What famous document begins: “When in the course of human events…?” What president was shot while walking to California Governor Jerry Brown’s office? Who was the last president of the Soviet Union?
Trivia questions like these, albeit phrased differently, are what Jeopardy contestants pride themselves on being able to answer in a matter of seconds.
Couldn’t answer those questions?
Don’t worry because according to Bridgewater resident James Ma, recent Jeopardy contestant and securities analyst, without his experience on academic teams in high school and college, he would not have been able to answer them either before his recent stint on "Jeopardy."
“'Jeopardy' is a very intense game,” said Ma about his recent experience appearing on the show, which aired May 25. “You never really have enough time to think about what you’re doing.”
Ma began his own trivial pursuit, a game at which he claims to be "bad", in high school when he discovered that he was good at answering trivia questions. An upperclassmen friend suggested Ma join the academic team.
Ma continued his trivia career by competing in competitions in college. After graduation, “real life got in the way,” he said, and answering trivia questions became less important.
After the rise in video games that “supposedly keep your brain healthy” as Ma describes them, he began to play along with "Jeopardy" at home, his way of keeping his brain sharp.
“I was answering enough of the questions quickly enough that I thought I’d have a good shot actually making it on to the show,” said Ma of his decision to audition.
Ma then signed up for the annual online test—the first step in the "Jeopardy" contestant process.
In order to become a contestant on the show, those who audition must qualify for an in-person interview by passing the online test or attending an authorized contestant event and passing a test. The in-person audition consists of taking a 50-question written test, playing a short version of "Jeopardy" and participating in a personality interview.
For those who do well in all aspects, they are put in an active file for 18 months, which does not guarantee appearance on the show.
“I thought it would be a shame if I made it that far and didn’t get on to the show,” Ma said.
“I’m very thankful,” he added of his opportunity to appear on "Jeopardy." He said he auditioned against people in their 10th year of try-outs.
Ma prepared for his competition by playing along with a backlog of "Jeopardy" episodes on DVR, while using a pen as a clicker. He also began reading the almanac and Wikipedia.
“You’ll go on Wikipedia, you’ll read something," he said. "The articles themselves are so cross referenced. Click on something else and keep going. Pretty soon, you haven’t noticed, but you’ll have read all sorts of different topics.”
Ma cited his ability to retain obscure facts as a reason for his ability to be on the show.
Even with all his preparation, Ma said he was still nervous when he got the call to be on the actual show. During the rehearsal round, he said he had a “white knuckled death grip on the ringer,” but was able to buckle down as the rounds that counted for the game began.
While competing, Ma said, he had a specific betting technique, contrasting his trend of reading what interested him during his preparation.
“I can’t tell you my secret betting strategy,” said Ma, who had plans for if he was up or down in the game by significant amounts. “But it definitely pays to have one.”
A paying betting strategy is a good weapon to have when the contestants don’t know the topics before the show, Ma said. He said not knowing was a challenge, but also that it could lend to great coincidences.
“If it had been, instead of 'Spanish Phrasebook,' 'German Phrasebook,' I probably would’ve won the whole category because I can speak German,” said Ma of one of the topics that appeared during the game. “I was lucky the other contestants couldn’t speak Spanish. It was the luck of the draw.”
Even though Ma did come in third place, after answering the Final Jeopardy and all three Double Jeopardy questions wrong, he said he felt “good about the game” that he played, and walked away with $1,000.
“The result speaks for itself,” he said. “I don’t feel like it would’ve turned out differently if I had done things differently.”
Ma said he has found some celebrity status after appearing on national television, saying people he doesn’t know have stopped him to talk about his experience. Even so, he doesn’t find himself bragging about it.
“The preparation itself and the experience itself is something that I’m happy of even if the final outcome wasn’t what I really would’ve wanted,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t change his techniques if given the chance to be on the show again. “Hindsight is always 20/20.”
*And for those still stumped on the questions at the top—respectively, the Declaration of Independence, Gerald Ford and Joseph Stalin.