23 Mar 2015

HBS Professor Appears as Contestant on ‘Jeopardy’ Tuesday and Wednesday Night

Alex Trebek and Gautam Mukunda

Answer: This Harvard Business School assistant professor appeared on Jeopardy, “America’s favorite quiz show,” for two nights running on March 24 and 25.

Question: Who is Gautam Mukunda?

Mukunda, a member of the School’s Organizational Behavior Unit and author of Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter, has ventured where no other HBS faculty member has gone before – to the Sony Pictures television studios near Los Angeles to be a contestant on Jeopardy, the nationally syndicated program hosted by the venerable Alex Trebek and a veritable addiction for some 25 million viewers each week.

In a recent interview in his office in HBS’s Morgan Hall, Mukunda explained how he made it to one of game show TV’s sacred grounds.

When did you start playing these kinds of games?

When I was in high school in the Washington, DC, area, I was captain of a three-person team that competed against other schools on a local TV show called It’s Academic. There were all sorts of categories – from science and math to history and literature. Then I played on Harvard’s team for a while as an undergraduate. When I was a freshman, we won the national championship for teams made up of freshmen and sophomores. I’m afraid my competitive experience took a breather in grad school at MIT, however. I just didn’t have the time.

How did you fill your mind with facts on such a wide variety of topics?

To the despair of my high school coaches, I probably studied less than most other players because I’ve always found memorization boring. Once you’ve absorbed basic knowledge about a subject, however, rote learning isn’t necessary. Instead, if you read a book about a topic after you’ve mastered the basics, you can associate new pieces of information with what you already know and create a coherent whole. I went to a math- and science-oriented high school, so science was one of my strong points, and since I liked to read a lot of history on my own anyway, I tended to concentrate on questions in that field in preparing for competitions.

After a long hiatus from formal competition, how did you go for the gold ring, so to speak, as a Jeopardy contestant?

From the time I was a kid, I always wanted to be on Jeopardy. I tried out for the teen tournament, but didn’t make it. But if you like these kinds of things, Jeopardy is on your bucket list. About a year-and-a-half ago, I was surfing the Web and came across the Jeopardy site, which included an announcement that they were starting another round of online tryouts. I thought to myself, ‘Hey, why not? This could be fun.’ So I started the process by answering the questions on the site – a test that some 100,000 people take each year. They were actually pretty difficult questions, and you have to move quickly. But I did well enough to be invited to an in-person tryout in a New York City hotel, where I took a 50-question written test with a group of other prospective contestants.

Then they put me in a conference room with two other people to play a simulated game with a producer. They check out your personality at this point, too, to make sure that if you make it to California, you’ll show some spirit and be able to interact well with host Alex Trebek, who’s obviously quite good at this – very personable and funny. But he can’t do it alone.

Having gone through all that, I didn’t hear a peep from them for more than a year. But then last December, they called me out of the blue and asked me if I still wanted to be on the show. I was soon on a plane to LA to do the taping.

What was that like?

All the contestants stayed in the same hotel, and they took us to the Sony television studios in Culver City, outside Los Angeles. They tape five shows a day, and contestants are part of the studio audience until called on to play. I just sat for the first day, watching the first set of shows. I finally got to play on the second day. Looking back, I can only tell you that it was incredibly fast paced. The rest is all a blur, so much so that I don’t even remember the questions. There’s a technique to working the buzzer. In “college bowl” types of games, you can press the button as soon as you know the answer. But if you jump the gun in Jeopardy, the buzzer stops working, so you have to time your answer to coincide with the end of Alex’s question. If you’re good at that, you’re unbeatable; if not, no matter how much you know, you haven’t got a chance.

So how’d you do?

Needless to say, I’m sworn to secrecy. You’ll have to tune in tomorrow night to find out. I’m happy to say that a number of my students are having a viewing party during the show, so that’s when they’ll be able to see, along with the rest of the country, how things turned out.

Now that Jeopardy is behind you, do you have any other TV aspirations?

According to my agreement with the show, I can’t appear on any other program for six months. Having had the chance to do Jeopardy, I remembered how important it was to me when I was growing up. And the actual experience lived up to my expectations; I had a great time. So who knows? Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is still on the air. That might work as an encore. Stay tuned.

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