MLIS student takes Jeopardy! challenge

Some "Jeopardy" contestants spend months devouring tomes, memorizing flash cards, reviewing lists, and poring over deeds of famous historical and literary characters. MLIS student Chloe Horning took a different tack.

She prepped for TV's top answer-and-question quiz show by playing games.

"I knew trying to memorize everything wouldn't do anything for me. I can't absorb that amount of information, and it would have driven me crazy to try. Plus, I do enough studying in the iSchool," says Horning, who flew to L.A. in February to tape a "Jeopardy" segment that airs later this spring.

To bone up, she played Trivial Pursuit with friends on weekends and honed quiz-show skills with a Nintendo DS handheld "Jeopardy" game. She also scrutinized nightly episodes of the long-running TV show, which offers contestants clues ("It is a dense rocky planet, third closest to the sun") and challenges them to come up with the corresponding question ("What is Earth?").

She crammed in only one subject: sports. "I was terrified I would get some really in-depth sports questions, so I made a map of the U.S. and drew in all the teams of the four national sports leagues," says the second-year graduate student and editor of the iSchool newsletter "The Silverfish."

Her iSchool peers and professors offered plenty of atta-girl support. "I got a ton of encouragement from them. They were super excited - maybe even a little jealous," she says with a laugh.

The MLIS program itself boosted her competitive edge. "Our professors in the program have us constantly thinking about how to answer reference questions and are interested in really obscure information, so being in that environment was really helpful."

Appearing on "Jeopardy" has been a decades-long dream for Horning, who started watching the show as a child and has rarely missed an episode since. She got hooked one summer when she and her little brother, David Morgan, went to live with grandparents who turned the show on every night at dinnertime. Grandma, grandpa, and the grade-school girl were soon shouting out answers over their meat and potatoes. "If you don't shout, you're not really playing," says Horning.

The iconic TV show hasn't changed much from her childhood. The bouncy "think" music - da-de-da-da - is the same. The format is the same. And, since it went into syndication in 1984, the host has been the same: Alex Trebek, now a debonair 70. It's both a trivia and a gambling game. Each night, three contestants wager on a wild array of categories, from pop culture to ancient history. When they hit their buzzers and answer correctly, their winnings go up. Whoever has the fattest wallet at game's end is declared the winner, and returns the next night. Second-place winners go home with $2,000, and third-place winners with $1,000.

Players can make fortunes. Seattle area resident Ken Jennings, who broke the record for most consecutive games played in 2004-2005, accumulated well over $2 million in winnings and was one of the grand champs who earlier this year went up against IBM supercomputer "Watson," a natural-language machine that stores some 15 trillion bytes of data.

Horning isn't ready to take on Watson. "I would be creamed - annihilated." But she does have a verbal knack that gives her a competitive edge in play with fellow humanoids, she says. "There's wordplay inherent in the clue that you have to understand to get the answer right. That's the part I'm good at."

She put those skills to work after acing the online "Jeopardy" test and heading off to a San Francisco audition with dozens of other game-show wannabes in November. "It was neat to be there, in a roomful of people who were just as geeky as I was," she says.

Notified by phone that she'd made the final cut, Horning flew off to L.A. mid-February, loaded with high hopes and a hefty supply of hair mousse. "There's a mandate in the paperwork that says you have to show up with your hair camera-ready. That stressed me out more than anything."

Studio producers, who film multiple episodes each day, kept everyone at ease, telling contestants exactly what to do and helping them practice. One gave Horning a personal tutorial on hitting the buzzer, a tricky bit of business that requires exquisite timing and thumb finesse. "I had to learn to wait until the host finished the last word of the clue," she says. "It's this funny cognitive thing. You think that last word has been said, but it hasn't come out of his mouth yet."

Finally, cameras began to roll, and Horning's name was called for a random-matchup. In minutes, she was at the podium, on the set, in the spotlight, living the dream. "It's all so iconic, and very surreal," says Horning. "You hear the music coming up and suddenly you're inside the TV show. It's thrilling. Then a weird, focused calm comes over you and you think, 'I'm just a question-answering machine now.' "

Horning, who signed a non-disclosure contract with producers, can't reveal how far she got in the game, how much she won or any other details that would give away the outcome of the episode, which will air May 26. Even her best silver-screen moment is top-secret. "That would be a spoiler."

The MLIS student plans to celebrate her "Jeopardy" debut in a near-by tavern with a big-screen TV. But she may not belly up to the bar. "I'll probably be cowering in the corner," says Horning. "It's really hard to watch yourself on TV."