Answer Man: Selecting questions for 'Jeopardy!'

News-DemocratJuly 1, 2013 

Q. As a longtime fan, I'm wondering: How do they select the questions and subjects for "Jeopardy!"? Some questions sure seem far out for a regular person.

-- B.B., of O'Fallon

A. You ask about a problem that hounds me whenever I write a local trivia night: Like "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," what percentage of questions should be easy, medium and super tough?

I mean, do you really want to sit around all night answering questions like "Who was the first U.S. president?" But, then again, I've suffered through nights during which questions were so obscure that people began walking out after the seventh round.

I can only imagine the pressure on the creative team that writes the "Jeopardy!" answers. Think about having to come up with 61 questions that are interesting, clever and challenging enough to lure 25 million viewers back day after day. Adding to the pressure, you can't forget that millions of dollars of advertising are riding on your work.

That was the task that used to face former "Jeopardy" writer Carlo Panno. In an interview with ehow.com, he gave some of the secrets of creating a quiz show that is not so simple that it puts you to sleep but not so hard that you have to be an Einstein to enjoy it.

Like an early predecessor of Trivial Pursuit, questions generally fall into six categories: entertainment, people, lifestyles, trivia, academics and wordplay. Using that basic outline, "answers" can cover almost any conceivable topic from classical music to wine to Internet slang. Undoubtedly, the team of six researchers and eight writers (plus the traveling Clue Crew) is always stretching its mental muscles to develop novel subjects.

Writing clues might go something like this: First think of the correct question, e.g., "What is the Potomac River?" Then, depending on the value of the clue, you write an answer.

If it's an easy clue, you might try "This river flows by Washington, D.C." Most people should know that. But for $1,000, you might challenge the contestants with "In 1859, the siege of Harper's Ferry took place at the confluence of this and the Shenandoah."

Same answer (or question), but the second clue demands a deeper knowledge of history and geography, and, thus, is worth more money. As a result, answers in a category become increasingly difficult or, as you put it, "far out."

But here's the thing: If you make questions too easy, many viewers will turn you off and contestants won't be challenged. You have to please weirdos like me who watch the show to pick up a few facts they didn't know. Plus, I suppose, there's also a sadistic side. You want to see what questions will stump even brainiacs like Ken Jennings, who won $2,520,700 during 74 consecutive victories.

By the way, Panno says, all answers require verification from at least two sources, and the Internet doesn't count. As you've probably noticed, cleverness is prized so answers aren't deadly dull -- and it also may provide a clue. For example, instead of simply asking "What is a linonophobe afraid of," you might phrase it this way: "Because of his fear, a linonophobe might be unable to study this theory in physics." Question: What is string?

Final Jeopardy answer: 573,400. Question: As of March 15, what is the number of "Jeopardy!" answers given during 49 years and 9,400 episodes?

Q. You recently had an interesting column on saves in Major League Baseball. I have heard there is also another pitching statistic called the "hold." Can you explain this, too?

-- P.N., of Mascoutah

While starters and closers seem to draw most of the headlines, your middle relievers and set-up men also can mean the difference between winning and losing.

But how do you measure their effectiveness? Although not an official statistic, Major League Baseball has listed the "hold" since 1999.

Invented in 1986 by John Dewan and Mike O'Donnell, the hold is a way to credit relievers who earn neither wins nor saves. Definitions vary, but to earn a hold, a pitcher generally has to enter a game in a save situation, record at least one out, and leave the game before it has ended without losing the lead at any point or earning a save.

As you might surmise from the definition, more than one pitcher can earn a hold in a game, and a pitcher can earn a hold even if his team loses the lead after he exits. Currently, Trevor Rosenthal leads the Cardinals this year with 17.

Today's trivia

According to MLB.com, what former Cardinal is the all-time career hold leader?

Answer to Sunday's trivia: At 8:01 a.m. June 26, 1974, shopper Clyde Dawson's purchase of Juicy Fruit gum at a Marsh supermarket near Dayton, Ohio, became the first item to be checked out by having its UPC code scanned. You now can see this historic gum at the Smithsonian.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 239-2465.

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