Heads up, Huskies: Kaden Lee, a 21-year-old junior majoring in aeronautical/astronautical engineering at the University of Washington, competes at 8 p.m. Friday on ABC’s prime time “Jeopardy! National College Championship.”
It won’t be a surprise to the friends and family Lee grew up with in Medical Lake, outside Spokane.
“It’s kind of been my friend group thing for a while that I’ve been the trivia fan of all of us,” Lee said Wednesday. “I played competitive trivia at my high school. We had a thing called Knowledge Bowl, which was a statewide event, and I played at that and our team had actually won state.”
Lee previously applied to be on “Jeopardy!” while in high school in 2017 and made it to the in-person audition phase. Once on a “Jeopardy!” email distribution list, Lee knew when it was time to apply for the College Championship, hosted by Mayim Bialik.
The grand prize for the tournament, which features 36 undergrads competing in quarterfinal matchups that carry into next week, is $250,000 — but all the players take home a guaranteed minimum $10,000 prize.
“Even if you don’t win, you got a free trip to L.A. and $10,000 in your pocket,” Lee said.
The Seattle Times spoke to Lee before Friday’s episode to get a look behind the scenes of the college tournament. The following interview has been edited for length.
When did you take the online “Jeopardy!” prescreening test for the “National College Championship” tournament?
January or February 2021. After the online test, they usually have you come in and do another test live with them. And then also do a mock game and interview process, setting up to see how you’re going to test on TV and how you can continue to answer questions going forward, getting a better sample size of your actual knowledge. … For the pandemic they switched to Zoom, which made it a lot more affordable, because previously you had to go in person, so I had to (pay my way) to travel to San Francisco to do it. Then when I heard that it was going to be a Zoom audition, I said, “Well, now I might as well do it. It doesn’t cost me anything.”
What was the Zoom practice game like?
The Zoom practice game was definitely weird because the difference between the in-person practice game and the Zoom practice game was that there were no physical buzzers we were using. You were being called on at random, meaning that the buzzer race element wasn’t really taken into account, which could have been helpful or harmful. I remember having categories that I really enjoyed show up and I got really excited for those. Typically, it’s a lot about your energy. So just coming in, being happy to play is a really exciting thing.
When did “Jeopardy!” fly you down to film the show on the Sony lot in Culver City, California?
I got notified in late September and the taping was right before Thanksgiving.
What was it like behind the scenes at “Jeopardy!”?
It was definitely a pretty tight-knit environment. The contestants formed a pretty tight group quite quickly. I anticipated when I showed up that people were going to be very steely-eyed and competitive. But I actually found that almost everybody was quite similar to me. None of us really thought we would make it on the show and we’re all just pretty happy to be there, as well as just pretty happy to be meeting other people that liked things that we liked. … Everybody on the crew was so nice to work with and understanding and complimentary, just the entire way through. It was just really a lovely experience all around.
Was there no audience due to COVID-19 protocols?
There was no audience except for the other contestants. I believe they split us into two days’ worth of people, so 18 people plus the alternates. So pretty much whenever we were on stage, the only people watching were the crew and the rest of the (contestants).
Did having Mayim Bialik, best known for her roles in TV classics “Blossom” and “The Big Bang Theory,” as host make contestants a little star struck?
She did a fantastic job of keeping that convivial environment, really just making it a lovely time as well. She was very professional but also very amiable to everybody. I liked that she wasn’t afraid to talk to us or not opposed to talking to us. She was very engaged in dialogue between us. So she was just lovely to work with. I had been familiar with her career beforehand. I had liked the way that she represented women in STEM and women in science. I had always respected her on that front, so I was pretty happy to see her representing as well.
Were there ways that your studies at the University of Washington helped prepare you to appear on “Jeopardy!”?
A lot of the content that “Jeopardy!” asks about is actually very non-STEM related, I tend to find a lot more of a history or literature or arts focus. So my major directly, I didn’t anticipate to be particularly helpful. But a lot of the classes that I was able to take at UW did. I (took) an art history class that was very helpful.
Was it difficult keeping your participation in the tournament a secret from family and friends?
I’m definitely anticipating hearing some harsh words from my family about how I had to hide it through all of Christmas and New Year’s. I told my immediate family because the “Jeopardy!” staff tells you, “Hey, tell your parents that you’re taking a trip to a different state. It would be helpful for them to know,” but everybody that wasn’t immediate family, I didn’t tell. … That’s definitely tricky because obviously it’s one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done. I want to talk about it with people. But I would just keep making little nudging remarks to people about like, “Oh, you know, if I’m ever on the show, I think this is probably how it’s gonna work.”