Student competes in college ‘Jeopardy!’

Sophomore Xiaoke Ying said participating in quiz bowl tournaments in high school prepared her for competing in Jeopardy’s College Championship. As a finalist, she will have the chance to win the $100,000 grand prize. (Photo courtesy of Jeopardy Productions, Inc)

While Xiaoke Ying never watched “Jeopardy!” growing up, an email advertising the popular game show in October piqued her interest as a trivia lover. 

Months later under the blaring fluorescent lights of the Jeopardy set, Ying competed against two students from Yale University and University of Texas at Austin, fielding questions on topics such as world history and American literature. 

Ying, a sophomore majoring in business of cinematic arts, won her semifinal matchup of “Jeopardy!” College Championship Wednesday. Ying went into Final Jeopardy in third place with a score of $10,200. Ying and the two other semifinalists answered the final question on presidential geography incorrectly, but Ying wagered only $2,000, while her opponents bet the majority of their earnings, securing her a place as a finalist. 

“I wasn’t very strong in [the category] because I don’t know my presidents very well, so I figured I should just try and lose as little money as possible,” Ying said. 

Ying came in third in her quarterfinal match, but her final score of $12,800 qualified her as a wild card in the semifinals. She said the win in her second match came as a shock after trailing her two opponents most of the game. 

“It definitely felt surreal,” Ying said. “It also felt nice that now there would be some female representation in the finals.” 

Ying said that while she knew most of the responses to the questions, buzzing in quickly proved challenging under pressure. 

“In terms of the questions, I think almost all the contestants know all the answers,” Ying said. “It’s just a matter of plugging in.” 

Ying said the video game category helped her find her footing. She answered clues on the classic arcade game “Q*bert” and the game series “The Last of Us” correctly. 

“I don’t play a lot of video games, but I do watch a lot of “Let’s Play”s and things like that, so when I saw that [category] and I was able to get those answers I was really glad about it,” Ying said. 

Ying taped her matches over two days in February at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City before Gov. Gavin Newsom implemented the stay-at-home order, which requires Californians to stay indoors as much as possible to help curb the coronavirus outbreak. 

“Jeopardy!” films a week’s worth of episodes per day, so the entire College Championship occurred over 48 hours. Ying said the marathon taping style left her waiting to film her match most of the day. 

“I didn’t realize that we would be stuck in the green room all day because we weren’t allowed to watch prior episodes, so that was kind of a tiring experience,” Ying said. 

While the taping days felt long, Ying said the “Jeopardy!” crew kept the contestants focused between rounds. The coordinators helped quell any anxieties about going on live television by offering general encouragement and advice on speedily answering questions. 

“The contestant coordinators are all really great, and they come on during commercial breaks and before Final Jeopardy! to give you a pep talk and … that really made it so much better when you might be nervous about it,” Ying said. 

Ying felt proud of her performance in her first match despite her nerves. 

“I was pretty nervous about doing well and not disappointing people who knew I was gonna be there,” Ying said. 

To secure a place on the show, Ying first took an online test of 50 general knowledge questions after receiving an email about trying out for the program in October. Based on the results of the test, she then attended an in-person audition in November, which included a written exam, screen test and short interview. 

“Jeopardy!” senior contestant coordinator Corina Nusu said the second stage of the audition process narrows applicants down to 200 potential contestants. The coordinators then chose 15 college students from schools across the country to compete for the $100,000 grand prize. 

“We’re looking for contestants that are having a lot of fun with their audition, who know how to play the game,” Nusu said. 

According to Nusu, it was Ying’s dynamic audition that helped land her a spot on the show. 

“She’s very strong, she’s a very determined player — we love that,” Nusu said. “She has a vast knowledge of many different subjects, which also works to her benefit, and she was just very energetic and fun and what we were looking for [in] the show.” 

After learning she qualified for the tournament, Ying only brushed up on her geography, taking online quizzes on state capitals and bodies of water for 30 minutes a day a few weeks before the competition. But she didn’t prepare too intensely for the taping as she typically follows current events to hone her trivia knowledge. 

“I didn’t prepare much beyond what I usually do, just reading whatever I find interesting and absorbing that information,” Ying said. 

Ying said the greatest asset for her “Jeopardy!” performance was participating in quiz bowl while attending Arcadia High School, an academic competition that tests participants on general knowledge topics, including history and literature. 

“I was on quiz bowl and history bowl all four years and that was definitely a great experience with friends and it definitely did help with trivia knowledge,” Ying said. “I think everyone who was competing had been on quiz bowl in high school.”

Christopher Schultz, Ying’s high school quiz bowl adviser, emphasized her versatile trivia knowledge as vital to her success on “Jeopardy!”

“[Ying] is just generally a good all-around player whereas a lot of people have specialties when it comes to quiz bowl. We’ll usually have a kid that’s a history specialist, another person that’s a literature specialist and so on,” Schultz said. “She works as an all-around person, she could answer questions in every category.” 

Schultz also said that Ying consistently competed in quiz bowl tournaments against other high schools throughout her four years on the team. She also went with one of the two qualifying teams from Arcadia to the National Academy Quiz Tournament her sophomore through senior years. 

“Over the course of the time that she was at Arcadia High School, she played in 27 tournaments, which is a lot and ended up being more than any other player that we’ve had in the last [few] years or so,” Schultz said. 

Ying said that while she took the competition seriously, she most enjoyed befriending the other contestants. 

“All of us who were there have become really close, and we still talk every day in a group chat, and we have Zoom calls almost every week,” Ying said. 

Ying will compete in the two-day championship final Thursday and Friday against students from the University of Minnesota and Indiana University.