By Alex Tsai
Josie Bianchi ’20 will represent Stanford in the “Jeopardy!” College Championship alongside 14 other college students vying for a $100,000 grand prize and a berth for the show’s next Tournament of Champions. Bianchi was one of 15 finalists out of the 25,000 students who attempted to qualify for the competition.
“Jeopardy!”, the famous quiz game show hosted by Alex Trebek, is in its 34th season in syndication. The show has 23 million viewers each week. Bianchi will compete in the quarterfinal stage in the episode airing on Monday, Apr. 9.
In early March, Bianchi and the 15 finalists filmed 10 shows — two weeks’ worth of episodes — in two days. The champion of the tournament has already been determined, but Bianchi is not allowed to disclose the outcome of any round until the episodes have been aired.
The 10 episodes of the tournament — including five quarterfinal rounds, three semifinal rounds, and two championship rounds — will air from Apr. 9 to 20.
Preparing for competition
Bianchi compares Jeopardy to American lore because “knowing Jeopardy and how they phrase their questions is half the battle,” Bianchi said.
“Between the callback and the tournament, I actually prepared a lot. The “Jeopardy!” team doesn’t provide us with any materials to review, so it’s all up to us how we want to study,” Bianchi said.
Bianchi said she recorded episodes of the show on the DVR in her dorm room. While watching the show, she would simulate buzzing in to give an answer by clicking her pen. Beyond the episodes, Bianchi played a “Jeopardy!” card game and used the website Sporcle to take quizzes on topics ranging from geography to literature.
“As I got closer to filming, I’d have one of my friends try to simulate what it’d be like,” Bianchi said. “He’d read the question, I’d click the pen, he’d say my name, then I’d answer in the form of a question. I was also able to talk to the previous Stanford Jeopardy competitor, so I got some inside information.”
“The filming is pretty true to Jeopardy — the episodes are 30 minutes live, and the taping is probably 40 minutes,” Bianchi said. “ It’s very short, very fast, very quick. No long pauses, no long breaks. You’re on the stage and off.”
Behind the scenes, Bianchi said she was surprised at the number of times that Trebek made mistakes when reading the clues.
“The producers will sometimes stop the filming, and then Alex will re-say it, but most of the time even if he’s a little wrong you have to keep going and answer the question,” she said. “During the breaks they’ll just re-record the audio and place it behind the text of the clues.”
“There was a lot of stop and start that we did not expect because you get in the groove and then they say, ‘Pause, Alex, we have to do that again,’ and then Alex goes ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I know I messed up.’ So that was definitely crazy,” Bianchi said.
Aside from the technicalities of filming, Bianchi said an additional challenge was buzzing into each clue during competition. Because all of the contestants knew most of the answers, Bianchi said the differentiating factor in the game itself was response time.
“I felt like so many people knew almost all of the answers, so everyone was pushing the buzzer at the same time, and whoever [buzzed in] 1/100th of a second faster got to answer,” Bianchi said. “So that was a little frustrating, and I feel like in my episode you can definitely see that come through.”
To qualify as a participant on “Jeopardy!”, participants take a preliminary online test. Simulating the game, the assessment affords participants 15 seconds to answer each of the 50 questions on the test.
“Jeopardy!” does not notify participants about how they performed on the test. “The test goes into the ether,” Bianchi said. “You just get an email saying, ‘Thanks for submitting the test! We’ll contact you if anything happens.’”
Prior to taking the test to qualify for the college tournament, Bianchi had attempted the preliminary online test for the teen tournament as a freshman in high school but never heard back. During her first week of her freshman year at Stanford, her mother encouraged her to take the college “Jeopardy!” version of the test, but Bianchi missed the occasion.
“The time slot to take the online test was during a SLE lecture,” she said. “And I was just so in love with school in the first week of college that I just couldn’t miss my SLE lecture to take the test.”
At the outset of her sophomore fall, though, Bianchi took her shot. She said that this year, 25,000 other hopefuls also attempted the test.
Two months later, she received an email from the producers expressing their interest in flying Bianchi to Los Angeles for an in-person audition. Bianchi said she was surprised at the news.
Besides name, school, graduating year and a headshot, the producers had very little information about each contestant. “I think whoever they choose for the first initial callback is very random,” Bianchi said. “Each contestant is represented just on paper.”
In December, Bianchi flew to Los Angeles for one day to attend the in-person audition. Bianchi and one other Stanford student were among the 300 college students representing a range of West Coast universities. During the audition, the contestants participated in a simulation of the game show, practiced with fake buzzers and did an interview session with some of the producers.
“In my callback, I think I was personable and was able to show why the producers might want me on the show,” Bianchi said.
Three months later, Bianchi received a call that she had booked the show and would appear in the College Championship.
Love for trivia
Bianchi’s keenness for trivia began before high school. As a child, she would often play trivia games such as “Trivial Pursuit” and “Brain Quest” with her family.
“I always liked to learn tidbits of information,” Bianchi said.
However, Bianchi only began regularly watching “Jeopardy!” in high school when she would tape episodes of the game show on her DVR.
“Kind of nerdy,” Bianchi said, “but we go to Stanford. It’s fine.”
The influence of “Jeopardy!” on Bianchi was so formative that she wrote about the game show in her essay on intellectual vitality while applying to Stanford. Bianchi described how watching “Jeopardy!” fueled her spirit of inquiry and expressed her hope to one day participate on the show.
“It’s so full circle. It’s kind of nuts,” said Bianchi. “The stars aligned, and here we are.”
Bianchi said she was surprised at the support she received from her family members, friends and professors when she told them she would be on the show. Last quarter, Bianchi’s Italian professor spent an entire class period talking about Jeopardy.
“A lot of people have been really cool about it. I thought people might respond, ‘Oh that’s so nerdy,’ but I guess Jeopardy really is an American staple.”
Contact Alex Tsai at aotsai ‘at’ stanford.edu.