Five games of Jeopardy! and $107,049 of winnings later, Ryan Bilger ’19, a history major and Civil War era studies and public history double minor, reflects on the extraordinary experience that put him on national television in early July, sharing his transition from a fan to a contestant.
Go behind the scenes with Bilger as he reveals exclusive details regarding the Jeopardy! selection process, his preparation, and more.
What did the selection process entail?
“The process to get on Jeopardy! had a few different steps. First, I took an online test, comprised of 50 questions across a wide variety of categories, like those that appear on the show. If I ‘passed’ the test, I would be placed in a pool of potential contestants, and a random draw would determine who receives invites to the second phase—the in-person audition.
“The second phase took place in Philadelphia in early September and had multiple components. We all took another 50-question test, this time a written one. After that, we were put into groups of three to play a mini game of Jeopardy! to give the contestant coordinators an idea of whether we would be calm and collected in the moment. About halfway through the mini-game, the coordinators did a two-minute interview with each of us.
“The morning ended with the directive that we could hear from the contestant coordinators any time within the next 18 months about the opportunity to come on the show. My call came about six months later in early March.”
How did you prepare?
“In terms of studying material, I knew that I needed to work on popular culture, namely TV shows and movies, as well as the common ‘Potent Potables’ category. I felt pretty confident in my abilities on academic content, as I founded the quiz bowl club at Gettysburg and played tournaments regularly throughout my four years at the College. My friends helped me try to address some of those weaknesses.
“I also worked to prepare myself to use the ever-fickle Jeopardy! buzzer. As viewers of the show likely know, contestants cannot ‘buzz in’ until after Alex Trebek has finished reading the question. This varies from quiz bowl competitions, in which you can buzz as soon as you know the answer. To prepare for this difference, I watched old episodes of the show and used one of the free pens I got from the audition as a buzzer stand-in, trying to click the pen in time with Alex’s cadence.”
What took place on taping days?
“The days began sharply at 7 a.m., when we were shuttled from our hotels to the studio. The next few hours consisted of paperwork, rehearsing our stories for Alex to ask us, getting our makeup done, and playing a few practice rounds to get loose on the buzzer. I couldn’t have my phone on me to check the time, but I’d estimate it was around 10:30 a.m. when the first game got underway.
“Players are selected by random draw, and contestants in the pool for the day who haven’t been chosen yet could sit in the audience and watch the games. I spent those games trying to get my buzzer timing down, as I was tapping my thigh with my index finger, trying to match up with Alex’s cadence and the not-visible-on-TV pin lights on the side of the board that confirm when you can buzz in without incurring the quarter-second lockout penalty.
“Jeopardy! tapes five shows per day, with three in the morning followed by a lunch break, and the remaining two in the afternoon. By lunchtime, I still hadn’t played yet, so I joined the contestant coordinators and remaining players for lunch at the Sony Studios Commissary. This was the most time I had to chat with the people I’d wind up playing against, and it was a nice little bonding experience. As soon as we got back into the studio for lunch, I heard, ‘and our two next players are Wendy and Ryan!’
“We quickly drew for our initial podium spots, then hustled back to get our makeup retouched one last time. I asked one of the contestant coordinators to play the “Rocky” theme song before I headed out—I’m a Philly guy through and through. Probably 15 minutes after I first heard my name called, there I stood at the podium, as game announcer Johnny Gilbert called out, ‘This is Jeopardy!’”
What was your strategy during the games?
“Admittedly, I fiddled with the buzzer a lot in the Single Jeopardy round, trying to get into a rhythm, but I was not really hitting it as I wanted. Still, I made the choice, based on the fact that I was probably at least 20 years younger than my opponents, to go on my reflexes and hit the button when I saw the lights flash, knowing that at least I wouldn’t be locking myself out.
“I knew going into it that I wanted to play aggressively, using the Daily Doubles as weapons. As a viewer with a mind for the strategy of the show, one of my biggest pet peeves is when people play Daily Doubles conservatively. They are the single biggest weapon in the game for the players, as they allow you to turn a game on its head—as you saw with my art history true Daily Double—or to put a game away, as I essentially did with my The Faerie Queene get in my first game.
“As I see it, if you get a Daily Double, you have two options for wagering. If you like the category at all, bet big. If you hate the category, bet the minimum of $5 and move on. Then at least you’ve removed that Daily Double as a tool that other players could use. I knew I wanted to find and utilize Daily Doubles as weapons, and I’m just happy I was able to pull it off.”
What were your goals prior to competing?
“My goal going in was simply to win at least one game. Of course, I dreamed of going on a longer run, but as long as I managed to claim victory in my first episode, I figured I would be satisfied from there. Granted, it turned out to be a bit more than that, and every time I went back to get my makeup retouched between filming sessions, I marveled at the fact that I was still going.
“Honestly, with the overall enjoyable experience that I had, I think I would have been just as happy even if I had ended the first game with -$10,000 and made a total fool of myself on the stage. It’s still incredible to me that I got to be a part of the show at all, much less that I’ll get to go back for the Tournament of Champions!”
How will you spend your winnings?
“After the first day of taping, I celebrated my victories by running over to the mall, which was on the other side of the interstate from my hotel. There, I purchased a new sweater with the knowledge that I would need more outfit options for the next day, and got myself a nice big cheeseburger for dinner. Yes, I am a man of simple tastes.
“With the rest of my winnings, I plan to wrap up any remaining costs of my undergraduate studies, cover living expenses while attending graduate school at West Virginia University, perhaps invest some of it and open a retirement account, and hopefully set a little bit aside to travel somewhere with my girlfriend, Laurel Wilson’19, when we’re both finished with graduate school.”
Photo Courtesy Jeopardy Productions, Inc.