Triumphant on trivia’s biggest stage
Binghamton University’s own Kevin Boettcher is a three-time ‘Jeopardy!’ champion
By day, Kevin Boettcher is a research development specialist and the chair of the Professional Staff Senate at Binghamton. But for four nights in October 2019, Boettcher was a national television sensation, winning three games of Jeopardy! and earning a cool $73,403.
Boettcher attributes much of his Jeopardy! success to timing such as using the game’s “signaling device.”
“On my taping day, I think any of the other contestants knew enough to win – if you’re good enough to make it on the show, you probably know enough to win,” he says. “You need to be lucky—do you get clues or categories that fit you well? – but most of all you need to be quick. Ultimately, Jeopardy! is a timing game as much as a trivia game.”
Here are some other questions that Binghamton University Magazine has been curious about:
Have you spent the money?
Only a little bit. I had a very thrifty upbringing, so I honestly don’t know what to do with a windfall like this. My wife and I have donated some, and we’re planning to take a long-overdue vacation. About a third of my winnings get paid back in taxes, and we’ll probably pay off some student loans. But I did splurge on some really nice winter socks. Does that count? My life is quite glamorous, as you can tell.
I recall you telling Alex Trebek that you wanted to buy a tablesaw. Did you buy one?
Not yet! I don’t have the space in my workshop at the moment, but as soon as I do, I’m following through on my promise. Honestly, I didn’t expect that to even come up in the interviews. When they invite you out to L.A. for the taping, you send them a list of five anecdotes to use on the show, plus a longer list of back-up questions, including “What would you spend your winnings on?” I put down the saw on a whim, but it turns out Alex Trebek is a real DIY enthusiast, and the producers warned me that he would almost definitely bring it up. During one of the taping breaks, he showed the audience pictures of himself renovating the bathroom in his house. As if I didn’t love the guy enough already…
How hard was it to learn to use the buzzer?
Pretty hard, honestly. When you audition for the show, they give you a clicky pen that is the same dimensions of the buzzer you use on the show. I remembered an interview with Ken Jennings from way back when where he talked about practicing for the show by standing behind an armchair in his living room that was about the same height as the podiums on the Jeopardy! set, and playing along with the game each evening while his wife kept score. I did that for a couple weeks, and I think it really helped. During a couple of practice sessions, I didn’t even try to come up with the answer but just focused on trying to ring in (click my pen) in the split second after Alex Trebek finished reading a clue. The biggest help I got was from reading an e-book by this guy named Fritz Holznagel, called Secrets of the Buzzer. He’s a former Google engineer who won one of the Tournament of Champions, and he built his own Jeopardy!-like buzzer system to figure out the best ways to use the thing. Basically, he gives a lot of little pointers that might help you shave a couple hundredths of a second off your reaction time but that, when put together, might help you knock off a tenth of a second.
Who wins a champions match between you, Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer?
You know, I’ve thought that, given the right categories and enough prep time, I could probably eke out one, maybe two correct answers while they absolutely wipe the floor with me. An average person might know about half the answers on the board, while an above-average person probably does better than 75%. Those guys probably know at least 95% of the board on a given night and, what’s more, they’re exceptionally fast on the buzzer, which is the only way you can win as many games as they did. And they’re trivia professionals, while I am most definitely an amateur. I’ll put it this way: they’re Michael Jordan and LeBron James, and I’m the dude at the Y with a decent jump-shot. They’re playing chess, and I’m – I don’t know – a chicken that learned to play tic-tac-toe?
Is there someone on campus who would make a good Jeopardy! contestant?
I didn’t make enough money to retire early, so I’ll have to watch what I say. I think Provost Nieman would be formidable. There’s almost always a history round, so his background as a history professor would give him a huge leg up. And provosts have to know a little bit of everything about the academic departments on a campus, so that’s a plus, too. (Sorry, President Stenger. It’s tough out there for engineers. Science doesn’t come up nearly as much as arts and literature.) The silent killers, though, are librarians, who have always been a force to be reckoned with on Jeopardy! They just … know stuff. I think they’re just osmosing information from all those books around them. I bet there’s a future Jeopardy! champ somewhere over in Bartle.
What advice would you give someone considering a Jeopardy! tryout?
There’s much more luck involved than you think. I was unusually fortunate and made it on after my first audition, but this season’s 20-game winner, Jason Zuffranieri, apparently auditioned for the show nine times over 15 years before finally getting the call. Fifteen years! You have to be lucky to pass the online test and the in-person audition, and then you have to be extra lucky when you go film the show. You may end up taping on the same day as a “super-champ” like James Holzhauer, who just steamrolled people who probably would’ve kicked my butt. (I have to point out that he was finally beaten by Emma Boettcher. No relation!)