Ittai Sopher, who grew up in Englewood, has been a huge fan of the game show “Jeopardy” since 2010, when he was 13 years old.
He tried to get onto the program for years — he’s still not exactly sure how the selection process works but believes that being chosen to appear on the program requires some combination of skill and luck — and finally succeeded last year.
During episodes that aired in July, Mr. Sopher, who now lives in New Orleans, where he is a television producer, enjoyed a two-day winning streak. He lost in his third appearance, after winning more than $27,000 over the course of his participation.
And he thought his “Jeopardy” experience would end there.
“There’s a certain number of games that you typically have to win to make it into ‘Jeopardy’s’ annual Tournament of Champions,” Mr. Sopher explained. And that tournament “was basically the only ticket back as of a few years ago.” If you won five games, you automatically qualified for the tournament. In years when there were not enough five-game winners, tournament spots were available for contestants with four wins, and sometimes even to those with three wins. The tournament, however, is not open to players who have won two games.
But last year, “Jeopardy” started a new tournament — the Champions Wildcard Tournament – which is open to players who win between one and three games during the season. The show actually had announced the new wildcard concept a few weeks before Mr. Sopher’s episodes were recorded, but he had been so preoccupied with preparing that he had missed the news.
And during the taping of one of the episodes, at a point when the contestants were not on stage, the live audience, which included Mr. Sopher’s mother and brothers, was told that any contestant who won a game would be called back for the new tournament.
After he lost in his third game, Mr. Sopher mentioned to his mother that he was really happy that he had won at all, and that he had won twice, but that it was too bad that he hadn’t won enough games to qualify for the Tournament of Champions. “She said, ‘What about the Champions Wildcard?’” Mr. Sopher said. “I thought she must have misunderstood something. But it turned out there was a new tournament. It was very exciting.”
Mr. Sopher was invited to participate in the Wildcard about a month before the show was scheduled to tape. During that month, he watched a lot of old “Jeopardy” episodes. “They don’t really repeat questions verbatim, but they do repeat subject matter,” he said. “So I feel like that’s why it’s good to watch a lot of the reruns – there are certain things that they ask about a lot.”
At one point, he came across a question that was very similar to a question he had answered incorrectly during his time on the show last year. “I thought, if only I had watched that rerun before I was on. So I was just trying to maximize my exposure.”
In the month leading up to the tournament, Mr. Sopher watched four or five episodes every day. “I love the show, so it was a labor of love,” he said. “It didn’t feel like ‘I have to watch all these episodes.’ It’s the most fun thing to prepare for, in my opinion.”
Ken Jennings is now the host of “Jeopardy,” but in 2004, as a contestant, he had a 74-game winning streak. Mr. Sopher was only 7 years old at the time and was not yet watching the show, but in the course of his preparation for the tournament, he watched all of Mr. Jennings’ episodes. “He’s the longest running ‘Jeopardy’ champion, so watching them was cool,” Mr. Sopher said.
He also read through an encyclopedia and started watching the Ken Burns documentary “Baseball” because “I don’t really know a lot about sports and I felt that was a good way to learn more about the topic,” Mr. Sopher said. And he practiced some of the technical skills the game requires, like pressing the buzzer quickly.
But, in a way, Mr. Sopher said, he was actually preparing for months before he found out about the tournament. After his time on the show last year, he joined some online trivia leagues. “I had gotten more involved in the trivia community, and I felt like I was taking my interest to a new level,” he said. And he felt very much at home in that community. “I found a lot of people with similar interests. It’s like you meet people and you’re kind of speaking the same language as them, and that was really exciting.”
How did Mr. Sopher’s second experience on the show compare with his first?
“I think I was less nervous this time,” he said. “I really wanted to win the first time around — it was very important to me, it was always a dream of mine to win — and I think that now that I had already won two games, I felt a little less pressure.” He also felt more confident in his abilities this time. “The first time you go up there, you don’t know what the buzzer feels like, you don’t know how it’s going to feel to be on camera,” he said. This time there were fewer unknowns, so he was a little calmer.
And Mr. Sopher had a great time at the tournament. He enjoyed spending time with the other players and he felt very comfortable on the program. “I really like the layout of the show,” he said. “I like how it’s so fast paced; I like how it’s competitive. It’s almost like a sport. I feel like I’ve never been particularly good at sports, and it’s nice to have a level of confidence in something.
“And being up there, even though it’s stressful leading up to it, being up there, on the stage, is probably the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.”
The tournament episode he played in aired on January 26. Mr. Sopher was in the lead for the first few minutes of the game, but ultimately fell behind the other two contestants. “I don’t think I was that disappointed,” he said. “I think I was just excited that I got to be there.
“A lot of the game is dependent on different variables,” Mr. Sopher continued. Variables like the questions, how many times you get to the buzzer quickly enough, and whether you land on the “daily double” clues.
His favorite categories are United States history, geography, music, and movies, and he answered a number of questions about those subjects. He also correctly answered a sports question, which felt important because “I don’t really know a lot about sports.” And he answered some questions about flowers and plants, another area which is “not his specialty,” he said.
Mr. Sopher did not land on any of the daily doubles. “I think if one variable was different, I might have won, because I was the only one of the three contestants who got the final ‘Jeopardy’ question.” Mr. Sopher correctly answered the final clue in each of the four games he played.
And while he’s not eligible to compete on the show again, Mr. Sopher plans to continue watching every episode. “It’s the best show, and to have been part of it was really a dream come true,” he said. “And to be part of it four times, is kind of wild.
“I’ll always be interested in learning things,” he concluded. “It could be fun to just keep finding my passions in this area and channeling them in different ways.”