Monica Thieu was browsing the Internet when she noticed the game show Jeopardy! had open auditions online.
“I just really enjoy trivia,” she said. “I thought, ‘Why not? What's the worst that could happen? I didn’t really think I would make it farther than the first stage, but I'm glad I did.”
Good thinking. Thieu, a student at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, won $100,000 in the Jeopardy! College Championship in February. She joins two other Jeopardy! contestants with UNT connections - Catherine Whitten (M.E. ’04), a history teacher in the Plano school district, who won $10,000 in the Teachers Tournament in February, and Jaime Thomson, administration coordinator for the UNT System, who appeared on the show in 2006.
The test is the first step to getting on the show.
“It was the hardest test I’d ever taken,” said Thomson, who had 15 seconds to answer the questions when she took it in person in Houston rather than taking it online like Thieu did.
Once they pass the test, prospective contestants then must audition in person by playing a couple of rounds with buzzers. After waiting a few months, they get the call to appear on the show.
Thieu studied moderately, looking through an archive website to look at the clues from previous tournaments and reading up on subjects she didn't know as much about, such as literature.
And then they made their way to Los Angeles, where the show is taped.
The contestants got to see the whole studio, underwent make-up and watched as the other episodes were being filmed.
Whitten said the experience of meeting other contestants and going through rehearsals was so overwhelming, she didn’t have time to be nervous.
“Once the taping started it was a different story,” Whitten said. “While I was certainly incredibly nervous on stage before the cameras started rolling, once the game started and Alex started reading the clues, I was just completely focused on trying to ring in and answer as often as I could.”
In fact, the buzzer plays an important element to winning.
“Timing is everything,” Thomson said.
Thomson was far ahead in the first two rounds, even acing a category called “Causes of Death.” But she only bet on the minimum amount of money when she got a Daily Double, in which contestants can choose how much money the answer is worth.
“You have to be kind of a gambler,” she said.
And, she added, contestants should be good at math. During the final Jeopardy! round, she wagered a good portion of her money – but she couldn’t think of the correct question for the “Women in History” answer.
“I had nothing. I didn’t finish drawing my question mark,” said Thomson, who won $2,000. But that was OK by her, since she had been nervous. “I was relieved because I didn’t have to be on TV again.”
For Thieu, her victory almost seemed unreal.
“I had been so absorbed in the game that the realization that I had won $100,000 was nowhere,” Thieu said. “I was crazy excited that I had won the game and the tournament, but everything happened like a dream after that and I didn't really grasp the prize part of it for a week or more after.”
Thieu will use a small portion of her prize money for shopping, but most of it will go toward college tuition. After TAMS, she plans to attend Stanford University and then go to medical school. She could still earn more money - she will participate in the Tournament of Champions later this year.
Whitten won the quarterfinal match but was eliminated in the semifinals. She went home with $10,000, most of which will go into savings and some will go for traveling.
No matter the amount of money they won, the contestants’ time on the show was priceless.
“This was such an amazing experience,” Whitten said. “Not only did it mean accomplishing one of my lifelong goals, but I hope that it also showed my students that they can dream big and set big goals for themselves.”