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Top ‘Jeopardy!’ Players Return

February 2, 1998 GMT

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ The answer to succeeding on ``Jeopardy!″ isn’t just being smart. Also helpful is a level of compulsiveness that might be considered, well, questionable.

Knowing Van Buren was president No. 8, recalling that ``Marty″ won the 1955 best-picture Oscar, and being able to quote everything Shakespeare ever doodled should be enough. But skip buzzer technique, timing and stress control, and you may fall into the category of loser.

That’s the inside view from Bob Harris, a man with serious ``Jeopardy!″ credentials.

``Hey, five-time champ, baby,″ says Harris, a political humorist and CBS radio commentator who earned a berth on the syndicated TV game show’s Tournament of Champions.

The two-week contest featuring the past year’s top 15 competitors and a $100,000 grand prize begins Monday. The host, of course, is Alex Trebek, a man who manages to unite the concepts ``game show host″ and ``debonair.″

``Jeopardy!″ tests players’ knowledge in a wide variety of categories by presenting an answer and then allowing each contestant a chance to quickly ring in with the appropriate question. The tension can reach Cold War levels.

But Harris, 34, of Los Angeles appeared charmingly relaxed as he breezed his way through his first four wins last September. Even the fifth game, which was unnervingly close, couldn’t dampen his spirits.

Forget appearances. It took four tries over 18 months for him to pass the tough, 50-question test required to gain entree to the game (fail and you have to wait six months to be re-tested). And then he got really serious.

Harris considers ``Jeopardy!″ _ created in the early ’60s by entertainer Merv Griffin _ worth the effort: ``It’s one of the only things on television that puts a premium on intelligence.″

Besides, Harris says, ``How often in your life is Alex Trebek going to walk up and say, `Hi.′ It’s such a part of Americana, and it’s such a quintessentially American experience to appear on a game show.″

It can also be quite lucrative.

This year’s Tournament of Champions players have cumulative earnings of $750,000 from their previous appearances, with a per-player average of more than $50,000. Harris picked up $58,000 in his five ``Jeopardy!″ wins.

Chuck Forrest, who was a U.S. Foreign Service officer when he won the 1986 Tournament of Champions, is the game’s all-time money-winner with $172,800.

Once in as a contestant, Harris began nightly cram sessions.

``I went down to the library and I started memorizing titles and authors of every work that was ever written. It’s all short answers; they’re not going to ask you essays. The only thing you need to know about `Candide’ is that Voltaire wrote it, and move on.″

Among the reference books he used were the ``Oxford Companion to English Literature,″ ``The New York Public Library Desk Reference,″ and several world atlases.

He studied Shakespeare ``like a mother.″ He adds, philosophically, ``It never came up.″

Tension can be a problem, so Harris loosened himself up by dancing to the show’s opening theme. And _ this is crucial _ he mastered the buzzer.

``I came up with a buzzer trick I consider the `Jeopardy!′ equivalent of the Fosbury Flop,″ said the Cleveland native, referring to a high-jump innovation.

It’s typical for players to hold the buzzer up and use their thumb to press it. That is wrong on two counts, Harris says: Arm muscles can tire in the course of the game, and the thumb is moving in an awkward up-and-down motion.

The Harris Hit: Rest your hand on the podium with the buzzer. Rely on your index finger, not your thumb, to gently push the button down about three-quarters of the way _ just shy of the electronic contact point.

That’s not enough to buzz in prematurely, but it saves ``three-sixteenths or something in buzzer travel distance,″ Harris estimates.

Players can buzz in only after Trebek finishes reading a clue aloud; hit the button early and they’re locked out for a half-second. Lights, unseen by TV viewers, indicate the moment they can punch in.

Learning how long it takes the crew member to flash the lights after Trebek concludes is vital.

``All the players are trying to find that guy’s rhythm and hit it. When somebody who’s barely in the game suddenly reels off five, six, seven answers in a row, that’s because they found the rhythm and the other players didn’t,″ Harris said.

So here’s a practice clue for you potential ``Jeopardy!″ players: ``Well, do ya, punk?″

And the question: ``Do you feel compulsive?″

The 15 players in the ``Jeopardy!″ Tournament of Champions, which begins Monday and runs through Feb. 13. They include four- and five-time winners, two Teen Tournament winners, one College Tournament champion and the three-time winner with the highest earnings:

_ Craig Barker, 19, Livonia, Mich., University of Michigan sophomore.

_ Josh DenHartog, 18, Otley, Iowa, high school senior.

_ Paul Gutowski, 34, Rockford, Ill., counselor.

_ Bob Harris, 34, Los Angeles, writer and political humorist.

_ Sahir Islam, 17, Mahopac, N.Y., high school senior.

_ Dan Melia, 52, Berkeley, Calif., professor at the University of California.

_ Pam Mifflin, 45, Brookfield, Wis., computer trainer.

_ Lyn Payne, 34, Orlando, Fla., librarian.

_ Claudia Perry, 38, Newark, N.J., pop music critic for The (Newark) Star Ledger.

_ Arthur Phillips, 28, Cambridge, Mass., speechwriter.

_ Fred Ramen, 25, New York, assistant editor for a medical company.

_ Peter Scott, 38, Washington, D.C., advertising manager.

_ Wes Ulm, 23, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard medical student.

_ Grace Veach, 34, Decatur, Ill., librarian.

_ Kim Worth, 48, Venice, Calif., stand-up comedian.


Elsewhere in television ....

WHAT IF: Black Entertainment Television is marking Black History Month with several February specials, including the provocative ``What If Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Had Lived?″ The program (11 p.m. EST Tuesday) examines recently discovered correspondence between the black activist and the civil rights leader. It also looks at Malcolm X’s comment, shortly before he was assassinated in 1965, that he was weighing King’s nonviolent approach. King was killed in 1968.