Professor Jeopardy!

Was the Professors Tournament more challenging than a normal round of Jeopardy? Perhaps, but “it might have been just stress,” Sam Buttrey says.

Sam Buttrey, an associate professor of operations research at the Naval Postgraduate School, and his wife, Elinda Hardy, have been fans of the classic TV game show Jeopardy! for years. He remembers watching the first incarnation from the ’60s as a 7-year-old in his grandmother’s house. The show returned in the ’80s and has been on pretty much ever since. “We watch it constantly,” Buttrey says. “It’s very comforting. The rules don’t change. It’s very G-rated, family-friendly and I find it very entertaining.”

Both Buttrey and Hardy have tried to get in as contestants on a number of occasions. They got close. When you apply, you take an online test, he explains. If things go well, you’re invited for a meeting at a local hotel where they screen you for your telegenic qualities. If you pass, you are on the list and you can be called, but they only take about 500 players per year so Buttrey still considers it a total stroke of luck that he was selected for the 2021 Professors Tournament. “They had Teachers Tournament for many years,” Buttrey says, “but that’s the first time they have had professors.”

The tournament will air beginning Saturday, Dec. 6 – Buttrey’s appearance in the quarterfinals airs Monday, Dec. 8. “We have already done the taping,” Buttrey says. “It’s in the can, as they say. I can’t tell anything about the game and the results. But I can tell you it was a crazy experience. A community theater would be the closest thing to compare, I guess. The wardrobe, the makeup, the hair.”

Created by Merv Griffin (though arguably his wife came up with the “give them the answers, make them ask the questions” formula), Jeopardy! is an American favorite. The questions range in topic from pop culture to historical facts and beyond. Winning requires well-rounded knowledge.

“My training is in statistics,” Buttrey says of the last 25 years at NPS. “My wife helps me to train with ballet, arts and opera. I’m more of a science guy.”

One big challenge, Buttrey says, is mastering the buzzer – you can’t press it too early. “Most players know most answers,” Buttrey says. “It’s just who gets there first.”

A number of questions fall through and nobody gets them. So beating the buzzer is part of the game and so is the reaction time, and Buttrey was concerned about competing against younger professors at their physical prime. But “the other professors were great,” he adds. “It was a blast.”

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