The Art of the Buzz

by Jay London on July 10, 2017 · 0 comments

in Alumni Life, In the News, Modern Geekhood

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek congratulates Lilly Chin ’17 on her College Championship victory in February.

The national viewing audience for the Jeopardy! College Championship episode in February was treated to an inside joke from Lilly Chin ’17—a quip aimed directly at her MIT classmates.

Chin, who won the championship, had secured an insurmountable lead over opponents from Stanford and the U.S. Naval Academy heading into the Final Jeopardy round. Rather than add to her total by providing the correct question to a prompt, Chin instead bet $0 and responded with the blatantly wrong “Who is the spiciest memelord?”—a nod to the viral meme videos Chen and her friends watch for fun on campus.

Chin, who donned MIT sweatshirts for the championship’s two-day television taping, earned a $100,000 first-place prize, a berth on the show’s 2017 Tournament of Champions, and the adoration of alumni and friends who watched the Final Jeopardy clip online. She shared another MITism with Alex Trebek when she told him that “getting an MIT education is like drinking from a firehose.”

In a Jeopardy! video featuring the finalists, Chin, an electrical engineering and computer science major, revealed that she channeled her experience on MIT’s trap-­shooting team to calm her nerves during the show. Her coach’s advice was clear: “Don’t worry about the score—just take it one shot at a time. Once you’re down, you can’t just focus on the shots that you missed. You have to keep working at it.”

Chin attributed her quiz show success in part to the help of MIT friends and classmates, including one-time Jeopardy! winner and graduate student Phil Arevalo, classmate Kevin Kwock ’17, and six-time winner Pranjal Vachaspati ’14, who built a practice platform that mimicked the show’s click-to-answer format.

“I created my own buzzer system that read old Jeopardy! questions to prepare for the show,” says Vachaspati, who won $137,088 during seven appearances in 2016. “In fact, the buzzer might be toughest part.”

Chin is not the only alumna to receive mainstream exposure for her game show success. Julia Collins, MEng ’10, made history in 2014 with a 20-game winning streak—the second-longest in Jeopardy! history—and earnings of more than $430,000. The self-described “aspiring polymath” gained fame by live-tweeting using the Twitter handle @JeopardyJulia when her pre-recorded episodes aired, and she was featured on CNN and Good Morning America.

“It’s weird to watch yourself on television,” Collins says. “I can see the look of frustration on my face when I don’t know an answer. Plus, it’s interesting to see the dynamics of the other contestants.”

Collins echoes Vachaspati: choosing categories is not the most difficult part of the show.

“The buzzer might be the trickiest—it’s an art and a science,” she says. “I think I was locked out for buzzing in early a few times. But you just keep hitting it.”

One contestant had no trouble clicking the buzzer: Watson, the IBM supercomputer who defeated students from MIT and Harvard in a Jeopardy!-sanctioned exhibition in 2011. The computer system earned $53,601 while the MIT contingent, a trio of Sloan graduate students, struggled in Final Jeopardy and finished with $100.

“It was tough to prepare, since we had an exam that morning,” recalls Gautham Iyer, MBA ’12. “But every time we had the right answer, it felt like we were too late. Clicking the buzzer was tougher than we thought.”

More than a dozen MIT alumni have appeared on the show in the past decade, including Anurag Kashyap ’15, MEng ’16, who won the show’s Teen Tournament in 2008, and Anjali Tripathi ’09, who appeared as an 11-year-old during Kids Week and then won $25,000 at the Kids Week reunion as an MIT senior in 2008.

And the Institute’s recent connection to Jeopardy! is not limited to contestants. In July 2014, one episode featured an obscure once-offered MIT course, Comparative Media: American Pro Wrestling, in the category Pop Culture College Classes. The course’s lecturer, Sam Ford, SM ’07, was ecstatic about the shout-out.

“It was probably the most enjoyable class I’ve ever taught,” Ford says. “It looked at the cultural and media history of American pro wrestling. But one radio host did call it a sign of the apocalypse.”

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of MIT Technology Review magazine.

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