A Q&A with Binghamton “Jeopardy!” Champ Kevin Boettcher

Posted by John Brhel on October 3, 2019

This summer, Binghamton University staff member Kevin Boettcher took a special trip to sunny California to be a contestant on Jeopardy! As of this blog's publication, he's sitting at a cool $49,401 in earnings and still going strong. We chatted with Kevin about how he got on the show, his strategy for winning, and his newfound celebrity status.

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How did you get on Jeopardy!?

I took the online test in March 2018, which I only knew about because a friend texted me an hour before it started. You answer 50 questions in 15 minutes on a random assortment of questions. If you do well enough, you get invited to an in-person audition a few months later. I ended up auditioning in Philadelphia in September 2018, which was surprisingly fun. I was part of a group of about 40 people, which included folks from all over the East Coast. You start out by taking another 50-question written test, mostly to prove that you were the one who actually did the online test and that you didn't cheat. Then, the producers have groups of three people do mini-versions of the game in front of a camera. You answer some questions for a while and then they do the short interview thing that Alex Trebek does during the actual game. That, I think, is the real test. They clearly want people who are comfortable and engaging and know how to talk to a bigger audience. At the end of all this, though, they just tell everyone in the room, "You'll be in the contestant pool for the next 18 months. You may or may not hear from us. Good luck!" At no stage do you ever know how you did, so it's a guessing game.

 

That's nerve-wracking. When did you find out you got on?

For the next three or four months, I got excited any time my phone rang. But after a while, I resigned myself to the fact that it probably wouldn't happen, and I just kind of forgot. (My son was born in May 2018, so he took up most of my mental energy.) Weirdly, the person who knocked off last season's mega-winner, James Holzhauer, shared my last name -- Emma Boettcher -- so I somehow thought they wouldn't invite another Boettcher to be on the show, despite the fact that we have no relation to one another. The first week of July, though, I was at home cooking dinner and got a call from a random California number. It was a Jeopardy! producer, who invited me to come out to L.A. for a taping at the start of August. The very next day, I booked a ticket and hotel room (you have to pay your own way), and then immediately realized how underprepared I was.

 

So how did you prepare for the show?

For the next month, I basically spent most of my lunch-hours, evenings, and weekends preparing in different ways. I read a lot of advice from past contestants/champions, including an ebook written by a former Tournament of Champions winner/Google engineer who tested the best buzzer-holding techniques. I studied common categories where I knew almost nothing. I made flashcards (and memorized) all the presidents and vice presidents, world capitals, Oscar winners, rulers of England, and state nicknames, among other things. And, after my son went to bed, I would put on old episodes of the show and practice ringing in/answering while my wife kept score. Honestly, though, I knew the show has a fair amount of luck, so I tried not to sweat it too much -- though I did spend my whole flight out there trying to cram in the periodic table, Nobel prize winners and 19th-century painters.

 

What was it like being on the show?

Jeopardy! tapes two days a week (Tuesday and Wednesday), and they do five episodes in one day -- I was invited out for the Wednesday taping. They picked up me and the other contestants at our hotel at 7 a.m., and the rest of the day is a bit of a blur. The producers prep everybody for the show, you do a short rehearsal game and then they start filming. They draw people randomly from the pool of 11-12 contestants on set, and you go up and do your thing. I was called for the second game, which meant that I didn't have too much time to sit in the audience and get nervous while I watched the other contestants.

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Photo: Maggie Gilroy / Binghamton Press & Sun Bulletin)

What was the best part of the experience?

The best part was the people. Both the other contestants and the people who run the show were that perfect mix of interesting, kind and funny. The other people in the contestant pool included a screenwriter, a public defender, a history professor, an oncologist, and the director of a large non-profit, among others. You spend basically the whole day with them, so it was a blessing that we had a particularly friendly and mutually supportive group. It was far more fun than I thought it would be.

 

How has it been since the episode’s started to air? How have family/friends/coworkers reacted?

You sign a very strict NDA that you won’t talk about the results. Basically the only person who knew anything was my wife. When I came back, I was worried about giving anything away. When people asked about it, I said “Oh, it was fun. It was nice meeting people. Great experience,” Which I think everyone takes to mean that you lost. 

So it’s been really fun to, after every episode, get 20 texts and Instagram messages and emails from people saying “Oh, my god!” It’s also just been a really awesome experience because the campus has been incredibly supportive. People I know and don’t know say “Good job!” It’s been really surreal watching it because I filmed it two months ago. I actually don’t remember. I watched it a ton growing up and the last couple years I catch it here and there, but I don’t watch it nearly as much. I just forgot how many people watch the show every night. It’s been funny to the number of people I know who tell their relatives and their friends, and their friends of friends “This guy I know is going to be on Jeaopardy.” It’s been really cool. I got tweeted about by Binghamton Mayor Rich David and U.S. Represenative Anthony Brindisi. 

 

Why do you think you’ve done so well?

I’m okay at the trivia. There were other people who have been on the show who I watch and I know trivia pretty well, but I watch these people and I’m like “How does anyone, not just pull that out of their head, but how does anyone know that?”

Anybody in our contestant group could have won, I think. If you're good enough to make it on the show, you can probably answer most of the questions on the board -- not all, but enough to win. So by that point, it's mostly a mix of luck (do you get enough categories you know?) and timing (can you ring in at just the right time?). If you ring in too early, you get locked out for a quarter of a second, which is an eternity in a game like that.

I spent a fair amount of time studying, but I spent a lot of time practicing the buzzer. I think I’ve done well so far because I’m quick and I get the easy ones. Once in a while there are things I just know for a random reason. It’s a matter of not just getting categories you know but getting categories you know that other people don’t know. Studying and watching the shows over the years you realize categories don’t matter as much as you think. One of the questions last night was about what city is across the bridge from Detroit. But in the question they also give a hint. They refer to the Shakespeare play The Merry Wives. So I knew the Shakespeare play is called The Merry Wives of Windsor. And so therefore the answer was Windsor.

 

Why do you hop around the board so much? 

For people who watch the show, this is the new school approach. It’s what they call the "Forrest Bounce," which was started by a guy named Chuck Forrest back in the 80s. The last couple of years it became super popular. You pick the higher money value questions and kind of jump across the categories. The idea is that gives you the best chance of finding Daily Doubles. I had a couple mantras going in. One was never pick the top row. Basically last year there were only two times Daily Doubles were in the top row. The other thing is if you don’t play straight down a category, it’s a kind of slight strategy advantage to keep your opponents off balance.

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Any painful moments from the show?

I had back-to-back embarrassing moments last night where my brain betrayed me. One was a clue that was asking about a bourbon that was originally called old tub. I rang in and said Jack Daniels and as I said it, I knew I was wrong. If I had just taken another microsecond, I wouldn’t have done that -- because I know that Jack Daniel’s is not bourbon; it’s Tennessee straight whiskey. 

There was a question that read: “Last name of E.I., who founded his company in Delaware in 1802.” I rang in, trying to be really fast, and I said Dow. As I said it….oh, the pain in my face. It was really bad because not only did I attend the University of Delaware as an undergraduate, while I was there I had the Eugene DuPont Memorial Scholarship.

 

Any tips for getting on the show?

It’s a fair amount of luck. When you do the online test, sometimes it’s just a matter of there being a couple more questions that you know that other people don’t. One of the useful things if you want to get on the show is to go back and look at archives of all the old episodes. They re-use clues, they re-use formats. It’s hands-down the best way to prepare. If I had an extra couple of weeks, I would have really drilled in on that. One of the things I did on evenings was watch old game footage. It’s like reviewing tape in sports. Getting comfortable with the way that the question writers write their questions. For being on the show and getting on the show, that’s really helpful.

 

Have you been watching the show with family or friends?

The first night we had a big watch party. We had about 20 people at our house. Last night was a much smaller crowd, and tonight it will be an even smaller crowd.

 

Did you get to talk much with Alex Trebek?

There’s federal laws that dictate how game shows can operate that date back to the 1950s. As a contestant, the only time you interact with Alex is when you're actually filming the show. He has a separate dressing room, and he comes out as the theme music winds down. So, that meant I didn't get to "hang out with Alex" as many people have asked, but I did get my 55 seconds of conversation with him on the show, which was a surreal but very meaningful experience for me. I watched the show with my family nearly every night while growing up, so this was a lifelong dream of mine. Alex himself looked great considering his battle with pancreatic cancer, though I gather he's had a setback in the last couple of weeks. He was exactly as you see him on TV: a mix of friendly, interested, and grumpy, but clearly someone who loves what he does.

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