Even if you’re not a fan of Jeopardy!, the television game show that’s been on the air for over 50 years, you’re probably aware of super-contestant James Holzhauer. As of this writing, he is well on his way to stripping the records away from Ken Jennings for Consecutive Games Won and Highest Winnings. He’s already in the “Jeopardy! Hall of Fame” for Single Game Winnings.
UPDATE: Holzhauer’s winning streak of 32 consecutive games came to an end with #33, which aired Monday, June 3. His total winnings of $2.46 million place him second to Ken Jennings’ record-holding position of $2.52 million and 74 games.
It’s happily ironic that we can update this article by saying the person who toppled Holzhauer is a librarian—Emma Boettcher, who works at the University of Chicago and earned her MLIS with a final paper, “Predicting the Difficulty of Trivia Questions Using Text Features.”
Emma’s win is a great new lead for this story about three of our own librarians who made it on the Jeopardy! show. Perhaps their experiences will inspire you to submit your own application. (We include a link to the application process at the end of this article.)
Holzhauer, a professional sports gambler from Las Vegas, was neither a typical applicant nor contestant. Looking at the history of Jeopardy!, you will find a lot of teachers and librarians on the show—not surprising with their wealth of diverse knowledge.
We are proud of several of our own employees who have competed on the show over the years. Three of them agreed to share their experiences.
Paul is in a hybrid role at LAC Group, as Library Services Coordinator at Milbank LLP for almost 20 years and also part of our virtual team as Research Analyst.
Paul’s Jeopardy! experience
I took the test in 1991, just after our daughter was born. We were living in Glendale, California at the time. Those days, would-be contestants would arrive at a sound stage at the Sunset/Gower studios (not the actual set for Jeopardy!) for 50 questions that Alex taped. We watched the monitors and filled in our answers. I didn’t find the questions that difficult. Out of the hundred or so people who took the test with me, I was one of ten who moved on.
The next step was to run mock contests with other contestants. We were judged on personality and our ability to ring in successfully. After getting great feedback from the producers, I went home to wait it out. A couple of months later I was invited to come down to Hollywood to compete at a later date.
During that time, I mostly spent my time studying and practicing with a video tape to ring-in using the pause button. Button skills are crucial, as current champ James Holzhauer has proven, and it turns out that he devoted a significant amount of practice and prep time on this skill alone. You must wait until Alex finishes reading the “answer”—if you are too early, you are locked out. Lights would go on the sides of the game board to ring in.
My day on-set was tremendous fun. My game was very competitive and close, and Alex congratulated us all for a well-played game. We didn’t miss a question. I learned later that the winner was runner-up in the Tournament of Champions that season.
I should have studied a bit more on geography and commerce because our final round question concerned US Port Cities and the top two ports for moving cargo 1200 miles apart. I guessed Los Angeles and Seattle, incorrectly. The correct two are New York and New Orleans. Our champ got it right. I went for broke and came in third.
Those days, you received consolation prizes. I won an under-counter refrigerator, which I gave to a friend who was building a house. I couldn’t watch the show for a while, because I was disappointed that I didn’t get to play more. Yet I’m very proud of my appearance, and I never miss a show now.
John is Client Engagement Manager for LAC Group’s Federal team, managing projects at the Library of Congress, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and National Agricultural Library.
John Leon (who competed as Johnny) was one-time champion, appearing in two shows that aired December 21-22, 2017.
John’s Jeopardy! experience
My Jeopardy! journey started as a young child, watching my trivia-inclined mother go for it. She appeared on both Jeopardy! and Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? before I was a teenager and encouraged me to always audition and have a thirst for knowledge.
After taking the online test countless times and auditioning in person four times, I finally got the call. I point to my relaxed attitude and confidence in the fourth audition for getting me through finally.
The next three weeks before my taping, I studied furiously and focused on subjects that consistently came up, yet where I lacked knowledge. These were mostly music, science and Shakespeare. When the big day came, I ended up getting very few questions related to those fields and ended up winning my game on a beer question. Sometimes it just comes down to luck. I was able to compete on a second taping, and both shows were aired right before Christmas in 2017.
The two Final Jeopardy! categories and questions I had to contend with were:
- Advertising Characters—This brand was looking for a Hemingway type when it hired Jonathan Goldsmith for its commercials. (Beer maker Dos Equis, which I got right.)
- Record Labels—This label, home to U2 & Bob Marley, was created, fittingly, in Jamaica with an investment of 1,000 pounds sterling. (Island Records, which I didn’t get, guessing Kingston instead.)
It was a lifelong dream to make it on, making my years of academic bowl, bar trivia, and “sporcling” (on trivia quiz website Sporcle) all worth it.
Carolyn is an information specialist currently on assignment at ABC News
I’ve been watching Jeopardy! since the days of host Art Fleming. About fifteen years ago, my significant-other offered to get us tickets to Celebrity Jeopardy!, which was being taped in New York at Radio City Music Hall. I was thrilled at the prospect, but then worried aloud, “I just hope I don’t yell out any answers.” He gave me a “Boy, you have quite the ego” look, and I realized we’d never sat down together to watch the show, which we did that night. And yes, my younger self was quite the armchair champ. I was a history major with a biology minor at Georgetown, took some post-grad courses in liberal studies at NYU and eventually obtained my Master’s in Library Science at Columbia University.
When I auditioned, I had almost twenty years of corporate library experience in both news and management consulting research. Like most trivia mavens, I have always loved acquiring knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
Still, my boyfriend was skeptical. So I finally grabbed for the brass ring, filled out an online application, and was subsequently contacted for an audition at the Waldorf Astoria. It seemed to go well, and they said they’d call to let me know; but months passed and my hopes dwindled.
After almost a year had gone by, I got the call to be on the show. I was over-the-moon with excitement, telling all my closest friends and of course my employer. However, I deferred telling my family until after I was on the show, hoping to make any big win (LOL) a complete surprise.
Contestants must pay their own way to Los Angeles. I booked my flight, fortunate that my friend Peg and her UCLA professor husband not only put me up, but Peg did my hair the morning of the show and drove me to Studio City for the taping on September 11, 2007.
All the contestants are asked in advance to provide an anecdote to tell on-air, so I told how my Aunt Gertrude once made me mail a trifold marriage proposal to legendary Jeopardy! champ Frank Spangenberg, a New York police officer who was the first person to win more than $100,000 in five days on the show. Not only did this get a big on-air laugh, but Alex Trebek recounted how another recent contestant from New York told how Officer Spangenberg was the first police officer to greet them after evacuating Manhattan on 9/11/2001.
As for my interaction with Alex, I first saw him for the brief 20 minutes or so that I was on the show, which was a blur. I didn’t realize how blurry it was until I actually watched the show, which was televised on Christmas Eve 2007, surrounded by family.
Almost as funny as my anecdote were a couple of my dopey “answers”, which of course are actually questions. One was about a character in “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” to which one contestant gave the incorrect reply, “Who is Deuteronomy?” Having finally perfected my less-than-competent buzzer skills, I hit the clicker and blurted out, “Who is Deuteronomy THE CAT?” I shall never forget the look on Alex Trebek’s face, not captured on camera. He was either trying to conceal his disbelief or trying not to laugh.
But Alex was lovely when I lost Final Jeopardy!, ending my brief-but-spectacular reign to a question about Space Men—He was the oldest man to walk on the Moon, & the only World War II veteran. The correct answer was Alan Shepard but I guessed John Glenn. He patiently explained their different achievements as we stood on stage at the show’s end with the famous Jeopardy! theme song playing in the background.
My friend Peg had hung around to watch my taping and asked my still-dazed self if I wanted to stay for more show tapings—they do a week’s worth of episodes in one day—to which I said YES. I can honestly say that I would not have won any of the subsequent shows. But Peg and I were thrilled when Alex noticed us in the audience, pointed at me and intoned solemnly,
“Frank Spangenberg—someday you are going to meet him.”
And, as always, Alex was correct. Several years ago, at the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, I spotted a very tall police captain by the barricades. I said to my significant other, “OMG, I THINK THAT’S FRANK SPANGENBERG.” And it was. I have the photo to prove it.
I look back at that experience fondly. I may not have been a Jeopardy! champion but, in terms of my bucket list, I feel like a winner.
LAC Group librarians on Jeopardy!
Kudos to Paul, John, Carolyn and all LAC Group employees who have competed on the show. Being selected is a big deal, as hundreds of thousands of people take the online test each year. The Detroit Free Press reported the following Jeopardy! statistics:
- Some 80,000 people took the most recent online test.
- Only 2,500 to 3,000 people move on to in-person auditions.
- About 400 contestants are selected each season.
Meanwhile, you may want to read this interesting article in The Atlantic to borrow some ideas from James Holzhauer’s playbook.