Law Grad Becomes Jeopardy! Champion

Jordan Nussbaum, Law’15
Photo by Jeopardy! Productions Inc.

The category is TV game show winners. The answer is “He’s a Queen’s Law graduate now practising civil litigation with Romano Law in Toronto.” If you guessed “Who is Jordan Nussbaum, Law’15?” – you’re right! On June 22, he beat the reigning champion on Jeopardy!, winning a total of $17,800 in two days.

Mr. Nussbaum, who says “a good memory has always been my strong suit,” is a long-time trivia buff. Growing up, he watched Jeopardy!, played Trivial Pursuit and joined his high school’s Reach for the Top team. During his undergrad and law school years, he took part with his friends in local trivia events. So, it’s only logical that he would want to try his talent on a much broader stage. “I thought it would be a fun experience that I would be good at,” he says, “although I never thought it would actually happen!” 

After his appearance, broadcast across Canada and the U.S., Mr. Nussbaum spoke about his Jeopardy! experience.    

How did you get to be a Jeopardy! contestant?

The first step is an online test of 50 general knowledge trivia questions. I got an email in October inviting me to an in-person audition at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto in November. Twenty people were at my audition. It had three parts. First was a 50-question general knowledge test. Then in groups of three we played a short mock game of Jeopardy! with real buzzers and everything. The last part was “talking to the contestants” – like when Alex speaks to the contestants after the commercial. In the email invitation, they told us to come with five facts about ourselves. I went with some funny, self-deprecating facts (like having hit one career homerun in softball). I think it worked because I had the room laughing at my stories. 

At the end of the session, the organizers said everyone in the room would be placed in the contestant pool, and could potentially be called for the show any time within the next 18 months. I thought I did well enough, but again wasn’t really expecting anything to come of it. Then one evening in mid-January, I got a call from a California phone number. It was the Jeopardy! people inviting me to be a contestant at the February 20-21 tapings. 

How did you prepare?

They tell you nothing in advance, so I had about four weeks to learn anything and everything. One of the first things I did was brainstorm potential categories that come up a lot – history (U.S., world), geography (states, world capitals), literature – then other things like U.S. presidents, opera, national parks, poetry, rivers … it was a pretty long list. I made the decision to focus on literature, my most glaring weakness. Coincidentally, my aunt had three volumes of classic literature condensed into two-page summaries. Everything from classical Greek tragedies, to Shakespeare, to Stephen King. So I read as much of those as possible whenever I had some spare time. And I recorded and watched Jeopardy!.

What’s it like to be on the show?

Fun and exhausting. What people don’t know is that Jeopardy! only tapes 39 days a year. They film an entire week’s worth of episodes in one day and they film two days per week. For the first day, they bring in 12 new contestants for 10 slots. Contestants are chosen at random to appear on the first game, then each game after.  The two people not picked are invited back the next day to be on with 10 new contestants for the second day of tapings.
Jeopardy! tapes at the Sony Studios in Los Angeles, and each contestant is given up to six tickets to the show for family and friends. My mother, father, grandmother and two cousins came with me. 

A bus picked up the contestants at the hotel at 7 am and took us to the studio, where coordinators gave us a speech about the rules, gameplay and strategy, and we had our makeup done. We had a bit of practice at 10 am: they put us on stage three at a time, mic’d us, and we played a few questions to get the timing on the buzzer. You can’t buzz until Alex finishes reading the clue or you’ll be locked out, so not only are you worried about comprehending the question and thinking of the answer, but you also need to think about buzzing in at exactly the right time. 

When not on stage, contestants had an opportunity to chat. Everyone was really nice. It was a very friendly environment – not at all competitive with people wanting to psych each other out. I’ve stayed in touch with a couple people.

After everyone was finished, they let the audience into the studio, put the defending champion on stage, called up the first two challengers, brought out Alex Trebek and started to tape. They filmed three games, then gave those of us still around a voucher for lunch at the Sony lot cafeteria. I ended up being called for the last game. It was pretty surreal. You stand up behind the podium with the other two contestants, the theme music plays, Alex comes out, and all of a sudden, you’re playing Jeopardy! for real.

More than anything, it was fun. Getting answers right, picking the next clue, bouncing back after a wrong answer. In that first game, I started out really strong before the first commercial break, but faded a little after that. In the Double Jeopardy round, I was stuck in third place when I hit a Daily Double in a British History category (“The Real Game of Thrones”). History is my best category and this was my chance to get back in the game, so I got to say the immortal words “I’d like to make it a true Daily Double.” Thankfully, I got the question right.  

I was in second place going into Final Jeopardy, with the category Medicine and the Movies. The question was easy enough (the answer was “Vertigo”), so I assumed the leader got it right too. I think I looked miserable when the camera was on me because I pretty much knew I had lost! But shockingly, the leader got the question wrong and dropped behind me! So I won the game in pretty dramatic fashion. It ended up making for great viewing later.

That night I was so excited, I only got about two hours of sleep. The same sort of routine repeated the next day. As champion, I played the first game. I got off to a very strong start and kept the lead all the way to the final. Sadly, I missed the Final Jeopardy, which was a question I would have easily gotten if I were sitting at home or had gotten adequate sleep. In any event, I was really proud of how I played. 

What are you going to do with your winnings?

I am going to save the money and put it towards entering the Toronto housing market. 

This story originally appeared on the Queen’s Law website.