On 'Jeopardy!' It's All About Timing

Duke senior Ezgi Ustundag writes about her experience competing on Jeopardy

Duke senior Ezgi Ustundag competed on Jeopardy. The episode aired Oct. 1, 2015.
Duke senior Ezgi Ustundag competed on Jeopardy. The episode aired Oct. 1, 2015.

It’s not the clues, your opponents or the fact that you’re on camera. No, the hardest part about competing on "Jeopardy!" is figuring out your timing on that signaling device.

Ultimately, my difficulty with the device cost me dearly in my Oct. 1 appearance on the show. Although I buzzed in to nearly every question, my opponents Matt Jackson (now a 5-time champion) and Greg Vinton beat me to it every time. Some strategic wagering in the Final Jeopardy round allowed me to finish in second place, but I’ll get to that later.

My "Jeopardy!" story started long before I stood behind the podium in Stage 10. I took the adult online qualifying test in early April, a series of 50 rapid-fire questions from seemingly random categories. Before long I was invited to Atlanta to audition. Shocked that I had somehow performed in the top four percent of online test-takers, I started prepping for my audition appearance by reviewing state and country capitals and bolstering my knowledge of US history.

The audition included a 50-question written test component and nerve-wracking mock "Jeopardy!" round. I was asked about my background, my time at Duke and how I would spend my prize money. I responded that I would go to the Galapagos Islands because, at the moment, it was the single most extravagant trip that came to mind.

After the audition we were told we might be contacted at any point in the next 18 months. If we hadn’t heard from them in that time, it was safe to assume that we had not made it into the contestant pool. Perhaps this is why getting a call in early August was so surprising—I thought I had at least a few more months before appearing on the show, if at all.

I had four weeks to prepare for what was likely going to be my only TV game show appearance, and I wanted to know my stuff. I pulled out my pre-audition flash cards and tried to consume as much information as I could in that month: magazines, television, documentaries, movies, news stories. I felt confident

The day of the taping was a whirlwind. A shuttle picked us up from our hotel and delivered us to the Sony Pictures lot a little before 8 a.m. We were immediately taken into the contestant dressing room to fill out paperwork and get a little makeup. Although the show does a great job of making it seem otherwise, "Jeopardy!" actually only tapes two days a week, squeezing five shows into each day.

Those of us who did not play right away got to watch our new friends play from the audience. During the “commercial breaks,” Alex Trebek fielded questions from the audience, and the show’s announcer Johnny Gilbert interacted with the crowd before the start of each taping.

After lunch, I found out that Greg and I were to be Matt Jackson’s next opponents. Matt, a paralegal from Washington, D.C., was absolutely unstoppable. He was lightning-fast on the buzzer and knew the answer to almost every question. His strategy was to steamroll the competition in the first two rounds of play and go into Final Jeopardy with a guaranteed win. Greg, a ranch hand from Nebraska, was probably Matt’s toughest competitor up to that point. He was also incredibly quick on the signaling device. In fact, I had played against Greg a few times in the rehearsal rounds in the morning and was secretly hoping that I would not have to go up against him and Matt. Life has a funny way of working out sometimes.

A note on the buzzer itself for those who are unfamiliar with the show—it’s a small electronic device that fits comfortably into the palm of your hand. You cannot buzz in before Alex finishes reading the question; if you do, the system will automatically lock you out for a split second and your opponents’ buzzes will register first. I never did quite get the timing right.

As I had expected, Greg and Matt dominated the game, and Greg actually prevented Matt from having a run-away victory prior to Final Jeopardy. I, meanwhile, had accumulated a dismal $2,000 and knew I had no chance of winning this game – even though I knew the answers to almost all the clues on the board, including those in categories like “Financial Literacy," and "Historic Americans."

My only hope was that Greg would wager almost all of his money going into Final Jeopardy and miss the question, ending up with less than $2,000 overall. Thus, even though the category was “Shakespeare Characters” (a subject I had studied extensively), I did not risk any money.  Fortunately for me, the clue was challenging, asking for the 8-letter name shared by both the Shakespeare tragic heroine and one of Uranus’s moons (Cordelia from "King Lear")—my strategy looked like it might work out.

Greg risked most of his money—there was really no other way to best Matt Jackson—and responded incorrectly. He fell below the $2,000 mark, allowing me to take second place and win $2,000, the consolation prize for the second-place finisher. Matt, of course, gave the correct response and won the game. I am excited to see how far Matt’s brilliance and speed on the buzzer take him on the show; I may have gone up against the next Ken Jennings.

Keeping the events of September 1 a secret for a full month was probably the most difficult part of the whole experience. I had only told a few people that I was going to be on the show so that I would not have to deal with a lot of questions about the outcome. A photo of Alex Trebek and me, along with a brief caption detailing when my episode would air, began circulating on Facebook after Duke Today published it online. Some of my friends were pretty upset that I didn’t tell them the outcome of my episode before it aired on Thursday, but getting so much support from my peers and teachers was easily the highlight of being a "Jeopardy!" contestant.

Next up: "Wheel of Fortune!"