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Univ. of Washington scholar checks trivia smarts in ‘Jeopardy! Nationwide School Championship’

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University of Washington student Kaden Lee, right, and “Jeopardy! National College Championship” host Mayim Bialik. (Jeopardy! Photo)

Kaden Lee already has their hands full as a junior studying aeronautics and astronautics at the University of Washington. But as a contestant on the “Jeopardy! National College Championship,” Lee had to cram on subjects such as geography, literature, U.S. presidents, art history and much more.

Lee is one of 36 undergrad contestants competing for a $250,000 grand prize in the collegiate version of the long-running game show, now hosted by Mayim Bialik. Episodes taped in November and started airing this week, and Lee’s quarterfinal game is Friday night on ABC at 8 p.m.

A native of Medical Lake, Wash., near Spokane, Lee grew up a trivia geek who has been a fan of “Jeopardy!” for years. While the 21-year-old now boasts knowledge on a range of random things, they’re confident of a future career related to their UW major.

“I have a lot of directions that I am interested in going,” Lee said. “Part of me wants to go into the research side and continue studying, and part of me wants to go into the applied side and actually put somebody in space. There’s a lot of directions there and I would love to pursue a lot of them.”

Clad in a purple UW sweatshirt, Lee competes Friday against Liz Feltner, a Northeastern University senior majoring in political science and business administration, and Jess Agyepong, a Howard University senior majoring in biology.

If Lee wins, they’ll be among 12 contestants advancing to the semifinals, airing next Thursday and Friday. The two-game finals air Feb. 22.

GeekWire caught up with Lee this week to discuss their love of trivia and “Jeopardy!” and what sort of strategy and geekiness they bring to the game. The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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GeekWire: Are you a “Jeopardy!” fan? How long have you been watching?

Kaden Lee: I’ve been watching for years. I grew up watching it with my babysitters and I rediscovered it after I started playing competitive trivia in high school. And then it was just sort of that thing to ritualistically watch … I would just spend time with my parents, demolishing them. Lovingly so!

GW: So you were a trivia geek as a kid?

KL: I just always was a little bit of an academic as a kid. I enjoyed reading and learning about really whatever I could get my hands on.

GW: What did it take to land on the show as a contestant?

KL: I actually auditioned for the show twice. I did it once in high school, and I did it once in college. It’s a multi-interview process. You start out by just taking the “Jeopardy!” anytime test. You take a 60-question test and then you either hear back from them or you don’t. I remember I took the test not really thinking I was going to get on, just doing it for mostly my own enjoyment. It’s like a fast-paced game of “Jeopardy!” against yourself. After that I was able to hop onto Zoom auditions, you play a little game and you do a little interview. And I heard back from them.

GW: How did you prepare for the competition? Did you just study a vast array of things, like everything from geography to religion?

KL: You pretty much study what you can — while being a full-time college student. It’s hard to study anything other than aerospace engineering for me. But pretty much every spare moment I had was spent on Wikipedia, running through lists of vice presidential candidates and world capitals.

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GW: What are your strongest subjects?

KL: It’s debatable, because “Jeopardy!” covers different areas than what I would typically call my best subject matter. I study literature on my college Quiz Bowl team. But I’m pretty good in math and sciences, literature, mythology, a little bit of visual art.

GW: Do you feel like your area of study makes you stronger for maybe an engineering or math category?

KL: Those areas typically aren’t tested too frequently on “Jeopardy!” mostly because the average adult watching the show isn’t really going to remember what they learned in high school calculus. I definitely felt like I needed to cover areas outside of that.

GW: Do you have a strategy like some players, targeting higher-dollar answers at the bottom of the board? Were you a true Daily Double bettor?

KL: The main thing that I tried to focus on was not going in with the too much of a plan. You’re in control of so few elements. The big thing about being on stage is just being comfortable. It was really a matter of not worrying too much about where we were on the board and mostly just focusing on each question as it came up.

GW: Is it nerve-wracking being on stage and having Mayim [Bialik] there and the lights and cameras? Does that get in your head and slow down your response time or does it amp you up?

KL: It can certainly do both. I’ve heard many stories of contestants who are fantastic trivia players just losing it because they’re so nervous being on stage. I did a little bit of community theater when I was a kid. So I kind of have a little bit of that experience of being on stage with lights hitting you. It didn’t affect me as much as I thought it would.

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GW: Do you feel like school pride comes into play or do you not even think about this as a college thing?

KL: It very much is a matter of school pride for a lot of people who are representing some of these smaller schools. UW hasn’t had somebody in the college tournament since we hosted it in 2000. Which means that we haven’t had anybody in the tournament about as long as I’ve been alive. So to me it’s a very big deal, especially being the only contestant from the entire Pacific Northwest region. It was a huge matter of pride getting in as a University of Washington representative.

GW: What are you going to do with the prize money if you win?

KL: Everyone gets some money just for competing. I intend to take some kind of trip, probably with my friends. We had plans to go abroad, so we’ll likely be looking to go somewhere, maybe Mexico City.

Check out the full roster of participating schools and contestants as well as the schedule for upcoming matches here.

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