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Q&A with Three-Night ‘Jeopardy!’ Champion Emily Frey

Alex Trebek stands with Emily Frey

“It was so improbable that I’d win at all, and the experience was probably the wildest, giddiest, most insane high of my life,” says Frey, whose infant daughter was 5 months old at the time of taping.

Emily Frey, visiting assistant professor of Russian, recently completed a stellar four-night run as a contestant on Jeopardy!, winning a total of $64,503 before bowing out last Friday. The segments were recorded at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, Calif., earlier this summer.

“The good thing was that the set felt so familiar—I had seen it hundreds of times on TV,” says Frey, whose infant daughter, Claire, was 5 months old at the time of taping. “I really didn’t feel nervous. I felt lots of other things, sure, but not nervous.”

As for preparation, Frey did “brush up” on some categories she guessed would come up on the show, including world capitals and presidential administrations.

Jeopardy! is one of those things that I think you can’t really study for, but you also can’t not study for,” says Frey, who is married to Noah Giansiracusa, assistant professor mathematics and statistics. “The main thing I did was watch lots and lots of back episodes.”

Almost everything about her experience on Jeopardy! was unexpected, says Frey, but the best part has been the reaction from her students, former students, and even her first-grade teacher. "Absolutely the nicest surprise has been all the emails I've gotten from everyone," says Frey, who noted it was "quite hard" to not tell her students about the outcome.

Frey, who will be teaching courses on Dostoevsky and literature & music next semester, took a moment to reflect on her experience on the show.

Was the experience of competing on television what you expected? 

Well, it’s funny—when they called to tell me I’d be appearing on the show, I was absolutely shocked. I’d auditioned a whole year before, in July 2017, and that was enough time to kind of forget about it—especially as I’d found out I was pregnant and had a baby during that time! When Jeopardy! called, our daughter Claire was not quite 4 months old, and I was still very much in that sleepless new-mom fog—so even though competing on the show had always been a major bucket-list item of mine, Jeopardy! could not have been further from my mind at that moment. I was so worried about how everything would work out, from having to be apart from my baby for the first time (my mom was all too happy to baby-sit) to figuring out a time and place to pump backstage. But the contestant coordinators were awesome and made sure I had everything I needed.

One of the things that surprised me most about Jeopardy! was that they shoot the episodes live to tape, so each episode is actually filmed in half an hour. It was such a whirlwind!

There were lots of other little surprises, too: Everybody says that the buzzer is the hardest part, but I wasn’t quite prepared for exactly how true that was going to be. They told us that 80–85 percent of the time, all three contestants think they know the answer and ring in, so at that point it becomes less about who knows the most and more about who’s quickest on the draw.

Was it tense, or were the other contestants friendly?

Friendly! I met them on the bus to the studio, and I remember thinking, Wow, these are some of the most charismatic people I’ve ever met. There’s a reason for that: Jeopardy! chooses contestants based on TV personality as well as trivia knowledge. There were a lot of real extroverts on that bus—actors, lawyers, even a politician—and as an academic I felt like such a shy, nerdy wallflower by comparison!  Of course, there were also a lot of nerves on that contestant bus, and everyone was exhausted from jet lag, being too excited to sleep, and waking up early enough to get to the studio. Since I have a baby, though, I'm totally used to functioning on four or five hours of sleep—that’s every day for me! So the tiredness factor might have actually worked in my favor.

Did you study beforehand? How did you prepare? 

Well, you don’t have a lot of time to study—there’s only about a month from when you get the call to when the show tapes—and beyond that, my daughter was keeping me pretty busy, so I couldn’t really cram for it as I might have wanted to. But the main thing I did was watch lots and lots of back episodes of Jeopardy! It was something I could do while feeding or cuddling my baby, and after a while you start to notice some real patterns in the way the clues are written. A “California writer” is always Steinbeck, for example; a “Danish astronomer” has to be Tycho Brahe.

What was it like to win? You seemed very calm throughout the show, which is not always the case with contestants.

I certainly wasn’t always feeling calm. Especially in the first game: Tori and Allen were so much faster than I was on the buzzer, and I was getting so frustrated about never being able to ring in first. During Final Jeopardy, I was convinced I was going to lose; I was in third place and the clue (about James Dyson of vacuum fame) seemed easy to me. I was positive all three of us were going to get it, and I’d be going home. But I have a St. Bernard and a Great Pyrenees, so maybe I’m more familiar with vacuum cleaners than the average person!

I was shocked every time I won, though. I really hadn’t expected it, especially three times in a row! I knew I was pretty good at trivia, but so is everyone on Jeopardy! Other factors become more important: luck, which was definitely on my side that day; buzzer speed, which usually favors the returning champion; and fatigue, which is why you so often see champions who look unstoppable on Monday and Tuesday come apart by the end of the week. 

Jeopardy! films five episodes in one day, with only 15 or 20 minutes between games, so by Friday’s episode the champion has been under those bright studio lights for hours and has faced literally hundreds of questions. It gave me so much respect for those people who are able to win seven or eight games in a row, because by the time we got to Friday, I was totally wiped out! I made the dumbest mistakes in that game—like confusing FDR and Truman (what the heck was I thinking?)—but I can’t be too upset about them. It was so improbable that I’d win at all, and the experience was probably the wildest, giddiest, most insane high of my life. And the timing really couldn’t have been better: Yes, it was stressful trying to prepare for Jeopardy! as a new mom (I kept thinking to myself, if Serena Williams can do it, so can I!), but winning on Jeopardy! means that I can pay off my student loans and start saving for my daughter. I’m so grateful for that!

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