Widgets Magazine

Stanford Jeopardy! contestants reflect on experiences on air


Courtesy of Matt Olson

Courtesy of Matt Olson

While Jeopardy may be one of America’s favorite television game shows, the quiz competition also has a special relationship with the University. Stanford students have participated extensively in the trivia game show’s various forms over time—and even, on more than one occasion, emerged victorious.

Vinita Kailasanath ‘04 M.S. ‘04 J.D. ‘10 was the first Stanford undergraduate in recent memory to win Jeopardy! College Championship, trumping the competition by a significant margin to win the show in 2001 as a sophomore. Nico Martinez ‘07 J.D. ‘13 won the show in fall 2005, winning $100,000.

“Stanford is the only school to have more than one college winner,” Kailasanath noted.

Kailasanath will return to Jeopardy! on April 3 this year as a competitor in the “Tournament of the Decades,” which brings back contestants from previous decades.


A challenging path

Despite the many forms and variations of Jeopardy!, the path of entry into the game for everyone—from high school students to adults—remains the same, according to Matt Olson ‘14, who played College Jeopardy in fall 2012 and won $10,000 as a semifinalist.

Courtesy of Nikhil Desai

Courtesy of Nikhil Desai

“The process was an online test, in October, [and] if you get a high enough score, they invite you to do an in-person audition in L.A,” he recalled.

The audition includes a written test, a short mock game and some interview questions. Olson said that while the time between taking the online test and the audition was lengthy, the process went quickly after the in-person interview took place.

“They did all the prelims on the first day, and then they had the semifinals and finals on the second day,” he said. “It was only a 48-hour period, and they then aired them the first two weeks of February.”

In addition to hosting a number of College Championship stars, Stanford also boasts numerous students who participated in Jeopardy! Teen Tournament during their high school years. Nikhil Desai ‘16 is one of them, having competed in Teen Tournament in 2010.

“It was quite surprising when I heard [I was on the show],” Desai said. “Jeopardy usually sends someone over to your school to surprise you with the announcement and a camera, but for me that didn’t happen, so my parents were the ones that spoiled it for me instead. I was really excited and thrilled, and then I really got nervous.”

Courtesy of Olivia Hummer

Courtesy of Olivia Hummer

Olivia Hummer ‘17 participated in Teen Tournament as a high school sophomore. She explained that, for Teen Tournament, the auditions happen at several different places across the country, and that “they film multiple episodes per day.”

In order to make it appear that episodes are filmed on different days, host Alex Trebek changes his suit between each episode’s filming.

The Stanford community of Jeopardy! players is surprising in its scope, according to former participants.

“The guy that I sat next to at my audition [Ryan Smith ‘17] is a freshman here too,” Hummer noted, adding that the two had met again at an admitted student receptions in the Los Angeles area.


The experience

While impressions of Trebek’s on-camera demeanor may be mixed, Stanford’s Jeopardy! contestants offered a different picture of his overall character.

“Alex Trebek is actually really nice,” Hummer said. “Every contestant gets to take a photo with him and talk to him then. He guessed my shoe size, which is kind of strange. He’s a personable guy.”

“Alex Trebek is really interesting—he’s really professional,” Desai concurred. “I don’t think he likes high schoolers that much, though. I think he preferred the parents’ company to the teenage competitors. I felt it, I think a couple of my other fellow competitors felt it [as well].”

Contestants also drew attention to the support they had received from the University community.

“A bunch of my friends drove down from Stanford so we had a bunch of people in Stanford Cardinal sweatshirts,” Kailasanath said, adding that faculty were also supportive—even when she had to miss a week of class to film the show at UCLA. “I think people from Stanford tend to do particularly well because the culture of Stanford is one that really encourages intellectual curiosity.”


Strategic considerations

“The most important thing about Jeopardy! is timing the buzzer,” Olson emphasized, noting that at least two contestants likely know the answer to each question. “Buzzing in right when the lights go on to unlock the buzzers is how you win basically.”

“What you don’t see when you’re watching at home is that the row of lights that come on the sides of the game board,” Kailasanath added, referencing the lights that indicate to contestants that the question time has expired. “If you buzz in before those lights go on, you are given a quarter-second delay put on your buzzer where you can’t buzz in. That quarter second doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is a lot.”

Of the Stanford contingent, only Martinez and Kailasanath have been champions in any form of Jeopardy!. Others, however, have had equally dramatic experiences.

“I went in winning, and then dropped at final Jeopardy!,” Hummer recalled. “I still think that the [way the] last question on Final Jeopardy [turned out] was silly. The question was that the Ancient Greeks believed that the planet that moved the slowest was ‘blank,’ or something along those lines. The kid who won it, I expected him to bet more, so I bet higher to top him, but in the end I got it wrong, and he had bet less than I had anticipated.”

“I was really upset,” Olson reflected with regards to his semifinal loss. “One of the major things I learned from being there was how much it can go either way. I was leading going in to final jeopardy, and everyone got Final Jeopardy wrong. The way that the wagers worked out, though, I wound up with less than the person who was previously second-placed.”

Olson emphasized the value of betting strategies, tailored to opponents and the stage of the game.

“I had a Daily Double near the end of my second game, and I was trying to wager enough that I would be more than twice the second person, so Final Jeopardy didn’t matter,” he recalled. “There’s a lot more strategy involved in the Final Jeopardy wagering…One useful thing to know is that you should at least read up on final jeopardy wagering. That’s something you can learn, and it could be useful.”

In fact, the third-placed contestant in Olson’s semifinal would have won had he not wagered at all.

“In terms of board-play strategies, I try to move around the board,” Kailasanath said. “I try to go for the Daily Doubles at times that I think are strategic. I don’t play categories from top to bottom usually.”

Other contestants put less emphasis, however, on betting strategies and more on general preparation. Desai said that he had practiced by using a Jeopardy! video game he had at home, and by watching the TV show.

“You don’t get any materials to prepare for Jeopardy!,” Kailasanath lamented.

Either way, it seems that—whether through strategy, preparation or simple smarts—Stanford students have done just fine on America’s favorite game show.


Contact Nitish Kulkarni at nitishk2 ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.

About Nitish Kulkarni

Nitish Kulkarni '16 is a senior majoring in Mechanical Engineering. He writes about technology and breaking news, and runs online content sections. Email him at nitishk2 'at' stanford.edu.
  • Daniel Levy Silverman