Alumna Is a Know-It-All

Alumna Is a Know-It-All

A lifelong Jeopardy! fan, this alumna credits her education at the College for helping her become a champion in 2014.

By Elizabeth Williams ’01

I boarded the shuttle van at the hotel with a dozen or so other contestants for the short ride to Sony Picture Studios in Culver City, Calif. Nerves led to silence, and so, to break the ice,  I looked around at the faces and said, “You guys realize that the rest of our lives will be now divided into pre-Jeopardy! and post-Jeopardy!” Probably wasn’t the best thing to say, but that’s how I felt about it.

All my life I had been preparing for this day. My parents, both history buffs and consummate trivia nerds, raised my brother and me to be insufferable smarty-pants know-it-alls. And in a family like ours, watching Jeopardy! together was how we bonded, yelling out answers and trying to best one another. This is how I grew up, always stashing away little bits of knowledge for future use – the first woman president of Nicaragua, the phylum for flatworms, the real name of Captain Kangaroo. (Violeta Chamorro, Platyhelminthes and Bob Keeshan, respectively, for those playing at home.) I captained my high school quiz bowl team and, later on in life, maintained a decent standing at the local bar’s team trivia night, but I never thought any of this information hoarding would ever actually come in handy – much less make me any money. People always used to tell me, “You should go on Jeopardy!” To which I would always respond, “Do you know how hard it is to get on Jeopardy!?” But secretly, I always dreamed.

Every year, more than 100,000 people take the Jeopardy! online test. Of those who pass, about 2,400 get called in for live auditions in various cities around the country, and then only about 200 of those (that’s 0.2 percent of the original test takers) are selected to appear on the show any given season. Which makes anybody’s chances pretty slim – no matter how much you know about Potent Potables and Words that Begin with X. It was with a firm understanding of the odds that I completed the 50-question, timed online test in January 2014, so it came as a bit of a surprise when I received an email in May saying that I had been selected to audition for the show.

I had just relocated to Washington, D.C., and, on June 1, I joined about a hundred other Jeopardy! hopefuls in the basement conference room of a D.C. hotel, where we were administered another test before being called up in groups of three to play a mock game of Jeopardy! – with buzzers and all. While I missed a couple of clues in the beginning, I think I redeemed myself and got the producers’ attention when I buzzed in with the correct answer to this one really obscure question about Robert and Amy Lowell.

There’s no way I would’ve known anything about the literary Lowells if it hadn’t been for Bishop Hunt’s amazing modern poetry class – and probably no way I would’ve ever even made it this far at all if it hadn’t been for the first-class education I received at the College. I have always been a huge proponent of the value of a good liberal arts education, and I think that, at CofC, I received the very best. I got to take classes in language, mythology, psychology, biology, film, literature, music, theater, history, religion and art. This is what the Jeopardy! qualifying process covers – your ability to be agile in all these disciplines. It also helps to have lightning-fast buzzer skills, but that’s another story.

Following the audition, I settled in for a wait, but the call came a mere 12 days later. I couldn’t believe it was actually happening. My lifelong aspiration had been realized: I’d beaten the odds; I was going to be on Jeopardy!

One month later I found myself on that hotel shuttle in L.A. with a dozen nerdy strangers. They shoot five episodes a day, so they tell you to bring three changes of clothes to the studio in case you win. We all gathered in the green room beforehand, getting our makeup done, but we were all just so nervous, so to get everybody’s brain working and blood flowing, one of the producers warmed us up by throwing out clues. It quickly became apparent that one guy, a history Ph.D. candidate, was the sharpest guy in the room. I breathed a sigh of relief when my name was called for the first taping and his was not.

My episode, it turns out, was not just any old episode. This taping also happened to be the first of the 31st season and the one where host Alex Trebek’s famous mustache made its surprise reappearance after a 13-year hiatus (side note: I was terribly saddened to hear of his recent cancer diagnosis). I played cautiously my first game, never ringing in unless I was at least 90 percent sure of the correct answer, and the strategy paid off. By the end of “Double Jeopardy!,” I had answered 15 clues correctly without missing a single one and racked up $13,400 – almost double my closest opponent. I’ll never forget the rush I felt doing the math for “Final Jeopardy!” and realizing that the numbers were in my favor – I was very likely going to win no matter what.

When I didn’t know the answer to the final clue, I pulled a Cliff Clavin, the resident know-it-all postman on Cheers who lands a spot on the game show in a 1990 episode. When he doesn’t know the identities of three people referenced in the “Final Jeopardy!” clue, he writes down, “Who are three people who have never been in my kitchen?” My variation was far from correct, but I still managed to win, and my answer went slightly viral. Several news outlets picked up the story after the show aired, with the Huffington Post proclaiming mine “the best wrong answer in Jeopardy! history.” I had people calling, texting and Facebooking me for weeks. The whole thing was very surreal.

Back at the studio, I was still reeling from the knowledge that I had just won Jeopardy! when they whisked me backstage and into a dressing room that had a star on the door reading simply Champion. In actuality, it was just a walk-in closet with my second outfit hanging in there, but it was still pretty cool. The makeup lady, who had scoffed earlier when I asked for a “dramatic eye,” smiled at me and said, “Now you get a dramatic eye,” before going thick on the eyeliner. It’s good to be Champion, if just for a while. After my quick change and touchup, I was back out on the set in 10 minutes and got my clock cleaned by Mr. History Ph.D.

What came next was the hardest part of the whole experience: the agony of waiting two whole months for my show to air and not being able to tell a soul that I had won.

September 15 finally came, and we had a huge watch party at the Tune Inn, my favorite neighborhood bar in D.C. – with fellow CofC alums Ryan Velasco ’02 and Erin Levi Drake ’03 in attendance. It was probably the single greatest night of my life until the birth of my son took that prize three years later. Speaking of my son, he’s already a trivia night regular at the local pizza place, and I plan to raise him to be an insufferable smarty-pants know-it-all. Add to that a good solid liberal arts education, and, who knows, maybe we have a future Jeopardy! champion on our hands. I just hope Alex is still the one asking the questions.

– Elizabeth Williams ’01 was an English major who earned a master’s in library and information science
from the University of South Florida in 2008. A competitive intelligence analyst for PricewaterhouseCoopers,
she lives in Fairhope, Ala., with her husband, Wes, and son, Eliot. (Yes, he’s named after the poet.)

Featured illustration by Kristen Solecki.