Jeopardy Buzzing Strategy

The Jeopardy! buzzer (signaling device) is one of the great mysteries of the show. It has clearly flummoxed some very smart people over the years. The old adage was that most of the contestants knew most of the answers most of the time–everything came down to who could buzz in the fastest. Now that Jeopardy! has started releasing Daily Box Scores, we can see that this is not entirely true–some people are only trying 20 clues a game while others are attempting 40+. But the stats also show that some people are dominating the buzzer (Mattea Roach had many games in the 80% + first-in success range), while other people are clearly having a nightmare of a time, finishing with 20% or lower success rates.)

I’ve had many conversations about this topic over the past few years, so I thought it would be best to create a central page to outline the basics of what I know about buzzing on Jeopardy!, as well as the tips/tricks I’ve gathered to help prospective contestants maximize their potential.

The Basics

On Jeopardy, contestants must wait until the host finishes reading the clue before attempting to buzz in. A light turns on when the buzzing period opens. If a player attempts to buzz in before the light activates, they are locked out of buzzing for the first 250 milliseconds of the buzzing period. A quarter of a second might not sound like a lot, but this is an eternity on Jeopardy. 

Buzzing Philosophies

There are two opposing schools of thought when it comes to buzzing strategy. Some people focus on the light. The two most noted advocates for this method are Fritz Holznagel, winner of the 1995 Tournament of Champions, and James Holzhauer, Jeopardy Sith Lord. Those who advocate this method tend to be very scientific in their approach to Jeopardy. The basic idea is that you behave and hold off buzzing until you see the light to avoid being locked out, but do everything in your power to cut down your reaction time. Fritz has published an entire book on the small things you can do to shave milliseconds off of your timing: buzzer grip, posture, thumb motion, caffeine intake, etc. Fritz was called back to the Battle of the Decades in his 50s, and while he lost, he did great on the buzzer (60% first-in) against much younger elite champions. According to his book, he cut his reaction time from 228 milliseconds to 126 milliseconds over the course of his experiments. James Holzhauer grilled him with a list of detailed questions prior to his run on the show, and proceeded to credit him in interviews during and after his epic streak.

The other popular approach is to time your buzz to the cadence of the host’s voice. This method is pushed by a number of top champs, including the GOAT, Ken Jennings. Essentially, you attempt to buzz in just as the host finishes the final syllable of the clue.  This is the high risk, high reward approach. If you fall out of a groove, or the host pronounces the final word in clue slightly differently than you anticipate, you will find yourself locked out for 250 milliseconds. This can really pile up if you get flustered. Conversely, this method can let you buzz in ridiculously quickly, because you are effectively sending the signal to your brain to buzz before the light appears. 

I’ve never been on the show, so take whatever I have to say with a grain of salt, but personally, I favour the voice method when playing for fun/practice with others. I have used Fritz’s own tools to measure literally thousands of practice buzzes, and my median speed using the voice method over the past 500 tries is 62 milliseconds.  It is simply impossible to achieve that by reacting to a light–humans can’t consciously react to something in less than 100 milliseconds. Sure, I get locked out around 20% of the time, but that is a great trade off to win the other 75-80% of the battles (especially when at least some of those lock-outs will be questions no one else knows, or where other players have locked themselves out too, so I may still get them anyway.)

Keep in mind that I’m in my mid-30s, so you may feel differently about this if you are younger. Mattea Roach is on the record as another “light buzzer”, and at 23, she largely wiped the floor with her older competition. (Her biggest challenges tended to come from people roughly her age or younger.)

I also suspect that most players are using a little bit of both strategies. No one is up there ignoring the lights completely. Conversely, this isn’t a completely randomized reaction time test where the light could appear at any time while the question is being read–we all know more or less when the light is going to appear, and so I think our natural instinct is to try to anticipate it. Even those who rely primarily on the light jump the gun sometimes.

General Tips for Improving on the Buzzer

Again, I’ve never been on the show, so take all of this with a grain of salt. I have spent a lot of time trying to learn what I can about the buzzer though, so the following tips are based on a great deal of reading, discussions with people who do have experience, etc.

1) Invest in a replica buzzer.

There is no perfect replica, but the consensus from past champs is that the best imitation buzzer on the market is made by a company called Delcom. I use it for most of the suggestions listed below. It is a bit pricey, so probably not the best option if you aren’t OBSESSED with getting better. A budget solution recommended by other past champs is a toilet paper roll holder, surprisingly. Either of these should help you get adjusted to the weight, shape, and feel of the buzzer.

2) Buy the e-book version of Fritz Hoznagel’s book Secrets of the Buzzer.

While I ultimately disagree with his stance that buzzing based on the light is the superior to buzzing by voice, he has a lot of great insights about the art of buzzing, and also includes input from former champs who disagree with him. Ultimately, I view it as good to prep in both voice and light buzzing styles, in case you get on stage and it turns out you just can’t get the host’s cadence down. Fritz will help you hone your technique to an automatic, optimized motion, whatever method you prefer.

3) Practice on Fritz’s website. Part of the reason I recommend buying Fritz’s book is so you don’t feel bad about using his website, which is available to the public regardless of purchase. He put a lot of work into creating the website as a companion to the book. Basically, the site plays audio questions, and you buzz-in when they finish and the light goes off. It has a 250 millisecond lock-out function if you buzz in too early to simulate the system used on the show, and will record your performance over time. You can even set up different tags to see how you do using different techniques, so that you can experiment to find the method that works best for you. You can use the Delcom buzzer if you have one, otherwise I believe you can use your keyboard. (You need a Google account to log in and open the website)

4) Practice using Jeopardy 2003 for PC. I own this on CD Rom, but I believe it is abandonware at this point, so you can find it everywhere. In my opinion, this is the best Jeopardy game ever made. Besides betting like a maniac on Daily Doubles and seeing how much money it is humanly possible to win in a single match, the best feature of this game is the buzzer system. Former contestants agree that it is still the closest simulation there is to being on the show, because it includes the audio reading of the clues, the 250 millisecond lock out, and the buzz-in light. (It is also a great way to practice strategy–the game was released well before modern Jeopardy strategy took off, so the computer plays the classic top-down style. As long as you are good enough at J! to answer most of the Daily Doubles correctly, you will find out very quickly how much of an edge hunting for them provides!)

5) Play along with the show using your TV controller. This is the easiest and cheapest way to practice, and helps you get in sync with the actual hosts on the show. Try to time your buzz for the exact moment when the clue screen disappears and the players return. Once you spend some time practicing, you might be able to get in before any of their podiums light up (though sometimes the editing has them already lit up on the very first frame after the clue disappears, so this isn’t scientific or anything). Back in November, while chatting with Fritz during an AMA, I downloaded a few videos from Youtube and tried this method with my Delcom buzzer inside of a video editor that let me break things down frame-by-frame (each frame is about 33 milliseconds). I found that I was actually getting in on the first frame about 25-30% of the time, which would be very encouraging if I could verify that the switch from clue to contestants is actually reflecting the moment the light triggers on stage. This is impossible to say, but if nothing else, this method will train your brain to recognize the speech patterns of the host, which should positively impact your ability to anticipate things.

Hopefully this review will get you started on your quest for buzzer dominance. If you want to dive deeper in to the science behind reaction time, optimal grips, etc, I yet again strongly recommend Fritz Hoznagel’s Secrets of the Buzzer.