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University's Director of Global Health Programs competes on Jeopardy!

<p>Courtesy of Gilbert Collins.</p>

Courtesy of Gilbert Collins.

Starting on Jan. 10, the University’s Director of Global Health Programs, Gilbert Collins GS ’99, racked up five consecutive wins on the television game show “Jeopardy!” The winning streak puts Collins, who holds a Master in Public Affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School, in the running for the Tournament of Champions, an annual competition featuring the longest-running champions and biggest winners from recent seasons.

Filmed in October 2017, the first episode Collins appeared in aired on Jan. 10, and he competed against an archivist and a proofreader/editor. After a strong performance during the first two rounds, he ended the game with $8,399 after answering the Final Jeopardy question incorrectly – a practice he would quickly discard after his second appearance. Collins’ five day total was $84,201, twice as much as the average champion’s earnings of $40,467.60.

The game dynamics of Collins’ first episode.

“It went better than I ever would’ve hoped,” Collins explained in an interview with the ‘Prince,’ adding that no contestant should be too confident as “there are three smart people, and two of them are going to lose.”

Collins said he was overjoyed to win on the first episode because he’d always be able to say that he was a “Jeopardy!” champion. Each successive win was incredible, explained Collins, but after the third win, “it becomes a blur.”

During the interviews with the show’s host, Alex Trebek, Collins talked quite a bit about his hometown: Milwaukee, Wis. He also talked about the time he spent in Namibia as a U.S. Peace Corps Country Director and in Botswana as Associate Director. 

Collins explained that he made a promise to his two children, Timmy and Nicki, that he would give them 1% of his winnings on “Jeopardy!” On Jan. 17, “Jeopardy!” posted an “allowance tracker” on its Twitter page — featuring a video of Collins’ son snapping his fingers in the audience — “to hold [Collins] to his word” that he would pay him the 1%, or $842.01.

Collins watched the game show ever since he was a young boy growing up in Milwaukee. He went on to compete in quiz bowl in high school and college bowl as an undergraduate at Harvard University. However, his dream of being on “Jeopardy!” quickly faded into the background as he focused on his career and work.

When Collins completed his work with the Peace Corps, his desire to be a contestant on “Jeopardy!” returned in full force. He decided to give the online test, which serves as a first screening for potential contestants, a shot. Participants who correctly answer at least 35 out of 50 questions are randomly selected to advance to a next round where they compete in mock games. Collins took the online test in 2015, and again in 2016, but was not selected. This time around however, he was lucky enough to be invited to New York City for an in-person round.

“There were 21 potential contestants that were invited to meet with producers and to take a written test of 50 questions of broad knowledge, partly to make sure you didn’t cheat on your exam,” explained Collins. Following the written test, potential contestants participated in a simulated round of “Jeopardy!” and were interviewed in front of a camera.

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After the in-person try out, prospective contestants are told nothing. They remain in a pool for 18 months before they can try out again if they have not been called on the show. Out of the 3,000 people in the contestant pool, only 400 are given the chance to appear on the show each year.

In September of 2017, Collins got a call from the “Jeopardy!” producers – he would appear on the show in October. 

“Preparing for 'Jeopardy!' is challenging because you can’t learn anything from scratch,” explained Collins. Contestants, expected to have a broad foundation of knowledge, can be asked anything during the show and are given no materials or categories in advance. Collins reviewed literature, history, geography, art, and music – areas he knew well, but wanted to be able to recall instantaneously. He also studied old movies, an subject matter he felt less comfortable with.

“Jeopardy!” films five episodes a day on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Collins filmed his first three episodes on a Wednesday, then flew back to New Jersey. He returned back to California the following Tuesday to film the next two episodes.

Collins joins other University community members who have been contestants on the game show. In 2014, Terry O’Shea ’14 won the “Jeopardy!” College Championship tournament, collecting the $100,000 grand prize. 

O’Shea considered the opportunity to meet the fellow contestants a highlight of the “Jeopardy!” experience, referencing a quote from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: “there are some things you can't share without ending up liking each other.”

While competing, Collins formed “tight bonds” with his fellow competitors, many of whom he still keeps in touch with. 

“Someone might imagine there’d be tension,” Collins said. “That is not the case. There’s a lot of camaraderie, a lot of understanding that you’re in the same boat. You’re having this very bizarre experience but you’re having it together. There’s a lot of relationships that I’ve made and maintained since then ... which is a neat thing.”