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Brunonia for $1,000: Community members compete on ‘Jeopardy!’

“The title character of this 2013 film was played by David Tomlinson, who was actually seen only in clips from a 1964 film,” read Alex Trebek to the nervous contestants, who waited with pens in hand. It was Final Jeopardy, and Matthew Price, an admission officer, was only $200 behind.

As the music faded out, Price’s answer was revealed: “What is ‘Saving Mr. Banks’?” And with that, he had won $22,400, earning the title of “Jeopardy!” champion.

This moment of victory aired Sept. 19, when he won one of two games in which he appeared. He came home with a grand total of $23,400 — the additional $1,000 from his later game.

“I won an episode on ‘Jeopardy!’” Price said, almost as if reminding himself of the surreal success. “I do wish I would have won more, but at the end of the day, I can still say I’m a ‘Jeopardy!’ champion. ‘I won on ‘Jeopardy!’’ is in my vocabulary.”

Price’s love of trivia goes back to his childhood: The East Providence native was the runner-up in the state geography bee three years in a row, and his favorite book was “The World Almanac.”

“Being intellectually curious is such a good quality for anyone to have,” Price said.

“There are so many intellectually curious people here on Brown’s campus, and ‘Jeopardy!’ is about learning broadly about so many things,” he added. “It’s a pretty good match, a pretty natural fit between us.”

Price is not the only Brown representative on this season of “Jeopardy!,” which marks the show’s 31st year on the air. Sam Heft-Luthy ’16, a computer science and literary arts concentrator and former Herald senior staff writer, flew to Culver City, California, for filming Aug. 5, and his episode will air Oct. 24.

The first step in qualifying to compete on “Jeopardy!” is an online test in which trivia lovers answer 50 questions, with 15 seconds allotted for each one. The top scorers from the preliminary round move on to audition in person in cities throughout the country — auditions from which only the best get the coveted call informing them that they will appear on the show.

Heft-Luthy’s audition was in May, and he hunkered down to prepare. “Last year I had a pretty light finals load,” he said. “While other people were sitting on the Main Green reading their books, I had an atlas.”

A couple of months later, Heft-Luthy got “the call” while working as a software engineer. “I was in D.C. for the summer, but I was taking a trip to New York for the weekend and working from the office there,” he said.

“I’m lost in this new office that’s like a crazy maze, and I look at my phone as I’m running around, and I see that I have a voicemail. For some reason the call didn’t come through, but I have a voicemail. So I’m running around this office and listening to the voicemail, and I hear, ‘Hi Sam, this is Laurie from ‘Jeopardy!’ Give me a call back when you can.’”

He knew this was “the call” and spent the next three hours trying to write code while calling Laurie back every 30 seconds, he said. Finally, while running down the High Line to catch a bus, he made contact.

“I finally got through while I was waiting for my bus. It was Laurie from ‘Jeopardy!,’ and they were inviting me to come out to the show in a month. The first thing that I said was, ‘Like, regular, adult ‘Jeopardy!’?’ And of course, when you say that out loud in a bus station, 12 people are like, ‘WHAT?!’”

With only a month to prepare for the August film date, Heft-Luthy spent July preparing by making flashcards and studying old episodes.

“This is about three months’ worth of back episodes,” he said as he pulled a marble composition book out of his backpack and began flipping through page after page of charts. “I think that it really is a retention thing for me.”

In the standard pre-show interview, Heft-Luthy discussed his love of trivia at a young age. “Instead of allowance, when Kids Week was on, my parents would pay me 10 cents for every correct answer that I got,” he said.

His love of the show continued, becoming the subject of his college application essay. “My admissions essay talked about how I always wanted to be on it, and how I’ve always been more breadth over depth,” he said. “I think that almost everything has the capacity to be cool and have something bizarre and interesting about it.”

While this may have made him a unique applicant, in Culver City, being a “Jeopardy!” fan is not out of the ordinary. The Hilton DoubleTree there even offers contestants a discounted rate.

“There are ‘Jeopardy!’ contestants all around. You go down to the lobby and you see 12 other people with garment bags and stuff like that, and here I am with three loose shirts,” Heft-Luthy said, explaining that contestants bring multiple outfits in case they advance to the next round because episodes are filmed back to back. “I don’t own a dry-cleaning bag or anything. I’m a 20-year-old kid. I was the youngest one of the group for sure.”

Leonard Cooper ’17 had a similar experience when he competed in — and won — the February 2013 “Jeopardy!” Teen Tournament.

“I was a lot more relaxed going into it than everyone else,” Cooper said. “If you look at the last games, I was in the most casual thing they could possibly let me wear. I actually tried to go up wearing a Hendrix shirt.”

Despite this casual attire, Cooper walked away from the games with $75,000.

Winning is not uncommon for the Brown community: Cathy Lanctot ’78 P’16 competed in the games in 2007, when she won five games and a total of $117,102.

“Brown is a dynamic, intellectual place that doesn’t always take itself too seriously, because, after all, a lot of the questions on ‘Jeopardy!’ are not that serious,” Lanctot said, adding that Brown exposed her to a large variety of interests — perfect training for the game show. “If you told me lots of people from Brown had been on ‘Jeopardy!,’ it wouldn’t surprise me.”

Heft-Luthy, just like all “Jeopardy!” contestants, is sworn to secrecy about the outcome of his game, or perhaps games, until the episode’s airdate.

“It’s fun not telling people what happened,” Heft-Luthy said. “It’s so much fun to keep it a mystery.”

But during filming, one gets caught up in the heat of the moment, leaving little time to think about winning. “You just go. It’s on, it’s happening, it’s over, you’re done, you go back or you don’t go back, and that’s it,” he said.

Until the show airs, that is, when Heft-Luthy will get to relive the thrill of the game, and the results will finally be revealed.


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