Friday, May 27, 2011

Book review: "Prisoner of Trebekistan" by Bob Harris

I happened to meet Bob Harris in 1999 in the airport. I recognized him from his appearances on the game show "Jeopardy" and introduced myself as a "Jeopardy" wannabe. It was a short conversation, but he was friendly and encouraging.

Fast forward a mere 12 years and as I'm going through a pile of books, there's Bob Harris staring out at me from the cover of "Prisoner of Trebekistan." "Hey," I think, "I should read this book."

Harris likes odd connections like this. He especially loves connecting seemingly disparate facts and trivia in winding trains of thought. One example in this book leads from Martin Luther King to Tom Cruise to Elvis Presley to the Chickasaw Indians. That may sound random, but it all makes sense with Harris explains it.

"Prisoner of Trebekistan" is part autobiography, part how-to manual for how to win on "Jeopardy," and part insider's look at the show. In a hyperfrenetic style, Harris mixes together tales of his personal and family life, descriptions of how he trained to become a Jeopardy champion and suspenseful blow-by-blow accounts of his games.

Trebekistan - I hope this is obvious - is named for Alex Trebek, host of "Jeopardy." (If it's NOT obvious, well, sorry, this may not be the book for you.) Harris spent many moments on stage with Trebek both during his original run on "Jeopardy" in 1997 and several following tournaments.

If you're a fan of Jeopardy, you'll likely love this book as I did. Some may grow tired of Harris' unending insecurity and search for approval, but his self-deprecating humor is fun and he's plainly a likeable guy.

Trebekistan, Harris wryly explains, is "a place of pure learning, where hard playful work can bring sudden shocks of unexpected perception. In Trebekistan, art and math and geography and science stop pretending to be separate subjects, and instead converge in a glorious riot. Every new detail creates two fresh curiosities, so you know less as you learn, and yet nothing seems unknowable."

In the book, Harris jumps rapidly between subjects, through time and place, to make connections or a joke. Somehow it works, and there's a point to it all. Harris reveals that his success on Jeopardy came through intense study that made peculiar connections between facts and trivia. To memorize the order of the presidents, for example, he did this:

No. 12: "Zachary Taylor. There is a Z in the word `dozen'."
No. 13: "Millard Fillmore. What an unlucky name. Completely unlovable."
No. 14: "Franklin Pierce. Valentine's Day (Feb. 14) means hearts pierced by arrows."

For those who do hope to appear on Jeopardy someday, Harris has some serious advice on strategy and how to master the "art of the buzzer." He also weaves in stories about his sister's battles with a mysterious disease, and his girlfriend's fight with cancer, all without getting maudlin.

I still haven't made it onto "Jeopardy" but Bob's book gives me inspiration that it may still be possible.


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