How to Win on the Buzzer by Michael G. Dupee
After my appearance in the 1996 Jeopardy Tournament of Champions, many interesting people got in touch with me over the internet, some of them old friends (like my 8th Grade quiz bowl coach) and some new friends, like your host, Karl Coryat. As Karl and I swapped e-mails about our Jeopardy experiences, Karl suggested that I contribute the following few paragraphs explaining my buzzer speed.
Karl and I agreed that although each of the TOC competitors possessed an extremely broad range of knowledge, I came out on top because of my ability on the buzzer. In fact, if you carefully watch the hands of the players on any episode of Jeopardy, you will see that on 90% of the questions, all three are ringing in, hoping their light will go on. It's the one who knows how to press that button at the right time that wins. I think I know the secret, so here's my take on the buzzer.
First, let's start with the basics. The buzzer is a 4.5" long cylinder with a cross-sectional diameter of 1.5" (yes, it feels very large in your hand). It is connected to the computer inside each podium by a long, flexible wire. The wire is long enough for you to put your hand behind your back if you want. In the center top of the cylinder is a small white button with a surprising amount of springiness to it. To get in, you press that button, and I suggest that when you try to get it, you press it as much as possible.
On Jeopardy, a player cannot ring in until Alex has finished reading the question. The way Jeopardy accomplishes this is by stationing a production assistant off stage and arming him with a device with a button on it. When the assistant feels that Alex is done reading the question, he presses his button and two things happen simultaneously. Small pin lights in the middle of panels surrounding the playing board go on, and an electrical impulse is sent to the buzzers, activating them. If you press your button before the assistant presses his, you really do get locked out for 1/5 of a second. If you keep ringing in before the lock out is over, you keep getting locked out, I think, but the total lock out time seems like it cannot exceed about a second. (Note that I am guessing about that from experience, I have not talked to any Jeopardy techies about this.)
The trick, therefore, is to time the buzzer so that you ring in as soon after the assistant presses his button as possible without coming in too early. Thus, even though Alex constantly calls players "fast" when they're good on the buzzer, the key is not speed but timing. And there are three keys to good Jeopardy timing: Accuracy, preparation, and adjustments.
Accuracy Now, as any baseball hitter will tell you, the key to timing anything is reducing extraneous movement in your swing, or in this case, your buzz. Wade Boggs can be extremely accurate about when he wants to swing at a pitch because his swing is so compact. With so little extraneous body movement, he can fine tune the timing of his swing in a way that Cecil Fielder can never do. On Jeopardy, you should strive to ring in moving nothing but your thumb. And you should move your thumb as little as possible. I saw some people my first five games who played with their thumbs not touching the white button at the start of the question. They probably were hoping this would help their timing, like some hitters use a hitch in their swing. The problem was that they never put their finger the same distance or angle above the white button. Thus, they introduced an element of error into their buzz due to their thumb being varying distances from the button. Even if they tried to make a timing adjustment in one direction, their misplaced thumb would actually change their timing in another direction. The same, I believe, is true of players who hold the buzzer up instead of resting their hand on something. First, they never hold their arms at the same angle every time, changing their timing on every question. Second, with their arm free-floating like that, they tend to do a windup with their bodies before ringing in. The amount of windup they do is going to change every time, though, and so will their timing.
So I suggest standing close to the podium with your buzzer hand resting on the podium in some comfortable way. This anchors your hand and elminates a lot of body motion. There is a small amount of space on the podium's surface in between the player and the start of the place where you write during final jeopardy. Once you have put your hand there, take a deep breath and physically relax your body. You would be amazed at the difference it makes. When I was up there, I rested my hand on the podium in a position I found comfortable. My thumb was on the white button, putting slight pressure on it, but not enough to actually move it. Then, when I perceived that Alex had finished reading, I tried to ring in with only a downward thrust of my thumb, no up and then down. I then pressed that button as much as possible. (Perfect body posture and timing are only important to the first press of the button each question. After you've started ringing in, do whatever is necessary with your body in order to press that button as frequently as possible for the next second or two). The bottom line though is accuracy for that first press of the buzzer each question -- you have to be able to press the button the same way every time.
Preparation I don't mean study alot ahead of time (although that is important too). What I mean here is that you should train yourself to read all the way to the bottom of the question as soon as it flashes up on the screen. DON'T JUST LET ALEX READ IT TOO YOU WHILE YOU READ ALONG!. By the time Alex is done reading, you have to have your answer ready in your mind and you must be focusing on the last word. This was my biggest mistake during the Tournament of Champions, I would lose concentration and let Alex start reading to me and I invariably got beat to the buzzer when I did that. So, when you are at home watching the show, force yourself to read all the way to the bottom every time and have your answer in mind before Alex finishes reading. Then all you need to do is concentrate on the last word and Alex's voice. This is VERY important, at least to me.
Don't Wait for the Lights Note that I did not mention anything about waiting for the pin lights come on on the side of the playing boards. The contestant coordinators will tell you all about those lights and about how you should wait for them to come on before ringing. If you do that you will not win. I have never heard of a TOC competitor who relied on those lights (and I have talked to 20 of them). You must time it off Alex's voice alone.
Adjustments Like I said before, the buzzers are activated by a human being, not some computer. Therefore, the timing will change throughout a day or even a game as that person tires or loses concentration. You have to be able to make adjustments. This was the key to my comeback in the second game of the finals at the TOC. Also, if you are not getting in on the low dollar questions at the start of a game, don't be afraid to make adjustments . I noticed that I needed to add around a 1/5 of a second delay after I perceived Alex finishing the question in order to ring in first without being locked out. If you seem to be getting beat every time, then don't forget to try coming in later as one of your adjustments. Timing, however, is highly individual--you need to find the right timing for you, everyone will perceive Alex finishing the question at different times.
Conclusion People, including Alex Trebek, have gone on and on about how fast I was on the buzzer. In reality, raw speed has nothing to do with it. It is not speed that wins on Jeopardy but timing. You have to get into a rhythm -- read to the bottom, get your answer in mind, focus on the last word, wait for alex to finish, add whatever delay is necessary then buzz, buzz, buzz like a madman (or woman). Hopefully, your little white light will come on every time.