while pressing the remote control's pause button to practice ringing in.
"The button is the single most important thing in the game," he says. A little-known fact is that a man off-camera presses a button after host Alex Trebek stops talking. Only after this may players ring in. Mr. Dupee figured out his habits and timing. It paid off to the tune of more than $161,000.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor