Answer: Engineering senior Sam Blum represented Vanderbilt in the Quarterfinals of this national trivia tournament.

Question: What is … the Jeopardy! National College Championship?

Sam Blum and two other Jeopardy! National College Championship contestants

Sam Blum ’22 recently competed in the Jeopardy! National College Championship. (Jeopardy Productions Inc.)

Brina Ratangee, Staff Writer

Name this national collegiate competition, hosted by Mayim Bialik and featuring 36 undergraduate students, including Vanderbilt’s very own Sam Blum.

What is … the Jeopardy! National College Championship?

Senior Sam Blum, an engineering science major, competed against Massachusetts Institute of Technology senior Aniket Dehadrai and University of Virginia junior Megan Sullivan in a Battle of the Brains quarterfinals match that aired on ABC at 7:30 p.m. CST on Feb. 16. Blum has also written for the Life section of The Hustler since September 2020.

Going into Double Jeopardy! (the second round), Blum had earned $2,400 but was trailing Dehadrai and Sullivan, who had $5,000 each. However, Blum came out swinging in the Double Jeopardy! round, providing the correct answer lines of “deep fake” and “haptic” in what he said was his favorite category of the match: Tech Talk.

“I was so happy when Tech Talk came up because I watched all the games prior to mine, and I didn’t see a tech category,” Blum said. “So I was really hoping to get it, and that was really exciting. Obviously, I chose Tech Talk right away when I had the chance.”

However, Blum named “What is genesis?” as his favorite answer line—or rather, question line—in response to “To collect solar wind particles, in 2001 NASA sent up this spacecraft that shares its name with a Bible book & a dad rock band.”

“That [answer] was really special. I just pulled it out of nowhere, and those answers are the best. In some ways, I credit my grandfather. Though he died when I was really young, he worked on the Apollo missions for NASA for a while, so it was like a small tribute to him,” Blum said.

At the end of Final Jeopardy! (the third round), Blum finished in third place with $1,598, Dehadrai finished in second with $4,200 and Sullivan won with $8,401. As a result, Sullivan advanced to the Semifinals, and both Blum and Dehadrai were awarded $10,000 for making it to the Quarterfinals stage. Not bad earnings for a half an hour’s work!

Sam Blum at the Jeopardy! podium
Engineering senior Sam Blum has been a fan of Jeopardy! since he was 10. (Jeopardy Productions Inc.)

Inspiration

Blum began watching Jeopardy! at age 10 alongside his parents and grandparents. But it was only around 2014, after witnessing the 11-day winning streak of Arthur Chu, when Blum decided he wanted to be a contestant. 

“That was the first time I was like, wow, it’s [Jeopardy!] really cool. I realized it was something I definitely wanted to be on, and I tried to figure out how I could get on the show from there,” Blum said.

Blum submitted the Jeopardy! qualifying test several times throughout middle and high school but to no avail. Around the same time, however, he and his dad were able to get tickets to a live taping of the show in Los Angeles. 

“I got to meet Alex Trebek, and it was really cool to chat with him and see all of the behind-the-scenes stuff for the first time,” Blum said. “I asked him what he writes on the podium after each question, and he said he crosses off questions that have already been answered with crayon because it makes the least noise, which I think is very interesting. I thanked him for his response, and told him I’d be back one day.”

Process and preparation

And back he was. 

Blum—along with 26,000 other undergraduates—took the College Championship online test in October 2020. He was then invited to a proctored follow-up test, held on Zoom due to COVID-19 protocols. In January 2021, Blum auditioned in a virtual mock game and behavioral interview, during which his interviewer noticed the picture of Blum and Alex Trebek on the wall behind Blum.

“I felt that this was going to be the time I made it on the show. Part of it was because my interviewer asked me about my picture with Alex Trebek, and I got the chance to share my story and have it come full circle,” Blum said. “I think that might have helped, and naturally, that was the anecdote I chose to share for my contestant introduction during the match.” 

Blum’s episode was taped in November 2021. In preparation for the match, Blum watched Jeopardy! episodes daily and practiced using old questions from the J! Archive.

“Although they don’t repeat the exact questions, they often will reference that same stuff, like Romeo and Juliet. They can ask a million questions about Juliet over 20 years of Jeopardy!, so I used J! Archive to learn all the questions they’ve ever asked on the topic,” Blum said. 

He also studied by competing in weekly trivia nights at Von Elrod’s Beer Hall & Kitchen.  

“Von Elrod’s was actually a really good way to study. I learned a ton of valuable facts that I had no idea about before,” Blum said. “That’s actually how I knew the answer for the marimba question during the match.”

Show and strategy

However, studying was only half the battle, since strategy is crucial in Jeopardy! Blum said that he opted for the more traditional approach to selecting clues, which involves starting with the lowest monetary values and working one’s way down the board, a strategy recommended by Trebek and implemented by recent 40-game-winner Amy Schneider. Notably, James Holzhauer—the second-highest winner in Jeopardy! non-tournament earnings with a 32-day streak—was notorious for doing the exact opposite.

“When I saw Tech Talk, I was about to choose the $2,000 clue, but then I was like, ‘oh, maybe it’s not what I think it is.’ I opted to start at the top, and that helped a lot because I was able to get the $400 clue correct,” Blum said.

Blum cited buzzer speed as his biggest challenge. 

“I was hoping I would be able to get the non-fungible token question because I told my roommate I was certain there would be an NFT question,” Blum said. “I was buzzing so quickly, but Aniket was really good on the buzzer.”

Sam Blum with Jeopardy! National College Championship host Mayim Bialik
Sam Blum with Jeopardy! National College Championship host Mayim Bialik. (Jeopardy Productions Inc.)

Legacy

Blum joins the ranks of several Vanderbilt alumni who have competed on Jeopardy!, either in the regular season or in the College Championship, including Zack Terrill in 2012, David Schuman in 2012, Eric Turner in 2014, Molly Anne Lalonde in 2014, Kyle Becker in 2017 and Carsen Smith in 2018. Associate Clinical Professor of Law Gautam Hans competed in Jeopardy!’s inaugural Professors Tournament on Dec. 6, 2021. 

“The entire experience was absolutely surreal. I’m so grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to represent Vanderbilt and fulfill a lifelong dream like this,” Blum said. “Being able to meet all the other contestants and everyone in the Jeopardy! crew was so fun, and we still talk everyday. And I have so much gratitude to my family, friends and past teachers—they all helped so much in getting me to this point.”