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Max Niles ’22 reflects on appearance in “Jeopardy! College Championships”

His quarterfinal loss aired on Feb. 11 after months of secrecy

<p>Niles, a history and public policy concentrator, said his expertise centers around history, sports, and music.</p><p>Courtesy of ABC/Casey Durkin</p>

Niles, a history and public policy concentrator, said his expertise centers around history, sports, and music.

Courtesy of ABC/Casey Durkin

Over the weekend of Nov. 20, 2021, Max Niles ’22 had a secret. 

Telling his friends that he was taking an early Thanksgiving break to visit his Washington, D.C. home, he turned off his location on FindMyFriends and hopped on a plane to Los Angeles. He would spend the next several days there, conducting rehearsals, filming promos and competing in “Jeopardy! National College Championship.”

The episodes would not be aired until February, so his silence was imperative. 

“They warned us a million times, ‘You cannot tell anyone!’” Niles said.


He divulged the secret to a few close loved ones, but others wouldn’t find out until January when the trailer was released, he said. Even those he did tell didn’t know the result.

Niles’s episode was finally broadcast last Friday, revealing that he was eliminated in the quarterfinals. 

But for Niles, who grew up watching the show with his grandparents, the experience was still “fantastic.”

“The first time I was on the stage, I (thought), ‘Wow, this is really happening. I’m about to be on ‘Jeopardy!’’” he said.

“We’ve been watching the show since we were little kids, and we were always competing to get the answers right,” said Niles’s older sister Grayce Niles. 

Niles even took the test for “Jeopardy! Kids Week” as an adolescent but never heard back, he said.

According to his sister, those experiences, as well as Niles’s personality, gave him the ingredients for his appearance on “Jeopardy!” “He has always had a great memory … and also we’ve grown up in a family that’s very into current events,” she said, noting that their father, a law professor, hosted Trivial Pursuit contests with his students. 

While Niles didn’t make the cut as a kid, his college attempt was different. With 26,000 other students from over 4,000 schools auditioning, he was one of 36 to receive an invitation to compete at the National Championship for the grand prize of $100,000.

Niles said he applied after a friend had sent a link to the 50-question preliminary test in a group chat. He was soon invited to take a similar test conducted over Zoom, where his score was high enough to enter the final round: a live question format in which contestants clicked their pens to imitate buzzers. 

He was told he was in the contestant pool in February 2021 but didn’t hear anything more for months. Though he assumed he hadn’t been selected, he finally received a call in October telling him he’d be on the show. 


On Friday, Nov. 20, Niles arrived at the studio in Culver City, California. After a Saturday full of legal briefings, practice runs and what he described as “cringey” promotional videos, Niles took to the stage Sunday morning alongside Jaskaran Singh of the University of Texas at Austin and Sarah Salisbury from the University of Southern California. 

Niles said he hadn’t studied heavily, especially about betting strategies and buzzer timing. “I’m a busy student,” he said. “I don’t really have time to watch “Jeopardy!” and read the books.” 

During the game, he had considerable difficulty buzzing at the right time, he said. “Until the first commercial break, I was just really, really nervous on stage. So I kept on messing up with the buzzer,”

Niles successfully buzzed 17% of the time, compared to the 72% of the eventual winner, Singh, according to the official “Jeopardy!box score. “If I had to do it over again, I would look at how to buzz in because that’s the most important thing,” he said.

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Niles, a history and public policy concentrator, said his expertise centers around history, sports, and music. In the game, he said, he particularly jumped at the chance to answer a question about one-man rock band Tame Impala. 

Niles said he hosted a watch party for the episode when it aired, during which people soon realized he would not be victorious, recalling that everyone realized Singh was “very good, very quickly.” “I think everyone in the crowd was like, ‘I don’t think Max is going to win this,’” he said, laughing.

Still, he appreciated the unique experience. “It’s crazy to watch yourself on national television,” he said. 

Niles’s sister echoed this sentiment. “Coming out of it, he was so excited about it, he was so happy about the experience that … it didn’t matter that he didn’t win,” she said. 

The appearance has also given him a kind of celebrity status at Brown. “Now people look at me on campus and I’m like, ‘Oh, this is so weird,’” Niles said.

Niles was the first to represent Brown at the College Championship since Dhruv Gaur ’21, who won the 2018 tournament as a freshman. 

Gaur would later return to the show and go viral for sending a heartwarming message to host Alex Trebek during Final Jeopardy. 

Gaur told The Herald he also gained campus-wide fame, which peaked when he crowd surfed at Spring Weekend. But, he added, “Once it was over, I was still trying to find myself as a first-year at a new school, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. All those things stayed the same. Just in the middle (of college), there was this crazy, really cool experience that I had.” 

Gaur said he doesn’t watch “Jeopardy!” every day anymore, but he was sure to tune in to Niles’s episode. “I had to watch Max,” he said. “Always good to see another Brown student (on ‘Jeopardy!’).” 

His advice for aspiring “Jeopardy!” contestants at Brown? “Do what’s interesting to you. Read what’s interesting to you. If you like learning … it’ll pay off.”

But Niles’s advice was simpler: “Learn how to do the buzzer.”


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