Emma Boettcher ’14 and Gilbert Collins GS ’99 achieved success in this week’s Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions, winning their initial matches and qualifying for next week’s semifinal games.
The Tournament of Champions is a staple of the long-running television trivia quiz show, in which Jeopardy! invites back 15 of its strongest recent competitors, pitting the champions against one another in a series of 10 matches. The tournament episodes airing from Nov. 4 through Nov. 15 were shot at Jeopardy!’s studio in Culver City, Calif., on Sept. 17 and 18.
Clad in an orange and black tie, Collins — the University’s Director of Global Health Programs and Associate Director at the Center for Health and Wellbeing — punched his ticket on Monday’s program. The Wilson School graduate finished with $16,801, beating out an instructional design consultant from Utah and a music teacher from Colorado for the automatic berth.
“There were so many questions there that I knew, and I was trying to ring in, but [my opponents] might have been a millisecond faster than me so I couldn’t ring in,” Collins said. “One dark secret is that most of the people know most of the answers on the show. It’s just a question of who gets in first.”
A former youth tennis player, Collins compared competing on the show to playing a sport.
“It takes poise to compete on Jeopardy!, which is similar to a lot of the athletic stuff I’ve done,” he said. “When I’m on the stage, the audience ceases to matter. The whole time [host] Alex [Trebek] is talking, I’m just waiting for him to get to that last word he’s going to say and trying to time my ring at that moment.”
Despite seeing success in the competition’s first half, Collins lost his lead as the match progressed, entering “Final Jeopardy!”, the game’s last question, $2,400 out of first place. A $7,801 wager and Collins’s correct answer on the subject of “Ancient History” was enough to capture first place.
Boettcher, the User Experience Resident Librarian at the University of Chicago, took home her victory on Thursday’s show. An English concentrator with a certificate in theater during her time at the University, Boettcher walked away with a score of $23,800. Her winnings were more than double those of her opponents: an attorney and government relations professional from Florida and a network engineer from Arkansas.
After capturing an early lead during the first round of the game, Boettcher rarely relented, losing her top position for only two of the show’s 61 questions. Entering Final Jeopardy! on the subject of 20th-Century Art, the Rocky and Mathey alumna had earned herself a cushion of $10,800. Despite answering the question correctly, Boettcher did not advance her score, as she made the unusual choice to not wager any money.
“I did zero because the goal of getting out of the quarterfinal is to either win or to have a high enough score to be in one of the wild card slots,” Boettcher said. “I was sequestered. I didn’t know what the other high scores had been ... among the second and third place winners for the previous quarterfinal games, but … I finished the Double Jeopardy! round with $23,800, and I knew historically that that was pretty much guaranteed to qualify [for the semifinals].”
After this week’s quarterfinal matches, the five quarterfinal winners and the four non-winners with the highest point totals will advance to the semifinals. The semifinals consist of three matches and the winners of each of those matches will advance to the finals.
The finals will take place on Nov. 14 and 15, with Jeopardy! totaling contestants’ scores from the two days to determine the winner.
“It’s a ‘two-day total-point affair,’ as Alex [Trebek] will say over and over again,” Boettcher said.
Both Collins and Boettcher performed strongly in their quarterfinal matches but, as a consequence of concentration, according to Collins, neither seem to remember much about their time in the spotlight.
“You’re not really making new memories, you’re not really recording this,” Collins said. “That is to say, when I watched the show [on Monday], I honestly didn’t remember that this is what happened because my mind was so focused on recall and achieving lots — total recall. On that level my mind was so focused that you’re only locked into ‘do I know this or not?’”
“I barely remember how I felt when I was playing,” Boettcher said. “I was watching it today and I totally forgot ‘Bugle Calls’ was a category … I don’t really recall either feeling, ‘this is great, this is going well, this is going poorly.’ I don't remember hardly any of my emotions during the game.”
The matches last a little longer than twenty minutes on television, but they both had been preparing far in advance. Collins, the first champion to qualify for this year’s tournament, prepped for almost two years, while Boettcher, the final qualifier, was granted three months.
“There is a saying in Jeopardy! circles that ‘you can’t study for Jeopardy! but, you have to,’” Collins said. “Jeopardy! can ask you questions on literally any topic. There is no guidebook … they can go anywhere.”
Difficulty of preparation is a further consideration for Collins.
“You can prepare … the problem is that any one thing that you study is exceptionally unlikely to actually be on the show,” he said. “I’ve been studying for this for a long time and I don’t think a single thing that was on that [quarterfinal] show was anything that I studied,” he said.
For Boettcher, studying was an experience in learning both about the world and herself.
“When they invited me to be in the Tournament of Champions, and this is going to make me sound like a dork, but I was thinking, ‘Gosh, I wonder how much I can learn over three months. I can’t wait to find out,’” she said.
Boettcher grants special consideration to former Jeopardy! Champion Roger Craig who reached out to Boettcher regarding his experiments.
“[Craig] had done a lot with Jeopardy! data and text mining, and he had reached out to me after I talked about my master's paper on the show, which was on a similar topic. He said, ‘if you want any advice, let me know.’”
Beyond competition, the Tournament of Champions includes a social element for many of the competitors.
“The Tournament of Champions is just so much fun … it really is just the loveliest atmosphere,” Boettcher said. “I think some people have described it as … like summer camp … like a Jeopardy! family reunion.”
Collins echoed Boettcher’s sentiments, citing his own experiences with other contestants.
“What’s striking about the Tournament of Champions is the camaraderie that there is among contestants,” he said. “One might imagine that there would be a lot of gamesmanship and competitive spirit … but in fact there is a lot of collegiality, a lot of mutual respect … it’s just a great environment of very supportive people.”
Boettcher recalled contestants conversing and attempting to play “an off-brand form of Jenga” while waiting to compete, and he mentioned visiting a bar trivia night in the evening.
“A lot of us knew about this local pub quiz at a place called O’Brien’s, which is frequented by a lot of former Jeopardy! champions,” she said. “We decided it would be fun to check that out and see if all of our studying would pay off for the real stakes of, ‘Can we win whatever the cash prize was?’, and it turns out that we could not.”
According to Boettcher, other contestants at O’Brien’s Irish Pub that night included Brad Rutter, the highest earning game show contestant in both American and Jeopardy! history, 13-show champion Austin Rogers, and former College Champion Pam Mueller GS ’15.
“It’s a great place,” Boettcher said.
Through casual and serious, the Jeopardy! community offers a measure of support to its members — especially in dire times.
2018 Teacher’s Tournament Champion Larry Martin passed away before he had the opportunity to compete in the 2019 Tournament of Champions. The Kansas City teacher died as a consequence of pancreatic cancer, the very same illness that longtime Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek is publicly battling. When he heard about Martin, Collins felt compelled to act.
“Out of respect and honor of [Martin], I reached out to the Jeopardy! producers and asked if it would be okay if I organized with the other contestants to wear purple ribbons,” Collins said. Purple is the color most commonly associated with pancreatic cancer awareness.
“My wife and I went to the store, bought the ribbons, assembled them all, and once we were there, handed them out to everybody. It was an honor to be able to celebrate [Martin and Trebek] in that way and to show solidarity … by wearing those ribbons.”
Collins and Boettcher both expressed happiness with their performance in the tournament, emphasizing repeatedly how much they enjoyed the experience.
“A lot of Jeopardy! really rewards … being curious and being open to learning new things just over the course of your entire life,” Boettcher said. “I can say that I studied for the tournament for three months, and that’s true, but I can also say that I had prepared for it for 27 years, and that would also be true.”
“For me, the idea of actually getting on the TV show Jeopardy! has always been a dream, but a very, very difficult to attain dream,” Collins said. “It sounds cliché, but don’t be afraid to follow your dreams and try something that you’ve always hoped to do, even if the odds look very long. You never know, you might succeed.”
Princeton residents can catch Jeopardy! at 7 p.m. Monday through Friday on WPVI ABC Philadelphia.