- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2006

LOS ANGELES — During his run as a “Jeopardy!” contestant, Bob Harris learned that John Quincy Adams was the only president to later serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, that Lord Peter Wimsey is a fictional British sleuth and that mollusks include chitons, cowries and limpets.

But Mr. Harris’ game-show education also taught him that keeping your eye on the prize is what counts, and he’s not talking bundles of cash or a shiny new car — although he won both.

“People look at quiz shows and see the money and being on TV. Those are things that are very attractive and seem like the prizes. They’re not,” Mr. Harris said.

“Every single player I’ve spoken to has ultimately said that what they value is not the money but the memory. What they value is not how they played but who they met.”

Mr. Harris, who ascended to a $1 million Masters Tournament on the game show hosted by Alex Trebek, details his experiences in “Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy!” a book that is a combination of how-to primer, autobiography and musings on life and love.

Like “Jeopardy!” itself, it covers a lot of ground and in snappy and informative fashion.

Mr. Harris, 42, is a comedian, screenwriter, radio commentator and, in conversation, a man possessed of an easy wit (“At the top of my resume it should probably say ‘picaresque ne’er-do-well.’ Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of people hiring”).

The book is by turns serious and self-deprecating, touching and flip, but it doesn’t shortchange those looking for guidance on how to succeed at the trivia game show that was concocted by Merv Griffin in the 1960s and became a television staple.

For the uninitiated, “Jeopardy!” tests players’ knowledge in a variety of categories by presenting an answer and then giving each contestant a chance to quickly ring in with the appropriate question. It’s the game show that snobs can admit to watching.

“The purpose of the book, in any large way, is to walk the reader in the front door of ‘Jeopardy!’ and my 30s with the same questions I had: What’s big money like? How do I work this buzzer? What’s it like to be on TV?” Mr. Harris said in an interview.

“And by the end of the book, I want readers to walk out the far door of ‘Jeopardy!’ and my 30s with the same question I wound up with myself, which is, ‘… How is it possible that the world is filled with all this wonderful stuff and I never saw it before?’”

“Jeopardy!” has been life-changing for at least a few players. It made veritable legends of winners such as unstoppable transit officer Frank Spangenberg and Ken Jennings, the software engineer who had a record 74-game winning streak and won more than $2.5 million after the five-game limit was dropped in 2003.

Want to emulate them, or least try? Mr. Harris, who first competed in the late 1990s, was a five-time champ and ended up netting more than $150,000 in cash and prizes, is your man. His book offers advice from the practical to the philosophical.

Among the practical, with extreme emphasis: “Do not, under any circumstances, allow yourself to ring in. Ever. Do not. Touch. The Buzzer. Unless you are very sure of the correct response.”

He elaborated in an interview. “I’ve won games by attempting about fewer than half the clues, just under half. I’ve never played a game where I attempted more than two-thirds of the clues.”

He also suggests ways to exercise the appropriate learning and memory muscles and, on a higher plane, leads readers through what he has dubbed the “Eightfold Path to Enlightened Jeopardy.”

Among the steps are: “Obvious things may be worth noticing,” “Everything connects to everything else” and “Just play each moment. Let go of outcomes.”

His laundry list of aphorisms ended up being more meaningful than he envisioned, Mr. Harris said.

“It was intended as a self-mocking joke. But I realized that what was intended to be a humorous reference to the Buddhist past actually was starting to become the Buddhist path,” he said.

Mr. Harris’ book (Crown Publishers) generously includes a list of other “Jeopardy!” tomes, including Mr. Jennings’ newly released “Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs” (Villard Books).

“Prisoner of Trebekistan” has received glowing reviews and struck a chord with other TV smarties. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon is quoted on the book cover as calling it “tender, human and very wise.”

(Those looking for dirt on the show’s dapper host won’t get any from Mr. Harris. He writes that Mr. Trebek “is always rooting for every contestant to do well,” handles nervous players and difficult pronunciations smoothly and, Mr. Harris believes, knows most of the responses.)

Is there a profile of a successful player? Bright, of course, but with something more.

“The people who play ‘Jeopardy!’ well tend to be playful and able to think laterally so they can take a clue, maybe something they don’t know, and figure it out from a hint.”


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