Knowledge, Buzzer Skills, and Strategy
What are the three things you need to win on Jeopardy!?
Take it from someone who knows–Kevin Donohue (ACE 17, LA South Central), who appeared
last week on the famed television quiz show hosted for over 30 years by the inimitable
One other thing that may help? Not being on the program during the reign of James Holzhauer, perhaps the most successful player to ever set foot on its Sony soundstage. But there are no sour grapes here. “Spoiler alert,” says Donohue, “I do not win. James wins. But we did manage to keep his dollar amount to a non-record level, which I feel is an accomplishment.”
Donohue, drawn to the idea of education as an undergraduate tutor at Notre Dame, joined ACE and taught fifth grade at St. Michael’s School in South Central Los Angeles. He, along with his wife, Jenna (Adsit) (ACE 17, Phoenix) and their three children, now call LA home. “I’m a principal at St. Joseph’s Catholic School, in Hawthorne, a small community right near LAX,” he says, “I live two miles from the studio—my commute was actually shorter than many of the people who work on Jeopardy!.”
What would possess someone to want to be a contestant on one of the most challenging game shows on television? Donohue says, “I’ve watched the show on and off. It wasn’t ever appointment viewing for me, but if it was on I enjoyed it. I like trivia. I like reading. Things just get stuck in my brain, I guess.” So, about two years ago, his wife suggested he try out.
The Jeopardy! producers begin with an applicant pool of about 80,000 people a year, and in a three-step process, they whittle the applicants down from there. “The first step is an online test. If you do well enough, they move to an in-person test and interview segment. About 1,400 people make it to that step. Then they usually select about 300 people for taping in a given season,” he says, “So, I made it through!”
Donohue taped his episode in early March, and shortly after that Trebek shared the news publicly that he is battling stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Donohue had nothing but good things to say after meeting him in person. “He’s a real professional, so I never noticed that he was ill or anything like that. He was a complete pro. During the commercial breaks, he takes questions from the audience, and he’s got a really quick wit.” With season 35 recently wrapped, Trebek looks forward to returning for season 36 this fall.
Based on his experience, Donohue believes you need three things to be a successful Jeopardy! contestant. “Obviously, knowledge. But talking to everyone in the green room, if you make it through the two tests, your knowledge level is going to be pretty comparable,” he says. “The second thing you need is to be quick on that buzzer. James is super good at the buzzer. As he continues to win he gets more practice on the buzzer, whereas new contestants don’t.”
Donohue sees that as a huge advantage. “A couple times I buzzed in and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I actually beat him to the buzzer!’ Then you have two seconds and you have to spit out an answer.” The third piece is the strategy of playing the board. “Watching him, noticing that he hunts for those Daily Doubles, and he always does the high dollar categories — I tried to do the same thing so he had fewer opportunities to get money — but I was not as good at the buzzer as he was, that’s for sure.”
Donohue was excited to play, but he says he wasn’t nervous, “I was there to do my best, and that was my focus,” he said. “I didn’t even know James was the master Jeopardy! person that he has turned out to be. So, when I lost I thought he was really good, but did I do my best? That’s the same thing I try to tell the kids and teachers at school. God is calling us to do our best, and whether that’s on Jeopardy!, or on a quiz, or on the playground — if we can walk away saying I did my best — that is what is important.”