book excerpt

Can You Hack the Jeopardy! Buzzer?

Different schools of thought have emerged.

Photo: Getty Images/Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images/Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images/Getty Images

Jeopardy! is a strange competition: part trivia showdown and, thanks to the show’s complicated buzzer system, part reaction-time test. As I began my deep dive into the world of Jeopardy! contestants for my new book Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy!, I traveled to the annual Trivia Nationals convention in Las Vegas, where hordes of trivia fanatics had descended in search of an ever-elusive shot at competing — and winning — on Jeopardy!

Different schools of thought have emerged on how best to deal with buzzer timing. Some players — including 32-time champion James Holzhauer — have been drawn more to the science than the art of buzzing in, leaning on the same sort of analytics-based approach that dictated his Daily Double hunting. For these players, there is a sacred text: Secrets of the Buzzer, by Fritz Holznagel.

Holznagel first competed on Jeopardy! in 1994. At the time, he didn’t worry much about the buzzer and won four games, a stint that led to invitations to three subsequent Jeopardy! tournaments, most recently the 2014 Battle of the Decades. “When I got invited back for the Battle of the Decades, I was 52 years old,” Holznagel says. “I knew that I was not really in the loop on pop culture, and just generally, there’s no way you’re going to be smarter than these other contestants. It occurred to me that if I was going to have any hope of doing well in this tournament, I would have to find some other edge.”

That edge he went about sharpening? Buzzer reaction time. Jeopardy!, he says, is a unique beast in the trivia world. “If you’re playing a college bowl or quiz bowl or that kind of thing, people can ring in anytime,” he says. “But Jeopardy! is really unusual and different and it has this one twist, which is it’s basically a reaction-time test tacked onto a trivia contest.” He wondered: Could he hack it?

With the help of some friends, he created a wired buzzer that timed his buzzing speed, and over the course of some twenty-seven thousand tests, he managed to lower his reaction time from 228 milliseconds to as low as 126 milliseconds. Holznagel’s trials led him to a series of general guidelines for buzzer mastery: Use the thumb of your dominant hand, keep your arms in front of you, hold still, and — if you can — chug some coffee in the backstage green room. Oh: And keep your eyes locked on the about-to-be-illuminated enable light, the signal that lets players know that the ultra-slim window to ring in first has opened.

At Trivia Nationals, Holznagel has become something of a celebrity. In 2019, he went so far as to host what he called a “buzzinar” — part breakdown of Secrets of the Buzzer, part Q&A, and part real-time buzzer trial.

Before Holzhauer’s winning streak, Holznagel’s book had been something less than a bestseller. “I published it in 2015 and kind of forgot about it,” he says. “I put it on Amazon and it sold 70 or 80 copies over the next few years.”

Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy! by Claire McNear

But then Jeopardy! James happened —Holznagel calls him “the big dog” — and he went around telling journalists that Holznagel’s book had helped him win. Suddenly everyone wanted to know the secrets of the buzzer — so much so that Holznagel put out a second edition with a brand-new foreword by the big dog himself.

At the buzzinar, Holznagel enlists a guinea pig — a Jeopardy! and buzzer novice named Carlo — to try a few rounds of ring- ing in on his homemade buzzer system. Carlo’s speed is so-so: about 313 milliseconds. Holznagel hands him an enormous cup of lukewarm coffee — the better for chugging, though it does not look, based on Carlo’s facial expressions, particularly appetizing — and tells him to drink. Consuming caffeine, says Holznagel, is one of the very best things a contestant can do to speed up their buzzer timing. In his book, he credits it with shaving five one-thousandths of a second off his reaction time, a razor-thin margin as dazzling here as it might be at an Olympic trial.

“Any particular blend, like Sumatran, or … ?” someone asks. A semicircle of Jeopardy! hopefuls surrounds Holznagel and Carlo, and they want specifics. What about freeze-dried coffee? Iced? Does tea work? Holznagel fields the questions as best he can—caffeine, any caffeine, should do the trick, though espresso is actually less effective, and tea should work, though he can’t say for sure—as people across the room furiously take notes. “Can you do crack?” another person asks, and laughs break out; “There actually is a section on amphetamines,” Holznagel replies, sheepishly. (He does not recommend them.)

Holznagel lists attributes that he claims, with the hearty asterisk that he does not have a medical background, slow re- action time down. Most of these, alas, cannot be helped: being under twenty, over fifty, drunk, an introvert, or right-handed. Female, too, makes the list, and Holznagel is apologetic as he says so: The studies he’s gleaned all this from aren’t his, they’re old and not Jeopardy!-specific, and things are slowly getting better — he does not say how—but, well, he can only share what he has read. “You said the buzzer is our friend,” one woman calls out, sounding betrayed. “The buzzer is sexist.”

No less than longtime producer Maggie Speak sat in on the buzzinar, seemingly bemused by the militancy of her future contestants. “I think people are afraid of the buzzer,” she says. “It’s a common thing we hear: This is not working. They psych themselves out.”

Toward the end, Holznagel’s guinea pig reapproaches the buzzer. This time, giant cup drained, he was down to 197 milliseconds — a spectacular reduction that impresses even Holznagel. The room launches into a round of applause.

From the book ANSWERS IN THE FORM OF QUESTIONS: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy! Copyright (c) 2020 by Claire McNear. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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