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In the history of American television there has never been anything quite like the continuing phenomenon that is Jeopardy. This brainy, yet seemingly simple game show is a cultural institution in the United States. It is also a marvelous way for students of English to test themselves.
The show began as the brainchild of entertainer and early television producer Merv Griffin, and premiered as far back as 1964. It ran off and on for several years, first as a daytime show until 1975, then returned in various forms until the version we know today, which premiered in 1984. It has remained on the air, with the same host, for 33 years, and has been renewed by contract through the 2019/2020 season. There are international versions, and the U.S. version plays across the world.
The concept is simple: Instead of a question and answer quiz show, JEOPARDY is the exact reverse. In this case, the answer is revealed first, then the contestant must respond in the form of a question. For example, if the answer was Pillows, blankets, and fitted sheet the response would be What are things found on a bed? Or, He was the 40th President of the United States the response would be Who was Ronald Reagan? Got it?
But, hold on. Maybe it isn’t quite so simple, after all.
Three contestants compete in three rounds of play per game. They each stand, holding hand-held signaling devices to select the clue. The fastest to ring-in goes first, but has only a couple of seconds to respond. Each round consists of six different categories, with five clues (or answers) per category. Each clue has a dollar value, and the contestant who responds correctly has that dollar value added to his or her score. At the game’s conclusion, the contestant with the most money gets to keep that money, and will compete in the next game. Some contestants have continued to play for weeks at a time.
Round 1 is called the Jeopardy Round, and the clues are valued from $200 to $1000. In theory, the higher the clue’s value, the more difficult the question. In Round 2, the Double Jeopardy Round, the value of the clues doubles. Each of these rounds also contains, hidden somewhere on the board, a Daily Double (there are two Daily Doubles in Double Jeopardy). When a contestant selects that clue, all activity stops in the game, and the contestant must decide how much to wager on a surprise clue in this particular category. If the contestant is confident of his or her knowledge of this subject, the response may well be, “Let’s make it a true Daily Double” thereby wagering everything. As you might imagine, the tension can be very high.
You may remember that there is a third round of play, known as Final Jeopardy. All contestants in the final round are given a single category, and they must secretly wager how much of their money they wish to risk on their knowledge of this final category. When the clue is revealed, they have 60 seconds to write down, in the form of a question, the proper response. It sometimes happens that the person with the least amount of money going into Final Jeopardy becomes the champion at game’s end.
The real challenge of JEOPARDY, though, comes from the categories and questions. With thirty answers on the board, and seconds to come up with the right response, it’s difficult enough. But JEOPARDY’s categories and clues are genuinely head-scratching. The most common Final Jeopardy category, for example, is Word Origins, with clues like From the Greek for “all views”, this word was 1st used to describe a large 1787 painting of Edinburgh by artist Robert Barker. That is not, by anyone’s standards, an easy clue. And you only have a minute to figure it out, then write the answer down in the form of a question! [The answer is panorama, and two out of three got it right!]
Consider this random collection of first round Jeopardy categories and clues:
The largest terrestrial predator in Australia A: What is a Dingo? (Rhymes with Ringo)
These are defined as both herbivores and carnivores A: What is an omnivore?
What was Oliver Cromwell’s official title? A: What is Lord Protector?
She was nominated for an Oscar for “Zero Dark Forty” A: Who is Jessica Chastain?
This is the longest book in the New Testament A: What is the Book of Luke?
Type of exercise you use a rowing machine for. A: What is cardio?
The trick to winning JEOPARDY, and this has been stated repeatedly over the years, is to watch the show, and the contestants. You’ll understand the pace, the quirkiness of the questions, how to handle those signaling devices, and which categories appear most frequently. ESL students should watch the show, if only to see how much they know and remember, as well as to find categories that they might want to know more about. It is great exercise for the brain!
It is impossible to discuss JEOPARDY! Without also mentioning the show’s iconic host, Alex Trebek. Mostly seen as serious and unflappable, Trebek’s manner suggests a schoolteacher who enjoys his job, but takes his responsibility very seriously. He is fluent in French as well as English, and is reportedly very gifted with languages. He will joke and laugh, and has played himself in various guest acting appearances. His performance on The X-Files is well worth watching. Although he has the answers in front of him, he has said that he knows the answers about 95% of the time, and seems to also take a genuine interest in almost everything.
Finally, there is the frequent spoof of JEOPARDY! on another long-running series, Saturday Night Live. Will Ferrell’s impersonation of Trebek battling Darrell Hammond as Sean Connery is comedic gold.
Photo by Markstarlite on Flickr