Hey everybody, and welcome back to Rempton Games. Today, I want to take a look at what it takes to win big at the classic Trivia Gameshow, Jeopardy.

If you want to compete well in Jeopardy, it goes without saying that you’ll need to know a thing or two about a thing or two. However, not even Ken Jennings knows everything, and with Jeopardy covering a range of topics from Movie Title Math to Potent Potables there is no way to truly cover all your bases.

Because of this, preparing carefully beforehand is very important. While you may already know a lot of trivia, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are ready for Jeopardy – if you want to be successful, it’s important to prepare and study ahead of time. Sure, you could start researching random topics or re-watching old games, but your study time is limited, and you want to get the best results for the time that you put in. In that case, the best use of your time would be to spend the most time studying the topics that are most likely to actually show up.

While Jeopardy covers a wide range of topics, not every topic is equally likely. Some specific categories, such as “Before and After”, are more likely to appear, and contestants should be prepared for the correct way to answer these types of questions. In this category, which is actually the #1 most common, answers must not only be phrased in the form of a question, but should be a 2 part answer where the first and second part share a word. For example, the answer to the clue “Prairie style architect who had a No. 1 hit singing “I’m too sexy for my shirt… so sexy it hurts””  is Frank Lloyd Right Said Fred, because Frank Lloyd Right is the Prairie Style Architect, and Right Said Fred sang that song.

Speaking of Frank Lloyd Right, he is pretty much the only “Prairie Style Architect” you’ll need to know if you are going on Jeopardy. In fact, if he’s the only architect you know you’ll probably be mostly alright. While the range of categories is vast, the expected knowledge about each category is not, and generally the more obscure the category the less you are expected to know about it. Basically, for common categories like Film and Sports you might need a wide range of knowledge, but for more obscure topics all you need to know are a few key facts and figures.

In the Jeopardy fan community these are known as “Pavlovian Answers”, because they have trained themselves to know that a certain phrase almost always indicates a particular answer. Iowa Painter, for example, almost always refers to Grant Wood, while “Nonsense Poet” refers to Edward Lear. This means that for a lot of categories it isn’t necessary to spend a lot of time learning a lot of details – you really only need to know the most significant information, as they will rarely ask you to go deeper than that (for obscure topics).

There are some topics, however, that you do need to have a strong knowledge of, because they appear often and do not have such clear, go-to answers. Several attempts have been made to determine the most popular Jeopardy categories, and while they don’t all line up exactly there are a number of clear trends. You definitely don’t want to skimp on history – categories such as American History and World History are quite popular. You’ll also want to make sure you have a breadth of knowledge on topics like Literature, Science, and especially Geography – all 10 of the 10 most common Jeopardy answers are the names of locations (with China and Australia going back and forth for the top spot).

Now that we know which topics we need to focus on, it’s time to actually start studying. While there are many ways to go about studying for Jeopardy, one very common method is to study past Jeopardy answers. While you could do this by re-watching old shows, it is generally a lot quicker and more effective to use an online resource such as JArchive, which has archived almost every episode of Jeopardy since Alex Trebec became host in 1984.

JArchive is a really useful resource because not only does it carefully archive all of these episodes, with every category, clue and answer, but you can search for specific topics to make studying even easier. There is also, which is a Jeopardy forum where you can discuss games and strategies with other Jeopardy enthusiasts.

However, if you want to become a Jeopardy champion simply knowing a lot of right answers isn’t always enough. It doesn’t matter how many right answers you know if you never get a chance to answer them, which is why mastering your buzzer skills is a vital part of Jeopardy preparation, because being even a fraction of a second behind on your buzzer presses can be the difference between victory and defeat.

The first step mastering the Jeopardy buzzer is understanding how it works behind the scenes. First rule of the buzzer – don’t buzz while the question is still being read. The buzzers are not enabled until Alex Trebec has finished reading the question. How do you know when the buttons are enabled? Look for the light – there is a row of lights on each side of the game board that turn on when the buzzers are enabled. Wait until the clue has been given, and buzz as soon as you see the light.

You may think the way around this is to simply mash the button as quickly as possible, so that you will always be the first to ring in when the light goes on – this would be a bad idea. To keep the game running smoothly, your buzzer is actually disabled for a quarter of a second after you hit your button. If you mash the button, this could result in your button being disabled when it’s actually time to buzz in, and you could lose the answer to another contestant.

The final thing you need to become a Jeopardy Champion is a strategy. In Jeopardy, your strategy basically has 2 main components. The first is which categories and questions you choose, and the second is how you bid on things like Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy.

In terms of picking questions and categories, most players tend to go for the same “safe” approach – they will generally start at the top of a category, picking low valued questions, and work their way through the entire category before moving on. This may seem like a natural approach – you can test the waters, so to speak, with some easier questions, and working through a single category is easier than bouncing from category to category.

However, while this strategy might be simple, it’s not necessarily optimal. Take for example Jeopardy contestant James Holtzhauer, who not only holds the record for single game earnings on Jeopardy but actually has all 10 of the top ten highest scoring games. To achieve this incredible success, Holzhauer took a very different approach to choosing questions and categories.

Instead of starting with lower valued clues and working his way up, Holzhauer jumped straight for the middle of the board, and bounced around from category to category. While this may have the psychological effect of throwing off his opponents, it also allowed Holzhauer to quickly rack up money from higher valued clues. While increasing your winnings is a good thing in and of itself, it becomes especially important when a Daily Double appears, allowing you to bet big and massively increase your earnings.

Daily Doubles are special kinds of clues that allow you to wager any amount from $5 to your current earnings, and were a massive part of Holzhauer’s strategy. Step 1 – he had to find the Daily Doubles. Each round has 1 or 2 Daily Doubles distributed around the board, but their distribution is not truly random. Daily Doubles almost never appear in the first two rows of clues, and nearly 40% of them appear in the fourth row. By knowing where the Daily Doubles tended to be distributed, Holzhauer could choose categories in a way to quickly rack up money and find as many Daily Doubles as possible.

The second part of his Daily Double strategy starts to get into the wagering aspect of Jeopardy. Knowing when, and how, to wager your winnings is a vital part of being successful on this game, and when it comes to Daily Doubles Holzhauer’s strategy was usually to bet big.

Statistically, this is the right choice – when wagering, one important thing to keep in mind is the Expected Value of your bet – that is, if you average out all the different outcomes, how much money can you expect to win? Suppose I had a fair coin, and I asked you to bet $5 on whether it came up heads or tails. If you win, you get $10, if you lose you get nothing. This bet has an expected value of $0 – you have a 50% change of winning $5, and a 50% chance of losing $5. In the long run, you won’t really expect to win any money.

This is the sort of wager that you usually see – if the amount you can win is equal to the amount you can lose it’s what is called an even-money bet, and these types of bets usually have around a 50% chance of you winning (realistically, your odds will be slightly LESS than 50%). A Daily Double is an even money bet, but since most contestants have much higher than 50% success at answering questions the expected value is high, and the best thing to do is to bet as much as you can, particularly early on.

If the game is still early, even if you lose everything you still have plenty of time to earn the money back. The betting strategy does change later on in the game, where there is less opportunity to come back from a failed bet. Of course, the ultimate late game betting occurs in Final Jeopardy, where players make 1 last wager to see who will win the game. Final Jeopardy is very similar to a Daily Double, except that all three players answer simultaneously by writing down their answers, and since it is the last question of the game there is no opportunity to come back. Betting correctly in Final Jeopardy can be (and often is) the difference between victory and defeat.

There are many different Final Jeopardy scenarios that contestants must be prepared for, and I’m not going to go over all of them but I would like to examine one example scenario to illustrate the types of decisions that must be made.

Suppose we have 3 contestants going into Final Jeopardy – Alice, Bob, and Eve, with scores of $30,000, $19,000, and $10,000 respectively. How should our contestants bid? There are 8 scenarios in total – one where everyone gets the answer wrong, three scenarios where only one player gets it right, three scenarios where two players get it right, and one scenario where all three players get it right. Each contestant wants to bid in such a way that they win in the most possible scenarios. There are some scenarios where you can guarantee a win, but in most cases you have to predict what your opponents will do and go from there.

Let’s start with Alice. She is in the lead, so she has an advantage. Her current total of $30,000 guarantees that she can beat Eve no matter what, because the most Eve can possibly have is $20,000. Because of that, we are mostly going to focus on beating Bob. While she doesn’t know exactly what Bob is going to bet, let’s assume he bets it all. Alice should ensure that she will win if they both get the question right. The most Bob can earn is $38,000, so if Alice bets $8,001 she can beat him by $1. This also ensures that she cannot lose to Eve – even if she gets the question wrong she will still have $21,999, which is more than Eve can hope to get. This actually gives Alice a bit of a range of possible bets – she can bet anywhere from $8,001 to $9,999 without changing the outcome of any of the scenarios.

Lets move on to Bob. Unlike Alice, Bob does have to worry about Eve, because it is possible to lose to her if she bets it all. However, the thing Bob has to keep in mind is to bet in such a way to maximize his chances of actually winning – not to maintain second place. He should assume that Alice will bet in such a way to guarantee a win if she gets the answer correct. But what if she gets it incorrect? That’s where Bob has a chance.

Bob should assume that Alice has bet to beat him by at least $1. That means that if she answers incorrectly, she will have, at most, $21,999. He needs to bet at least $3,000, so that if he gets it right he will have $22,000 and a chance at winning. However, betting small really doesn’t help him in this situation – he will always lose if he gets it wrong, and he will always lose if Alice gets it right. Since his only shot is to get it right and hope Alice gets it wrong, there is no downside to betting it all.

As for Eve, her only real chance is to hope that Alice messes up on her math and bets too much. That does occasionally happen, and she can maximize her chances by betting everything.

As you can see, betting in Final Jeopardy can get really complicated, and it can be easy to make a mistake if you are trying to figure it out in the moment. However, if you prepare for these scenarios ahead of time it can be much easier to make the correct decision. With that preparation, along with some solid strategy, buzzer skills, studying, and a little luck, you will be well on your way to becoming a Jeopardy Champion.

That’s all I have for today. Thank you watching this video – if you liked it, please leave a like and subscribe so you don’t miss more videos like this in the future. If you want to see more, you should check out my other videos, like my ongoing “Evolution of Pokemon Designs” series where I look at how Pokemon designs have changed from Generation to Generation. I also have over 100 articles on the Rempton Games blog, which you can check out at the link in the description down below. And join me next time, for a look at some mechanics you didn’t know where hidden in popular games. Until then, thank you so much for watching, and I’ll see you all next time.




Posted by:Caleb Compton

I am the Head Designer of Rempton Games, and primary writer for the Rempton games blog. I am currently a graduate student in computer science at Kansas State University, and work on game designs every spare moment that I can.

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