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The ‘Jeopardy!’ Tournament of Champions Is Here to Showcase the Nation’s Greatest Nerds

Austin is back, but this time he has rivals


Can you feel it in the air? Do you see it glowing azurely from the windows of octogenarians’ townhouses? Do you hear the dulcet tones of Johnny Gilbert and the promise of glory and riches? This is the JEOPARDY! TOURNAMENT! OF CHAMPIONS!

But before we get into the competition: I encourage you to watch the above official Jeopardy! promo video, which introduces us to the leonine ferocity of the tournament’s 15 über-brained competitors by showing them (1) awkwardly mingle, (2) awkwardly shake hands, and (3) awkwardly eat bananas. One contestant says he’s “gotten quite a bit of fan mail from nice elderly ladies.”

We are now halfway through the two-week, biannual competition, and the pool has been narrowed down to nine bloodthirsty teachers, engineers, and microbiologists willing to do whatever it takes—namely, politely recite arcane facts and tell quirky proposal stories—to win the tournament’s $250,000 grand prize. This pool of semifinalists includes bearded bartender Austin Rogers, whose 12-day, $411,000 streak earlier this fall first mortified and then charmed host Alex Trebek and divided a nation wary of nerds who are capable of cussin’. It’s not much of a stretch to say that Austin, whose game strategy consists of Bet Everything, All The Time and had Trebek all but doing loop-the-loops of the stage by the end of his reign, is the best—and certainly most viral—thing to happen to Jeopardy! in some time.

The program seems keen on making Austin the face of the tournament, so when he entered his quarterfinal matchup and could scarcely get a word, much less a clue, in over fellow contestant Alan Lin, you could sense a subtle discomfort that in a less staid location might have involved sirens and broken glass. Austin entered Double Jeopardy! with just $600, working his way back into the competition only to bet and lose everything on one of his beloved true Daily Doubles. (Clue: “A pirogue is one type of this, a canoe made from one log.” Austin said kayak; it's a dugout.) Then Alan—who seems very nice but is now my enemy—found the other Daily Double and bet $5. Five dollars! Five, which is one more than four and one less than six and approximately a bajillion away from the maximum possible. Shrewd? For someone with an uncatchable lead over his two competitors, absolutely. Fun? No!!! Go to Jeopardy! jail, ya dweeb.

Regular coverage of the country’s no. 1 quiz show is a joyous thing. You get publications thrilled by the presence of favorite topics (“JEOPARDY Tournament of Champions Features Broadway 2017 Category—How'd You Do?” asked Broadway World; “Indian Americans featured as a whole category on Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions quarterfinal,” cooed the News India Times). Mostly, though, it’s local outlets celebrating local nerds making good (“Keller teacher returns to ‘Jeopardy!’ for Tournament of Champions,” wrote the Fort Worth Star-Telegram; “Vermilion man returning on ‘Jeopardy!,’” said the Sandusky Register; “Moravia teacher narrowly misses spot in ‘Jeopardy!’ Tournament of Champions semifinals,” lamented Auburn, New York’s The Citizen). The Journal News, the dedicated tome of the lower Hudson Valley, opted to refresh its Austin Rogers (hometown: Pound Ridge, New York) content with a list of other locals who’ve made it onto TV (see: a runner-up on The X Factor).

The tournament has also brought back the merciless trivia assassin slash love of my life, Lilly Chin, who comes to us by way of humiliating all of her fellow scholars in the Jeopardy! College Tournament earlier this year (grand prize: $100,000). Lilly is now—sniff—all grown up, hoodie-less and working on a robotics Ph.D. at MIT, where she will hopefully learn how to build another Trebekatron 5000 before this one’s bolts (age: 77) or contract (extended through the 2020 season) wear out. Root for Lilly and you’ll be far from alone: “You’re a star in more ways than one right now!” Trebek gushed when she explained that her “spiciest memelord” answer in February had gained some notoriety.

Our other returnees include Buzzy Cohen, Lisa Schlitt, Andrew Pau, Pranjal Vachaspati, Jason Sterlacci, and Tim Aten, who looks the way that Jeopardy! feels. The two-day final takes place over Thursday and Friday. Will Austin’s betting habit do him in? Will Alan’s wise wagering save him and/or burst a blood vessel in my head? Is Hunter Appler, who failed to make it past the quarterfinals but revealed that he used his regular-season winnings to take blacksmithing lessons in North Carolina, going to reappear with 18th-century weaponry? Can I keep screaming BUZZY IS A POOR MAN’S AUSTIN at my TV, or will my neighbors finally call the police? How hyped is Trebek?

Tune in and find out.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated the number of contestants in the Tournament of Champions (it’s 15, not 16) and the number of semifinalists (it’s nine, not eight).