Asking Questions is the Answer

UCSD student Alistar Gray reached the pinnacle of trivia by appearing on Jeopardy’s College Championship.

Alistar Gray, an Earl Warren College sophomore majoring in both computer science and linguistics, had always wanted to be on Jeopardy. He identified it as a life-long goal based on his competitive nature. His journey to be selected as a contestant on Jeopardy began in his childhood as trivia piqued his interest. He took his first step in an official setting, the self-identified “Trivia Nerd” joining a trivia-based competition called Quizbowl during his sophomore year in high school due to its reputation of churning out Jeopardy players.

“A lot of Quizbowl players go on to compete on Jeopardy, partly because doing Quizbowl prepares you really well for the academic side of Jeopardy and partly because it’s the same kind of trivia person who does either [Quizbowl or Jeopardy],” Gray said in an interview with The UCSD Guardian. 

His love for trivia is not just from competition. He would have regular Jeopardy viewings with his roommates during his first year at UC San Diego. He described the atmosphere during these viewings as being “hype,” with him and his roommates shouting questions as the answers flashed on the screen. Gray would always take a moment to think about how exciting being on the show would be.

Watching Jeopardy helped him identify the traits good players have. “I’d say a good Jeopardy contestant has a broad range of knowledge, but more importantly is mentally prepared, quick on the buzzer, and quick to figure things out,” he said.

The buildup of years dedicated to trivia, from his childhood to college, made Gray ready to give Jeopardy’s College Championship a shot. Jeopardy’s College Championship series features a tournament style in which there are quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals rather than having three random contestants compete only amongst themselves. The contestants are split up into groups of three and they face off individually. The winner of the quarterfinals automatically qualifies for the semifinals while second place ends up in the wildcard bracket. These wildcards face off to fill out the remaining bracket.

There is a difference between the type of questions that are asked in the College Championship when compared to the regular format of Jeopardy. Gray pointed out that there were pop culture questions that were more in tune with the younger generation rather than the “boomer-oriented” ones that are featured on the regular show. The episode that he was on had a category based around Drake, one of the biggest artists alive, as a means to adapt to current pop culture trends.

Following the decision to apply, Gray now had to start the actual process. The application, which opened up this past November, featured a 50-question test based around 50 different categories in a trivia style. Applicants have 15 seconds to answer each question. There were 18,000 other applicants. His score was good enough for him to move onto the next facet of the selection process: an in-person audition in Los Angeles that featured 500 other college students.

After completing the process, he waited for the call. It came during a lecture, but his phone was in his backpack. He heard the buzzing of a phone, but it was unidentifiable among the hundreds of potentially buzzing backpacks in the lecture hall.

“After class, I took my phone out and saw the area code was 310, which people on the Jeopardy subreddit had said was Culver City, where they called you from, and I got very excited; after a few rounds of trading voicemails, I finally got through to them and they confirmed it,” Gray said. “I got very excited again and a little freaked out about peaking in sophomore year of college.”

Even after taking part in the show, he still can’t pinpoint what factor led to him being picked as a contestant on the show. The nature of the selection process is based around drawing questions that are more suited for each person’s acumen. There is a lot of unknown going into each part of the process that generates a rush of adrenaline. He figures that there is a blend of both his knowledge and his natural excitement for trivia.

“Honestly, I have no idea why they chose me in particular because I don’t think I have a personality for TV at all,” Gray said. “If anything, it was probably being all smiles and positivity all the time and that was genuine — it was a dream come true for the whole process and I loved it. And I think I know a good amount of things, so that probably helped too.”

Once it settled in that he was going to be on the show, he pivoted into light training for the show. He didn’t train or study like someone would expect for a content-heavy competition. Gray already had confidence in how well he had retained information from the Quizbowl and other rabbit holes that he had discovered on Wikipedia. Apart from previously acquired knowledge, he studied the college show more in depth. 

“I watched even more of the show, especially past college tournaments, trying to figure out what they tended to ask about,” Gray said. “So I did my best to prepare, but really you have no idea what’s going to come up, and the best you can do is prepare your mentality and hope.”

The competition took place in early February, as out-of-state contestants flew in, while Gray and the contestant from University of Southern California were driven to the hotel since they were close to the studio. He recalled what that first meeting at the hotel was like.

“We instantly bonded,” he said.“Somehow, even in such a high-stakes environment where we were competing directly against each other, being a bunch of nerds in the same situation brought us together really closely — we came up with lots of in-jokes and everything.”

This friendliness carried over after the show was recorded as well. There were a couple of group chats that were formed after the show. The connecting thread among the contestants is centered around the fact that they were contractually obligated to not talk about the results with anyone except amongst themselves.

“But my favorite part of the whole thing was definitely the people and how close we all got,” Gray said. “Taping the game goes by at just about the same speed as when it airs, which is blindingly fast in the moment — so many hours of preparation and anticipation go into just a moment of playing.”

The competitive nature that should theoretically arrive from a contest was never present. There was going to be a winner and the rest were not going to win, but one couldn’t tell from their interactions with each other. They didn’t show a strong desire to stand out by any means, a quality that got them into their schools and drives their current desire to beat grading curves, as the contestants knew that anyone could be on the stage. Gray revealed the secret that allowed for a friendly environment: the answers are all based around knowledge that most contestants know. 

“A little secret about Jeopardy is that most of the contestants know most of the answers, so being the first to buzz in is the most important thing separating players a lot of the time,” he said. “This is especially true in the college tournament. I’d say 80 percent of college contestants know 80 percent of the answers, conservatively.” 

The episode of Jeopardy aired April 8th, 2020 on ABC. It is currently available on any streaming service that records live TV.

Graphic by Kalo Grimsby for the UCSD Guardian.

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