Pittsburgh ‘Jeopardy!’ champ shares behind-the-scenes details from Tournament of Champions | TribLIVE.com
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Pittsburgh ‘Jeopardy!’ champ shares behind-the-scenes details from Tournament of Champions

Natasha Lindstrom
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“Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek stands with Connellsville native and Carnegie Mellon University graduate Lindsey Shultz.

One Final Jeopardy! clue stood between a chance at the $250,000 grand prize and getting knocked out of the game show’s Tournament of Champions.

And Lindsey Shultz didn’t know the answer.

“In a 1644 letter he wrote, ‘We live submerged at the bottom of an ocean air,’ which is what his invention measures,” show host Alex Trebek read aloud to Shultz, 36, of Pittsburgh and her two fellow contestants during the semifinals of the show’s Tournament of Champions.

In those high-pressured seconds behind her podium, Shultz’s mind raced.

“So (Trebek) reads the question, and I knew that the quote was referring to whoever it was who invented the barometer — and my brain is like, ‘We don’t know who that is,’ ” the Connellsville native recalled.

Shultz — a health care analyst in harms reduction who studied medicine, science and public health at Carnegie Mellon, Columbia and Cornell universities — started scanning her mind for types of measurements related to mercury, air pressure and atmosphere whose names might give her clues. No such luck.

“The next thing I went down to was a series of gas laws in chemistry that are named after people,” Shultz said. “So I went through the gas laws, and I picked the scientist that sounded the most Italian of about the right era.”

Her answer – “Who is Avogadro?” – was wrong, clearing the way for high school physics teacher Francois Barcomb to advance to the tournament’s finals by correctly identifying inventor Evangelista Torricelli.

Shultz’s flurried-yet-focused reasoning gives a glimpse into the mind of one of the past year’s strongest “Jeopardy!” players. Shultz took home more than $115,000 in prize money from her tournament earnings plus her prior four-game winning streak.

The Tribune-Review caught up with Shultz following her the airing of her appearance in the 10-day Tournament of Champions.

Barcomb and Emma Boettcher, the librarian who knocked off professional gambler James Holzhauer during his record-breaking run this season, advanced to the finals against Holzhauer, who ultimately won the tournament.

No hard feelings seemed to persist among the tournament’s 15 contenders. They grew close during three days of taping and socializing at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, Calif., and remain in frequent contact, Shultz said. The eclectic bunch from across the country maintains an active group chat. After one of them joked about taking up knitting, he made and sent to each contestant a set of soccer-type scarves.

“It turned out to be the most amazing group of people, the most ridiculous bonding experience,” Shultz said. “We all follow each other on social media. We’ve basically been talking to each other nonstop. In the last two weeks, I don’t think I’ve talked to anyone else.”

The Connellsville native said that her time on the show has taught her that outperforming formidable, trivia-trained scholars with a wide breadth of knowledge requires not only fast-paced decision making, but also good timing, physical stamina and a little luck.

Here are four behind-the-scenes things she’s observed as a “Jeopardy!” contestant:

1). Playing “Jeopardy!” is more physical than you probably think.

The 5-foot-tall contestant from Pittsburgh knew she had a slight physical disadvantage compared to her competitors, one who was nearly 6 and a half feet tall.

“I was by far the shortest person … It was harder for me to hold the buzzer, literally because it was a little bit too big for my hand,” Shultz said. “It’s a way more of physical game than it might seem like watching from home. To be able to get your rhythm and get your timing down with the buzzer is as important, if not more important, than the reviewing and preparation you did.”

So the cameras could pan across seemingly even heights, Shultz spent most games propped up by about a foot on a hydraulic lift at the base of her podium.

2). Timing differs from what TV viewers see.

Filming the tournament was a “whirlwind” three days, with each round continuing for about 2.5 hours straight.

When not filming, the rest of the contestants were sequestered to a green room, where they bonded and managed their adrenaline while watching movies such as “Shaun of the Dead” and playing an off-brand Jenga game.

The episodes are heavily edited to fit TV’s 30-minute time slot.

The one to three TV-seconds it takes for the show’s judges to rule on a questionable answer, for instance, actually takes a full 10 minutes or more. During that time, the contestants have to turn their backs to the board and wait while producers scurry about.

“It’s mostly just awkward,” Shultz said with a chuckle. “They have a whole staff of experts on hand. They had to double-check a question about something to do with an animal, and they had a staff of zoologists that they keep on speed dial.”

3). During a regular game, taking second-place could mean barely breaking even.

The show doesn’t cover the costs of flights or hotel stays during a regular game, and the $2,000 prize for placing second during non-tournament games might barely cover the costs it took to get there, Shultz said.

The show did provide airfare as well as a stay at The Culver Hotel — a posh, historic hotel known for hosting the actors who played the Munchkins in “The Wizard of Oz” — for those invited to the Tournament of Champions.

Shultz took home $15,000 — $5,000 for the quarterfinals and $10,000 for the semis. That’s on top of the pre-taxed winnings of just over $100,000 from the four games she won to qualify for the year-end tournament.

4). Alex Trebek not only is as likable in person as he appears on TV, he also goes out of his way to say something nice to contestants who don’t fare well.

“He’s funny, and he’s witty,” Shultz said.

She and the others have picked up on a few of his catch phrases, such as saying, “Good for you!” when he’s excited about a backstory, and “Riiiiight” when someone shares a quirky anecdote that puzzles him.

“He’s really generous. He chats a little at the end of every day,” Shultz said. “If someone hasn’t had a particularly good day, he comes up, and he says some encouraging things.”

The first day of the tournament’s filming, Trebek, 79, announced he was resuming chemotherapy treatments for pancreatic cancer. Trebek choked up at the start of the tournament while honoring Larry Martin, the winner of the 2018 Teachers Tournament, who died of pancreatic cancer in January.The tournament contestants wore purple ribbons for the cause and raised money for cancer research.

“This last year has really been a privilege of getting to participate,” Shultz said. “Given the timing of Alex’s illness, it’s hard to describe how lucky we all felt that we got to be a part of this.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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