‘Jeopardy’ on his mind

‘Jeopardy’ on his mind

Englewood native Ittai Sopher achieves a two-game winning streak

Ittai Sopher, right, stands with Jeopardy host Ken Jennings. (Courtesy of Jeopardy Productions, Inc.)
Ittai Sopher, right, stands with Jeopardy host Ken Jennings. (Courtesy of Jeopardy Productions, Inc.)

Ittai Sopher started watching “Jeopardy” around 2010, when he was 13.

He loved the game and began trying to get on the show almost immediately. Now 26 and a television producer and journalist living in New Orleans, Mr. Sopher recently was selected to appear on the program. He competed in episodes that were taped in May and aired in July.

Mr. Sopher grew up in Englewood; he went to elementary school at the Moriah School and middle school and high school at SAR, across the Hudson in Riverdale.

He doesn’t remember anyone specifically introducing him to “Jeopardy.” “I think I just probably heard about it at one point,” he said. “It sounded like something I would really enjoy, so I just started watching it.”

He was hooked right away, and “Jeopardy” quickly became his favorite show.

If you want to appear on the program, the first step in the application process is taking an online test. Anyone can take it. Mr. Sopher began his “Jeopardy” quest by taking online tests to qualify for the kids or teen tournaments. He has taken an online test every year since he began watching the show, “so I’ve been trying to get on for, I guess, 13 years, which is pretty wild,” he said.

“I always kind of had this faith that it would happen at the right time.”

There were years when Mr. Sopher felt he hadn’t done particularly well on the test, and other years when he thought he had done very well. He’s not sure exactly how the selection process works, but he believes that being chosen to appear on the program requires some combination of skill and luck. He thinks it’s likely that first you have to pass the exam, and once you’ve done that, you’re probably entered into some type of lottery that selects potential contestants from the pool of test-passing candidates.

Candidates who pass that first hurdle go through a multistep audition process that includes additional trivia tests and an interview, Mr. Sopher said. This year was the first time that he made it past the online test. When he found out, he was thrilled, of course, but he did not think he would get on the show right away. “It was literally my first time making any progress with it,” he said. “I felt like I made it to level 2, you could call it, and was hoping that, maybe next year, I’d make it to level 3.”

But he did in fact advance through the entire process and was invited to appear on the program. “It would have been great to be on with Alex Trebek” — the show’s longtime host, who died in 2020 — “but I also have this theory about “Jeopardy” champions and which ages are most advantageous,” Mr. Sopher said. “I think I got on at a pretty good age, I think I have a pretty good depth of knowledge, and so I’m happy it happened now.

“I felt like it was something I prepared for my whole life,” he continued. “I’ve always had a lot of different interests. I don’t really think of myself as someone who’s deeply intelligent or deeply smart. I’m just very curious.”

In high school, Mr. Sopher was a member of SAR’s trivia team. The team competed against other schools and was undefeated during his senior year. “That was one of the most fun things I did in high school,” he said. “I was never an athlete at all — I was never someone who was on any sports team — so just to feel like I was actually good at something, and that I could be a part of a team, was really special for me.”

And Mr. Sopher watched a lot of “Jeopardy” over the years. He caught almost all the shows, but occasionally he did miss an episode or two. In 2022 and 2023, he made New Year’s resolutions to watch every single episode as it aired. “I just felt like I love this show and I want to make sure that I’m as prepared as possible when I take the online test,” he explained.

He still watches every episode. “Actually, I’ve become even more obsessed with ‘Jeopardy’ than I was before,” he said. “I love it even more now that I’m a part of it.”

Mr. Sopher found out he had been selected to appear on the show about a month before the program was taped, so he did not have much time to prepare. He felt that his Shakespeare knowledge wasn’t as strong as he wanted it to be, so he studied those works and watched a lot of films of Shakespeare’s plays. He also made flashcards detailing Greek and Roman mythology because he thought he didn’t know a lot about that topic. Having attended Jewish day schools, he didn’t have a lot of background in the New Testament, so that was another subject he focused on. He studied lists of British monarchs and of U.S. presidents, and he learned the names of all the world’s capital cities. “It’s just fun to learn things,” he said. “Now that ‘Jeopardy’ has happened, it’s interesting to think about what trivia looks like going forward in my life.”

And while Mr. Sopher is glad that he studied during the month before the show, he found that the knowledge he accumulated over the years was more useful than the facts he crammed at the end. Watching so many episodes of the show also turned out to be very helpful because it gave him “a feel for the kinds of questions they ask. That’s really important to know.”

“Jeopardy” is filmed at Sony Pictures in Los Angeles, and Mr. Sopher really enjoyed the time he spent in the studio. “Something that I wasn’t expecting, that was really fun, was just meeting all of the other contestants,” he said. “I think the part that I didn’t expect was that I would form such close bonds with the contestants — I made a lot of friends when I was out there.”

“Jeopardy” films five episodes in one day — the show airs Mondays through Fridays, so that’s a full week of episodes. All the contestants scheduled to play that day wait together. In each game, the winner of the previous game competes against two new players; a lottery is used to determine which new contestants will play in each game. The contestant who wins the last episode comes back for the next day of filming. “There’s kind of a nervous energy in the waiting room,” Mr. Sopher said. “I think there were some people who were just really excited that they got on the show. I think some people were probably really nervous.” But he found that everyone was very friendly. “It was just really fun meeting people who share my love for the show,” he said.

Being on the show itself was, of course, a highlight. “It’s always been a dream of mine,” he said. “And just playing the game was a lot of fun.”

Episodes are filmed a few months before they air, and contestants sign agreements that prohibit them from talking about the programs before they debut. So after Mr. Sopher’s long-awaited chance to play “Jeopardy,” he could not tell anyone how he fared. “It was very interesting to keep this kind of secret,” he said. “It was a little weird — I don’t keep a lot of secrets from people. I’m usually a pretty open-book kind of person.”

Work colleagues asked him about his experience and tried to get him to reveal what happened on the show. Of course, the non-disclosure agreement did not allow Mr. Sopher to discuss his time on the program, but he also wanted his friends and family to enjoy watching it, and he thought that knowing how the game ended “would just ruin the fun,” he said. So he was glad to have an excuse not to reveal anything.

Mr. Sopher watched the first episode, aired on Wednesday, July 12, with friends and family in New York City. He watched it again later that evening with local friends in Englewood. His goal was to maintain a good enough poker face throughout the show so he did not reveal — even subtly — what would happen.

He won the game, so he played again on the next episode, which aired the following day. Mr. Sopher watched that program with a smaller group of friends in New Orleans. He won his second game too, so he held the title of reigning “Jeopardy” champion for two days. Ultimately, he lost in his third episode, which aired on Friday, July 14, but over the course of the three games, he won more than $27,000.

And he had a great experience. “I’m really happy that I got two good games in, and I got to meet a lot of great people,” Mr. Sopher said. “And I made it to the end of the filming day, so it was pretty cool to experience all of that.

“I think any “Jeopardy” player probably wants to stick around for longer, but only a very small group of people can say that they won not only one episode, but two episodes. So far this season, which began in September 2022, only 35 people have won two episodes. I feel very grateful.”

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