I'll take Game Show Stats for $200, Alex

KATHY CECERI Special to the Times Union
Section: Life-Discovery,  Page: C1

Date: Monday, June 16, 2008

If you know how to figure your Coryat score; can argue the pros and cons of the Shore's Conjecture versus Boyd's Rule; and were crushed when Pat Roche, a trainer from East Greenbush, defeated six-time champion Larissa Kelly, a grad student from El Cerrito, Calif. (whose six-day cash winnings totaled $222,597) with his blistering run of the "Football Coaches" category, then it's safe to say you are a "Jeopardy!" fanatic.

That is, you're probably addicted to watching the syndicated television game show (7:30 p.m. weekdays, WTEN Ch. 10), beloved by brainiacs, now coming up on its 25th season under the command of host Alex Trebek. And more than likely, you've thought about trying out to be a contestant on the show. As I discovered when I was invited to New York City over Memorial Day weekend to audition for the show after passing an online test, a lot of people believe there is a science to preparing for and selecting "Jeopardy!" categories.

For instance, at J-Archive.com, a repository of every fact and statistic of every game since 1983, you can compare the success and failure of various lines of attack and follow the ups and downs of players' scores throughout an episode.

The archive is particularly valuable for its glossary of "Jeopardy!" terms, referring to strategies named after the contestant who first used them (or who should have). For instance, Boyd's Rule - named for four-time champion Anne Boyd, who lost with a correct answer but a wager of $0 - suggests a player with a leading score going into Final Jeopardy should bet enough to cover a doubled score by her closest-trailing opponent.

Shore's Conjecture, proposed by two-time winner Bob Shore on the SonyPictures.com "Jeopardy!" message board (where fans go for heated discussions of the show and its players), contradicts Boyd's Rule, with a flurry of algebra that would make any 10th-grade math teacher proud.

The Coryat score, developed by two-time champ Karl Coryat, is the standard for comparing your score at home against the players on TV. Coryat's Web site, http://www.pisspoor.com/

coryat.html, also offers valuable advice on contestant prep. For instance, the list of things "you absolutely must know" include state and world capitals, U.S. presidents, state nicknames and Shakespeare's plays.

He also notes phrases that are dead giveaways: "Anytime they ask for a European Duchy, it's Luxembourg. A `nonsense poet' is Edward Lear. An `ode poet' is almost always Keats. A `Round Table wit' is surely Dorothy Parker."

But contestant wannabes aren't the only ones looking at "Jeopardy!" minutiae. Economists study game shows - among them "The Price is Right," "The Weakest Link," the Italian version of "Deal or No Deal" - for insight into how people make decisions when the stakes are high.

An oft-cited study from the March 1995 issue of American Economics Review, found that "Jeopardy!" players' abilities to choose the best strategic response declined as the game became more complicated, but bounced back as weaker players were weeded out.

Social researchers have also drawn conclusions about gender differences based on "Jeopardy!" data. In Sweden, for instance, a study found female players were more conservative and less overconfident, and therefore more successful overall, while a report in the February 1998 issue of Sex Roles: A Journal of Research claimed men won more money because of a preponderance of "masculine" categories, such as sports.

Game shows also provide fodder for the branch of mathematics known as game theory. The well-known Monty Hall Problem, for example, asks whether you should switch your choice of one of three doors on the show "Let's Make a Deal" when you're shown one of the remaining two doesn't have the prize. (The answer, according to IQ giant Marilyn vos Savant, is yes - because host Hall knows where the prize is.)

But even a game like "Jeopardy!" isn't just an intellectual exercise. Just like in baseball, timing and "swing" help contestants beat their opponents to the button on their signalling devices. That takes good coordination, reflexes and positioning; as expert Coryat advises, keeping your finger hovering just above the button yields the best results.

So, did poring through the pages and pages of literature on "Jeopardy!" give me an advantage at my audition? Yes and no. Having my children quiz me with their World Almanac for Kids did help me pass the written test. But where I really could have used the help was in my contestant interview.

I can tell you who wrote "The Mikado" (Gilbert and Sullivan) and the atomic number of carbon (6), but when I was asked in the interview what I do with my spare time, I drew a blank. So if I ever get called to be on the show, I know just what I'm going to have to work on: getting a life.

Kathy Ceceri is a freelance writer living in Schuylerville.