Campus & Community

For $1,000, who won on ‘Jeopardy!’?

4 min read

Harvard preceptor spent week as game-show champion

Sure, Harvard undergraduates have the opportunity to learn from leaders in their fields. Nobel laureates, global leaders, and world-class scholars all teach at the University. Thanks to Joon Pahk, a preceptor in physics, students can add a new academic feat to that list: seven-time “Jeopardy!” champion.

Until his loss on Oct. 12, Pahk ’00 enjoyed a weeklong run as the top player on America’s favorite quiz show, taking home more than $200,000 in prize money, and earning an invitation to return for the annual tournament of champions.

“I had so much fun. Everything was so far above my expectations. It was just a matter of counting your blessings,” Pahk said. “I’m a much bigger fan of the show now. I’m a fan for life.”

To hear Pahk tell it, though, he very nearly missed his date with game-show fame. Never an avid watcher, Pahk first heard about the show’s online test — the first step in the process of becoming a contestant — from friends on Facebook last February, and decided to take part on a whim.

“I had not given any thought to trying out,” he said recently, while sitting in his Science Center classroom/lab. “But some friends started asking if anybody wanted to take it, so I said, ‘Sure, I’ll try it. I like trivia.’ I figured I had nothing to lose.”

The online test was followed months later by an in-person audition in Boston, earning Pahk a spot in the contestant pool, a group of about 2,000 people who have qualified for the show. It wasn’t until August — six months after taking the online test on the spur of the moment — that Pahk was selected for a taping.

Before leaving for the taping in Los Angeles, however, Pahk had one final hurdle to get over: checking with his colleagues to make sure he could take the time off. “They were excited about it. They thought it was awesome,” he said.

But while viewers saw Pahk win seven nights in a row, his actual time as champion stretched over just two days of taping. For efficiency’s sake, most game shows tape multiple shows in a single day. “Jeopardy!” tapes five shows a day every other Tuesday and Wednesday.

In Pahk’s case, he spent the Monday before his taping working to prepare for the start of the fall semester before catching a flight to Los Angeles. It wasn’t until his second day of the taping that he was drawn into a game, and almost before he knew it had happened, he was a five-time winner. He returned the next week as defending champion, and won two more times before being defeated.

“It was incredibly fast,” he said. “I was just trying to catch my breath during the commercial breaks. At the end of that first day, I called my wife and told her I’d actually won $146,000.”

Though his championship run was cut short, Pahk did manage to make “Jeopardy!” history by making the two largest wagers on “Daily Double” questions in show history, of $16,400 and $14,200. In both cases, Pahk said, the bets came in math-based categories, a subject he knows well, and both gave him the chance to put the game out of reach for his opponents.

“It was such a gift,” he said. “How often do you get a ‘Daily Double’ that you know you’re going to know?”

Does he have plans for his more than $200,000 in winnings?

“My wife and I had talked about it, and we were hoping I might win a game or two so we could use the money for a good family vacation,” Pahk said. “I’m a huge soccer fan, so we’ve been eyeing the World Cup in Brazil. After two games, though, I realized I had enough for more than one trip.”

His seven-day run was good enough to qualify him as one of the top 15 players of the past year, earning him a spot in the annual tournament. In late September, he returned to Los Angeles for another two days to compete in the tournament, which will air in early November.

“The reaction has been overwhelming,” he added. “The biggest thing I did not anticipate was that pretty much everyone I’ve ever known would contact me. I’ve heard from people I haven’t talked to since high school. That’s probably been my favorite part of this whole experience.”