Sam Spencer, a CSL PhD student, got the chance of a lifetime: an opportunity to compete on the Jeopardy! game show. On Friday, May 26, Spencer played on the popular trivia program, placing second.During the course of the game, he was successful on a “True Daily Double,” an all-in wager that temporarily catapulted him into the lead, and he was the only contestant to correctly answer the Final Jeopardy question. His unusual wager of $3,428 was a tribute to his favorite college football team, the Auburn Tigers, commemorating their famous “Kick Six” victory over archrival Alabama.
During the contestant interviews, host Alex Trebek asked Spencer about a time when he threw himself a surprise birthday party, saying “you sound like you’re my kind of guy.”
“It was a lot of fun, and something I’ve been thinking about doing for a long time,” said Spencer, who is advised by CSL Professors R. Srikant and Yuliy Baryshnikov. “It was cool to meet the other contestants and the staff, compete, and learn about how TV shows are made.”
To be eligible to participate, Spencer completed an online test of 50 questions in about 15 minutes. After that, he was invited to an in-person audition in Chicago, which required taking another test, playing a mock version of the game, and an on-camera interview.
“In addition to testing your knowledge, they want to see how you handle the game flow logistics of choosing categories and dollar amounts, using the buzzer, and answering in the form of a question. They also want to assess if you have the personality and demeanor to be good in front of a TV camera,” said Spencer.Approximately 100,000 people register for the online test each year, a few thousand of those are invited to audition, and ultimately only about 400 are selected to be contestants.
Around mid-January of this year, he got a call from a producer to be on the show, which was taped in Culver City, California.
“It was a big surprise to get the call—you just audition and then wait to hear from them,” Spencer said. “Once I was in, it was great to be a part of the show. The Jeopardy! community is very supportive.”
Spencer had a knack for trivia and competition at an early age. As a member of the Quiz Bowl team at Auburn High School in Alabama, which won state and national championships, he learned to “think on his feet” and “practice quick recall.”
He also frequently plays at trivia nights around Champaign-Urbana, which he said helps keep his skills sharp with “robust competition.” Spencer is one of several University of Illinois students, faculty, and staff who have competed on Jeopardy! in recent years, including Pranjal Vachaspati, CS PhD student advised by CSL’s Tandy Warnow who appeared in 6 episodes in 2016 and won $137,088, Sean Anderson, College of Law lecturer who appeared on four episodes in 2015 and won $72,600, and others.
“My quiz bowl coaches, Emily Sparrow and William Pickens, invested countless hours in helping us build a broad knowledge base, and also taught me self-confidence in pressure situations, sportsmanship, social skills, and how to win and lose with class—important lessons that have served me well,” said Spencer.
“It’s really cool that we have as many Jeopardy! players from Champaign-Urbana as we do,” he said. “It speaks to the caliber of bright people we have here.”
Spencer is pursuing his PhD in electrical and computer engineering, and his research investigates how information flows in social networks. He received his undergraduate degree with majors in math and computational and applied math from Rice University.
“Unfortunately there weren’t many engineering questions,” Spencer joked. “But it’s nice to know that all the other random knowledge I’ve picked up along the way finally proved useful.”
If you were unable to watch the show, you can view Spencer's episode here.