How To Make It On "Jeopardy"

A Providence-based quizmaster talks about what it takes to meet Trebek.

How many of us have watched "Jeopardy," done well from the comfort of our couches and considered trying out? But making it to the stage with Alex Trebek is an involved and selective process, which often requires several rounds of testing and auditions, with lots of people weighing in with conflicting advice. 

Providence-based quiz writer and quiz master Jonpaul Henry Guinn will be trying his luck with the buzzer as a contestant next Wednesday at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City. The forty-one-year-old is flying out Monday and won’t be able to talk about how he did or what he was asked about when he gets back. But he was able to discuss what it took to get there and how he’s preparing:  

HOW LONG HAVE YOU WANTED TO GO ON “JEOPARDY”? I’ve been a fan for a long time. There are a lot of people who go on "Jeopardy" who watch it every night. I don’t have DVR anymore so now I’ll watch it when I’m bartending Monday nights, I’ll put it on in the bar. If I’m home, I’ll watch it. I’m a fan of trivia and I think they do it really well. I’ve wanted to be on it for maybe six or seven years.

WHAT’S THE PROCESS FOR TRYING OUT? Every January they do a three-day period where they have online testing. You register for that beforehand and you pick one of the test dates. When that time comes up, they send you a reminder email but it’s up to you to log in and take the test. It lasts about between fifteen and twenty-five minutes and it’s a fifty-question test. The first time I took it was in 2012 and then again in 2014 and then 2015, a year ago.

The first time I took it I did badly. It’s like any other test: the more that you do it and the more that you’re familiar with the format, the more comfortable you are taking it. The second time I did okay. I knew what mistakes I made. I was very relaxed by the third time I took it. I thought that I nailed it, but then I didn’t hear from them for nine months. Around the time I started to forget about it and think I was going to have to take it again this January I got an email from "Jeopardy" inviting me to audition in person in Boston.

WHAT WERE THE AUDITIONS LIKE? They’re definitely looking for someone who can perform on TV. I knew that going in. So I pretty much acted the way that I do when I host a quiz. I am more likely to introduce myself to people and project my voice than I am on a daily basis, when I’m more likely to hang back with a book and introduce myself when I feel like it. There’s a number of people who have been on the show and have done well on the show who have had to audition more than once. I think it’s like 10 percent of the people who do the in-person audition get selected. I managed to nail it my first time, I’m not really sure how.

They take your photograph and have you fill out a questionnaire beforehand. Everyone goes into a basic hotel conference room and they give you an introduction. They start playing a really informal "Jeopardy" game where you raise your hand to get used to the buzzer. Then you take a fifty-question written test, which is kind of a confirmation of your online test. And then they have you come up in threes and play a game of "Jeopardy" and do the awkward contestant interview thing. But it’s not awkward there at all because the contestant coordinators are really good at their jobs.

The majority of people were in their 30s and 40s. It was an odd assortment of people, but not odd in the way that an "American Idol" audition is. It was easy when I came into the hotel to pick out people right away. There were a lot of people with crossword puzzles and books.

I got a phone call around February 2. It was pretty much exactly a month until I was supposed to go tape.

HOW ARE YOU PREPARING? If you talk to people who have been on "Jeopardy," and at this point I’ve talked to quite a few, they all have different advice. Some of them say to relax, some of them say to study a lot. It’s hard to say what to do. The way I’m feeling about it is that I do this stuff all the time. I write it, I host it, I play it, I’m good at it. I know I’m not the best at it. I’m just feeling good about the fact that I know a lot about books, I know a lot about geography, I made flash cards years ago before I even started auditioning so I could memorize things like all the world capitals. And I’m into nerdy stuff that happens to be what "Jeopardy" asks about.

There’s a whole thing called the "Jeopardy" archive that is not run by the show, but it has a searchable database of pretty much every question that "Jeopardy" has ever asked. And they have all these breakdowns of gambling strategies on Final Jeopardy, Daily Doubles. And of course, they conflict with each other. You have no idea whose advice to take.

I have also watched a lot of episodes and practiced clicking in. One of the things I have learned from practicing is that my reaction time really stinks on my left hand. My left thumb is a lot slower than my right thumb. So I can’t change hands on the clicker. I think I might have changed hands with the clicker if I hadn’t practiced at home.

ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO MEETING ALEX TREBEK? I’m really looking forward to meeting him. I had a friend who told me I should turn it down and wait five years, because you keep getting better at doing quiz stuff every year and in five years, you’re going to be unstoppable. But I don’t think it’s really true and the other thing is that Alex will probably be retired by then. I mean, it’s Trebek. It’s kind of like someone telling you you’re going to meet Mark Twain or Zeus or Gandhi or something like that. It doesn’t seem real.

Guinn hosts Geeks Who Drink pub quizzes Tuesdays at Brutopia, Wednesday nights at Pizza J and Sundays at English Cellar Ale House. This interview has been edited and condensed.