UW News

February 22, 2022

Q&A: Student Kaden Lee on competing in the ‘Jeopardy! College National Championship’

UW student waves to the camera during their intro on Jeopardy!

On Feb. 11, junior Kaden Lee appeared on the “Jeopardy! National College Championship.” They were the only contestant from the Pacific Northwest.

The “Jeopardy! College National Championship” kicked off Feb. 8 on prime time, bringing together undergraduate students from 36 U.S. colleges and universities.

Kaden Lee, a UW junior from Medical Lake, Washington, majoring in aeronautics and astronautics, appeared in the tournament on Feb. 11. Lee, who uses the pronouns she/they/he, competed against Jess Agyepong of Howard University and Liz Feltner of Northeastern University. Feltner moved on to the tournament’s semifinals, and Lee came in second place.

Lee has been playing competitive trivia since high school, where they won the state Knowledge Bowl tournament with their high school team. They now compete on the UW’s team for Quiz Bowl, which Lee describes as “definitely a little more on the academic side” than “Jeopardy!”

Lee’s journey to “Jeopardy!,” already chronicled in interviews with The Seattle Times and GeekWire, began with an unsuccessful try in high school. In early 2021, Lee got another shot at “Jeopardy!”, this time for the college tournament. Lee made it to the audition stage, where they played a practice game and interviewed over Zoom, then went to Culver City, California, around Thanksgiving.

UW Notebook talked to Lee about the experience of competing, the people they met, “Jeopardy!” strategy — and life after 15 minutes of fame. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Thank you for representing the UW. We were all really excited to see you on “Jeopardy!”

KL: We haven’t had another contestant since 2000, so we haven’t had a contestant since roughly when I was born. It was also kind of surreal to be the only person from the entire Pacific Northwest, because I was representing a whole region. There were mostly a lot of East Coast schools.

Representing a public school is another interesting point, because you’re going up against seven-out-of-eight Ivy League schools — you’re going up against MIT. So it’s just nice to be on the same stage competing and know that I’m there at the same caliber.

Mostly, I tried not to compare myself too much to the other people there, because I felt like I would have been comparing myself to the idea of what I thought the school is. In actuality, I think that education is education. Education is more of what you put into it than anything.

How much did you get to spend time with the other contestants and connect with them?

KL: Pretty much every moment that we weren’t busy filming I was probably hanging out with somebody. My big fear when I showed up was that everybody was going to be very competitive. And we showed up, and it was the most joyous, jovial environment possible. Many of us just were elated to be there because we all shared a very common bond: watching this quiz TV show since we were children and then getting to meet each other.

You’re not allowed to have your phones, because you can’t spoil the results and you can’t be videotaping anything. All we have to do the whole time is talk to each other — so we better like each other — and by the end of it we all pretty much did. I loved every single person that I met. We still hang out. We have a big group chat together.

Lee enjoyed the category “Notable African Americans,” which this clue comes from, because it covered a lot of history Lee was familiar with. See the end of the story for the answer.

What did you do when your episode aired?

KL: I kind of hopped around to a bunch of places. I did stuff on Friday night when the game aired, and then I did stuff on Saturday night when it was on Hulu.

It’s fun watching “Jeopardy!” with people who don’t normally watch it. Usually when I watch, it’s with people who are all pretty competitive. It was fun to watch it with people who haven’t seen “Jeopardy!” in a while and then watch the genuine excitement they feel when they get one right.

That’s my favorite — seeing a person get a question who never thinks that they’ll get a question. I love celebrating when other people get stuff right. That’s why I kind of take on more of a reading role [in trivia competitions]. I like to give people the opportunity to prove how intelligent they are, mostly to themselves.

Let’s get into the nitty gritty of the game. What categories were you excited to see?

KL: I was very excited when I had a literature category, because in Quiz Bowl I tend to specialize in lit. It didn’t go well for me — and I was very upset about it because I know both of the books for the questions I got wrong.

The “Famous Aquarians” category was a weird one. I remember not quite understanding what that category was going to be about right off the bat and just wanting to stay away from it.  I liked “Notable African Americans” — that was a really good one because it covered a lot of history content that I knew.

I love literature, I always love art, but on my board, specifically, I think I was really excited when I saw a question with the word “Snohomish” in it. Then Liz beat me to it.

A lot of how I played was essentially either just looking for Daily Doubles or playing in a slightly random way in order to maybe throw people off.

Text: At Swans Trail farm in Snohomish, Washington, the whole family can enjoy picking these from trees.

Lee was excited to see this clue about Snohomish, Washington, but opponent Liz Feltner buzzed in before them and answered it correctly. See the end of the story for the answer.

I saw in one of your interviews that you discussed your strategy for tackling the board. You said you just wanted to be comfortable.

KL: There’s a lot of discourse right now about how you should play “Jeopardy!” And a lot of people say you should play with that strict bottom-up strategy [starting with highest value clues]. And the real truth is that you should play that bottom-up way if you’re always in control of the board, but you’re not always going to be in control of the board — especially when playing against someone as good as Jess.

She was one of the most threatening people at the whole tournament, based on talking to people and then knowing her background, knowing she had been such a prolific Quiz Bowl player. And her demeanor going up to the stage: I could tell that she was very focused and very much wanted to do well. And her buzzer speed was just insane. I know her buzzer percentage [the percentage of times she buzzed in] was definitely higher than mine.

Knowing that Jess was probably going to be able to have control of the board, I knew that I wasn’t really going to be able to dictate the flow of play. I was more concerned about getting onto a category and then knowing what category to choose. The advantage of that is that the other players have to react to what category you say.

How did you prepare for “Jeopardy!”?

KL: I stood while reading through J! Archive [an online archive of “Jeopardy!” questions]. Or having people read for me and then standing while doing it. Because when you sit at home on your couch it’s great, but it’s an entirely different experience standing up with bright stage lights at 9 a.m.

I liked practicing while I was out of breath, because I felt like, if I could keep my mind straight enough to think about the categories and think about the answers while barely being able to breathe, it would work. I’d do that, while I was either walking or running.

Sometimes I would practice with a little desk lamp facing me, so I was used to being flooded out with light, which definitely did help because I was used to feeling light directly on me.

Text: In 1793 a French clergyman called the destruction of libraries & sculptures this, using the name of a 5th century tribe.

The category for “Final Jeopardy” was “Word Origins.” Lee said word association from watching “Jeopardy!” helped them arrive at the correct answer — but they weren’t able to beat Liz Feltner, who advanced to the semifinals. See the end of the story for the answer.

What advice do you have for people who want to get on “Jeopardy!”?

KL: If you want to buckle down and try to study all of the material, there are a lot of guides on how to do that. But you can’t just drop everything in your life and start studying. I’m a college student. I had to do homework.

The biggest thing I would say is to take the Jeopardy! Anytime Test to try out for it, because you never know. I didn’t think I would ever make it. And I got on, and I was shocked. I cried in the Cedar Hall Residents Office about it. I’m an RA, and I was doing my office hours at the time. I got the call and I freaked out.

Is it true you can’t go on “Jeopardy!” again?

KL: I believe you can be on “Jeopardy!” only one time. Now I don’t have to worry about trying to get better at “Jeopardy!” anymore. Watching it is so nice, because I can miss a question and say, “Oh well, that’s not a big deal.” I can go back to being a casual observer. I don’t have to worry about trying to optimize my play and thinking, “Oh, you should bet correctly,” and “What math do I do here?” I now watch the show like a TV show, and that, in itself, is kind of beautiful.

Answers: What is the NAACP?, What are apples?, What is vandalism?