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Sam Kavanaugh ’13: Champion of Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions

“I always watched the show frequently and stood behind my couch as if it were a lectern. I had the window open behind me in Minneapolis in the winter because I heard that the studio was cold, and I was trying to simulate that experience as much as possible,” said Sam Kavanaugh ’13.

This past spring, Kavanaugh blowtorched his competition in Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions. A substitute middle and high school teacher from the Minneapolis school district, Kavanaugh shed his unassuming shell and transformed into the mustachioed villain, Dr. Ivo Robotnik, rattling off correct responses to the tune of a $250,000 grand prize. 

While Kavanaugh was a wild success on Jeopardy!, much of his preparation was informal. “It’s not really about being smart, because what does that even mean?” he said. “There are lots of ways to measure that. It’s more about being curious about everything throughout your life.” 

The annual television contest invites 15 of the best contestants—or “champions”—from the past season to compete once more. In a bracket of standouts, irons sharpen irons in highly-pressurized games with trickier-than-normal clues and categories. Games often come down to death-or-glory bets and shot-in-the-dark guesses in Final Jeopardy to decide who will advance to the next round.

Kavanaugh faced some tough cookies, to say the least, in Jennifer Quail, a wine tasting consultant from Dowagiac, Mich., and Veronica Vichit-Vadakan, a librarian from Portland, Ore. Despite falling short in the last leg of competition, these two contestants walked away with consolation prizes of $100,000 and $50,000, respectively, for their skillful play. 

But Dr. Ivo Robotnik took no prisoners. He dominated round one, collecting $38,000, and had enough of a cumulative lead at the end of round two to negate the importance of Final Jeopardy—in the tournament, it is more useful to think of these dollar amounts as point totals as the cash prizes are predetermined.

Kavanaugh bet a trivial amount—$12—in the final round of the game, considering he had already clinched the win. This proved to be the right decision, as only Quail wrote down the correct response. 

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