Former TDR Editor Appears on Jeopardy! and Wins First Round

Former Editor-in-Chief of The Dartmouth Review, Forbes Top 30 Under 30 for Law & Policy, and Bush White House aide Michael Ellis appeared on Jeopardy! on Monday April 22nd where he was victorious! He has had quite the career in both conservative politics and law. Mr. Ellis was lucky and talented enough to clerk for Judge Jeffrey Sutton of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Tune in to see him make Dartmouth College and TDR proud – and hopefully take home a significant amount of money. We were lucky enough to interview him before both about the process of Jeopardy! as well as his thoughts on his career and the College. His opinion on the College and the process of shifting towards a Dartmouth University is particularly relevant and timely. 

The Dartmouth Review: How did you decide to try out for Jeopardy? What was the application process like? 

Michael Ellis: I watched Jeopardy pretty regularly growing up, and my mother had actually tried out for the show a few years back, so I was familiar with the application process. But nonetheless I decided to try out on somewhat of a lark. In January 2012 I took the online test that Jeopardy offers twice a year. You don’t need to have any special qualifications for the test. It’s just 50 open-ended questions, and you have 15 seconds to respond to each one, effectively eliminating the possibility of someone looking up any answers on, say, Google or Wikipedia. After you complete the online test, they don’t tell you how many questions you answered correctly. You just have to wait for a call to find out if you’ve advanced to the next round. In late April, they called me and invited me to come to an audition in Cleveland. I trekked up to Cleveland where I took another 50-question test and did a practice game. In the practice game, I’m pretty sure they were looking to see if the prospective contestants were quick on their feet and had personality or something interesting going on in their lives. That audition was in May, and in the months after I more or less forgot about the tryout. But in November they called me out of the blue, and invited me to come out to L.A. to tape an episode of the show.

The dashing Mr. Ellis in his Forbes photo.

TDR: How did the taping process work?

Ellis: I went out to L.A. in early December for the taping. My wife and my parents came too and sat in the audience. It turns out they film about five shows a day, so if you win your game and advance to the next round, you don’t even have to fly back to L.A. The “next day” is actually only about 20 minutes later. But anyway, before I filmed my episode, I was kept in a holding area, sequestered from anyone involved in writing the clues, with probably about fifteen other people who were going to be on the show that day. They don’t tell you in advance against whom you’ll be competing, but when they’re ready to start filming, someone comes to the front of the room and calls out three people, and off you go.

TDR: How did you train for Jeopardy? 

Ellis: Before I found out I was going to be the show, I tuned in occasionally, but I didn’t watch with any sort of devotion. But once I found out I was going to be on the show, I made sure I was in front of the TV at 7:00 every night to watch. I started scoring myself to keep track of which clues I was getting right and wrong. It turns out there’s really a website for everything. There’s a website that has compiled every Jeopardy clue from every show, so I started answering some of those for practice. I also bought a few books for people preparing to be on Jeopardy. 

TDR: What were the questions like?

Ellis: When I was preparing to be on Jeopardy, I started to realize that it is possible to study for the show, even though they can ask you about seemingly anything. Certain subjects recur quite frequently. State capitals come up a lot, as do U.S. Presidents, the Periodic Table of the Elements, Shakespeare, and the Bible. Jeopardy hits on a lot of the things that are the hallmarks of being, you might even say, a classically well-educated person.

It’s also very important to know the associations between certain famous phrases and answers. For example, you should know that if the category is about Shakespeare and the clue mentions “my kingdom for a horse,” the answer is Richard III. When I was preparing for the show, I tried to train my brain to recognize these associations instead of memorizing countless obscure facts.

TDR: Do you feel like the liberal arts education you received at Dartmouth prepared you for the breadth of knowledge you’re expected to have on Jeopardy?

Ellis: In some respects, yes. There are some categories about which I don’t think you could find a class at Dartmouth, unless the College has changed since I graduated. Maybe they have courses on Billboard Top 40 songs now. But, anyway, I was definitely a bit weaker in the categories related to pop culture, TV, and movies than those about, say, history, geography, or literature, a lot of the things that you learn from a liberal arts education. 

TDR: In all of your preparation, did you stumble upon any tricks or hints?

Ellis: While the clues may seem pretty obscure, there’s often a short cut. When reading a clue, usually all you have to do is look for the word “this.” For example, when you see “this 16th President,” you know right away that the answer is Lincoln, regardless of whatever other extraneous information they include before and after that word.  While I was practicing at home, I also tried to improve my reaction time by clicking a pen before answering any question. I’d say on about 2/3 to 3/4 of the questions, all three contestants know the answer. Therefore, it’s really important to be quick with the buzzer, especially in the first round when the questions aren’t that hard. The trick is that you have to wait until Alex Trebek finishes reading the clue to buzz in. If you buzz in before he finishes, you’re locked out for maybe a half a second, but even that is enough time for someone else to slide in front of you. You can know the answer to every question, but you won’t do well unless you can be quick with the buzzer, although it’s more about good timing than just speed.

TDR: What about the Final Jeopardy round?

Ellis: Final Jeopardy is a totally different ball game. The questions tend not to be as predictable as those in the earlier rounds. They’re a bit trickier, but you also have time to think about your answer. Only about two-thirds of contestants get Final Jeopardy right, so if you’ve done well enough earlier in the show, you can win without knowing the answer to Final Jeopardy. 

As far as wagering goes, they actually give you a fair amount of time to think about how much you want to put on the table. While pretty much everything about the show is very fast-paced, Final Jeopardy wagering is not. I think they want to make sure everyone has enough time to think about, calculate, and be comfortable with their wager. 

TDR: Any final thoughts on Jeopardy? 

Ellis: It was certainly one of the most exhilarating things I have done. I really encourage anyone from Dartmouth who thinks they may have a knack for trivia to try out. Also, although I only really got to interact with him on stage, Alex Trebek was very friendly, as were all members of the Jeopardy staff. All in all, it was a great experience, but you’ll all have to tune in on April 22 to see just how great it was. 

TDR: Changing gears a bit, what’s it like being a “Top 30 Under 30”? 

Ellis: It’s a very nice honor, especially to be considered among such an impressive bunch of folks. I think it’s a good thing that Forbes maintains these lists, but it certainly hasn’t changed my life. In fact, I’m still not exactly sure how they found me.

TDR: What was your experience with the Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign?

Ellis: My freshman summer, I volunteered for the Bush campaign. At the end of the summer, they offered me a position as a paid staff member from January to November 2004. Because I had enough AP credits, I was able to take four consecutive off terms (my sophomore winter, spring, and summer, and junior fall) to work in polling and strategy for the campaign. 

This experience taught me that politics and political campaigns, in particular, are great meritocracies. If you are willing to put in the time and effort and produce good work, you can rise up the ranks pretty quickly. There aren’t many organizations that will let a 19-year-old college sophomore truly dive in and assume really important responsibilities, but political campaigns are one of them.  

TDR: What were your responsibilities in the Bush White House?

Ellis: My experience working on the Bush campaign in ’04 led to a position at the White House right after my graduation from Dartmouth. From March 2006 to February 2007, I worked in the Office of Strategic Initiatives, an office that actually no longer exists. Obama shut it down once he took office, perhaps because he thought it was closely associated with Karl Rove. While I was working at the White House, I was involved in polling. It wasn’t the best year of President Bush’s administration, and especially since I was tracking public opinion, it was certainly a very humbling experience. But nonetheless, it was a great opportunity, especially for someone straight out of college, and I’m thankful that I was able to serve.

TDR: How has your experience with The Dartmouth Review affected your later pursuits and achievements? 

Ellis: First and foremost, I think the Review helped me become a better writer, which has certainly been important throughout my career. The name The Dartmouth Review still carries a lot of credibility and recognition in the larger conservative community. People know about the paper and its legacy as an independent voice at Dartmouth. For me, working on the Review was also a great way to meet likeminded folks on campus. The paper was both a social group and a publication. In fact, I met my wife, Katie Racicot ’06, through the Review

TDR: As Editor-in-Chief of the Review, what did you think were the most important issues on campus?

Ellis: When I was editor, the alumni Trustee elections were a huge issue. In 2004, T.J. Rodgers was nominated by the alumni themselves and beat the “official” candidate preselected by the administration. In the next two years, three more alumni-nominated candidates, Peter Robinson, Todd Zywicki, and Stephen Smith were also elected to the Board of Trustees, and it seemed, for a time, that independent Trustees might eventually form a majority of the Board. Unfortunately that hasn’t been the case, and today there’s really no competition and no divergence of views in Board elections. 

TDR: Do you have any thoughts on the proposed rebranding of the College as “Dartmouth University”?

Ellis: That’s some sort of joke, right? I thought we litigated this back with Daniel Webster in 1818. The administration wouldn’t actually try to change “the small college, yet there are those who love it” into a university. I understand that we want to attract talented students from overseas, where “university” and “college” have different connotations, but that means we should be all the more proactive about telling people what Dartmouth is and how Dartmouth is different from our peer schools. 

The idea shouldn’t be to make Dartmouth a smaller, more rural version of Yale or Harvard. Dartmouth won’t thrive in that environment. Those other institutions are larger, and they will have more graduate students and federal research funding. Students continue to come to Dartmouth for a liberal arts education with a focus on undergraduates. If you can’t make that sell to high school students, whether they’re from the U.S. or abroad, based on that, then I think there’s a problem with the core of the institution. We definitely need marketing to help people understand why Dartmouth is so great, but marketing can’t fix the underlying product, which, for the College, is undergraduate education. 

–Caroline A. Sohr