In Person

You’re a Wizard, Julia: Getting to Know 20-Time Jeopardy! Champion Julia Collins

By posted at 6:00 am on June 16, 2014 0

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When I met last week with Julia Collins, who recently completed the second-longest winning streak in Jeopardy! history, we spent the first 10 minutes of the interview trying to figure out if we’d met before. She and I were in the same class at Wellesley College (2005! Go green class!) and went through the you-seem-vaguely-familiar ropes for a while (“Do you know Lizy?” “Yeah I know Joy and Lizy, I was Melissa’s roommate.” “Ohhhhh.”)

After her first win, on April 21, a mutual friend of ours from Wellesley posted the video on Facebook, which means that, yeah, I was rooting for Julia before it was cool. She won 20 games in all, second only to Ken Jennings’s 74-game-streak, and by the time her elimination in her 21st game aired on June 2, she was a Jeopardy! celebrity. The media had taken to her — or to the chance to use the term “winningest woman” as often as they could — and fans of the show loved her.

“I’m such a Julia fan!” my mom texted me after her 17th win. Earlier in the year Arthur Chu, who studied game theory before appearing on the show, drew ire for an 11-game winning streak that some considered aggressive or “unsportsmanlike,” and Julia was something of a palette cleanser for his detractors. Poised and congenial, Julia nonetheless dominated her 20 games, going into Final Jeopardy with more than double the closest contestant’s score most of the time.

As Alex Trebek said during the introduction to her 21st game, “We have a wonderfully delightful, friendly champion in Julia Collins. Until she gets into a game, then she becomes relentless.”

Julia told me that her success is due to a wide knowledge base, a good memory, the ability to not get rattled, and a knack with the buzzer, but that “I don’t have anything new strategically to bring to the conversation. You don’t need to know everything to win, you just need to know enough.”

coverJulia took Jeopardy!’s annual online qualifying test last January, and went to live auditions in Detroit last July. In December, the show called and told her they were flying her to California in mid-January to tape episodes that would air in April, giving her a little more than a month to prepare. As a long-time fan of the show, she knew to bulk up her knowledge of space, opera, and seasonal topics — in this case Easter, Baseball Hall of Fame inductions, the anniversary of Lexington & Concord, etc. She also checked The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Shakespeare out of the library to review each play’s plot, characters, and most famous quotes.

“A high school level knowledge of most things is what you need,” she told me, extolling breadth over depth of knowledge for success in Jeopardy!. I asked her what difference she thought her preparation made in her wins, and she estimated only about 5 or 10 percent of the questions she answered correctly were from her studying. “It made a difference but not a huge difference, but it might have been enough.”

Besides preparing for the questions, Julia had to fill out a contestant questionnaire — used to determine what Trebek will talk to you about in the mini-interview after the first commercial break — including questions like “What’s the most romantic thing that’s ever happened to you?” and “Tell us about a travel adventure that you’ve had.” Julia noted how hard it is to come up with things that will be pithy and interesting that you can summarize in one or two sentences. “As someone noted online,” she said, “it seemed like I hit the bottom of the barrel pretty quickly.”

“I quickly learned,” she continued, “that when Alex asks you something you say yes and you move the conversation forward. Disagreeing with him will just make you look stupid, which is something I made the mistake of doing. He was like, ‘Well why didn’t you try out for the college and high school tournaments?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t think they were happening,’ and he was like, ‘I think they were.’ As awkward as it was on TV it was much more awkward in person.”

Upcoming contestants are also told to bring three outfits with them to the tapings, and Julia really shone in this department with what Jezebel called “an A+ monochromatic sweater game.” It was revealed to this reporter that Julia’s sweater of choice is the J.Crew Tippi, which she owns in at least 5 colors and a few matching cardigans. She amassed this collection during her time traveling as a business consultant, and found them to be perfect for the Jeopardy studio. “They don’t wrinkle,” she enthused, “They’re warm but not too warm.” She also rotated in one or two pieces from Banana Republic, which is what she was wearing when she was eliminated. Draw your own conclusions.

Jeopardy! tapes five shows a day, two days a week. On each taping day a group of 12 or 13 contestants arrive at 8 in the morning for rehearsal, make-up, pictures with Trebek, and to go over their interview topics with the producers before taping a week’s worth of shows. The two new contestants for each game are chosen randomly right before it’s taped, and the remaining contestants watch from the audience until they’re chosen for a game. This means that the contestants in a Friday show have, in this case, seen Julia steamroll through eight other contestants before it’s their turn, which Julia admits adds an “intimidation factor.” Because Julia’s first appearance was on a Monday show, it also means that she won her first $100,000 in one day.

Julia traveled to California three separate times in January and February to tape her 21 appearances against 42 other contestants. I asked Julia at what point during the pre-show these poor souls typically found out they’d be facing a juggernaut of a returning champion. “Right at the beginning,” she said, almost apologetically, “it was really awkward.” Most Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune contestants stay in a hotel near the studio, and a shuttle comes in the morning to collect them. On the day that Julia would tape her 6th-10th shows, she remembers listening to the other contestants on the ride over talk about how excited and nervous they were and wondering what the day would be like. “I didn’t want to ruin the moment,” she said, keeping mum until they got to the studio and the producers introduced her to the other contestants as the returning champion. “Julia!” they said, “tell them how much you’ve won!”

Julia lives in Wilmette, just north of Chicago, and when she was home in between tapings she would continue her prep work, although she was confident she was on the right track. “After five games I came home and was reading about Jeopardy! strategy and I was like, ‘This is stupid, why change what I’m already doing?’ I studied some more, but why mess with what’s working?”

Her 21st game, she said, “just kind of didn’t go my way. It was a close game but I’d won other games that were close. It’s not like I saw the categories and thought, ‘This spells my doom.’”

The game started as most of them did, with Julia taking an early lead and then leaping ahead in Double Jeopardy, even betting all her money on a Daily Double, which she almost never did. At one point about halfway through the second round she was about $1,000 ahead of both contestants. Then she missed her second Daily Double, and Brian, the contestant on the far right, went on a streak. They traded the lead a few times and Brian retook it on the final question, putting him $1600 ahead going into Final Jeopardy.

“The big difference was that I’d never gone into Final Jeopardy in second place before,” Julia said, “and I knew he would bet to win.” Brian is an investment manager from Massachusetts, and Julia remembers learning that during the pre-show and thinking “this is not somebody who’s gonna be nervous about risk-taking. I knew he would bet to win.”

coverThe category was “Oscar-winning writers.” Recognizing her position, Julia bet all her money, something she’d never done before, and Brian bet to beat her if she did. The clue was: “Winning for 1999, this New England writer is the last person to win an Oscar for adapting his own novel.” The answer was John Irving with Cider House Rules.

“I just didn’t know it. I haven’t seen the movie. I’ve read other John Irving books but not that one. I didn’t know it and nothing was going to make me come up with it.” Julia guessed Michael Chabon and lost her $11,000, Brian wrote down John Irving for the win. When Trebek reads Brian’s correct answer, you can hear Julia sigh, a sigh echoed in front of television screens across the nation.

[If you’d like to have your heart broken by that sigh, you can watch it and all of Julia’s Jeopardy appearance on the Julia Collins YouTube channel, which she does not operate herself.]

There are a few questions that haunt her — a Daily Double about Beethoven came to mind — but not the ones that she just didn’t know, so in a way it’s better that she went out on a question that stumped her rather than one she should have remembered, or one she knew but didn’t have the money to win. After taping her 21st game she came back to Wilmette and had about 2 months to wait until she was on the air.

She went on a five-week trip to Paris and London, which couldn’t avoid raising a few eyebrows. “All my friends were like, ‘Does this mean you won Jeopardy!?’ and I was like ‘Shhhhh.’” When her episodes starting airing in April she set up the Twitter account @JeopardyJulia and live-tweeted most games with insider info like “Alex mentioned afterward that he suggested the writers add “Southern state” to the #FinalJeopardy clue” or “The name changed from Siam to Thailand in July, 1939… I guess after the encyclopedia came out. #DailyDouble #OverthoughtIt.”

She left her consulting job before competing on Jeopardy!, and due to her success on the show isn’t in a rush to find something new. She mentions that she’s open to a career change and I wondered if she, like Ken Jennings and Arthur Chu before her, would consider using her Jeopardy status in new projects (Chu is now a Daily Beast contributor and Jennings is basically a professional Jeopardy champion).

“I’m kind of exploring some possibilities, seeing what’s out there,” she said. “People say find what you love and do it for the rest of your life. Well, I found it and now I’m done. I’d like to see if there are new opportunities that come out of this.”

I asked her if she’d had any idea, or hope, that she’d go so far in Jeopardy!. “Before I went out I had three trains of thought about it,” she said. The first was just that she’d do well, enjoy herself, and leave with dignity. The second was that she’d really love to win one game, and be able to call herself a Jeopardy! champion. But “when you let your imagination run free,” she said, “everyone wonders if they’ll be the next Ken Jennings. It’s like if you’re an 11-year-old kid and you’re like ‘I’m going to get a letter form Hogwarts because I’m a wizard like Harry Potter.’”





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