After 20 years of relentless auditions for the long-running trivia game show, “Jeopardy!”, USF professor of business and innovation J.P. Allen has finally found success. In September, Allen woke up to the call confirming his spot in “Jeopardy’s” upcoming, first Professors Tournament.
“It’s kind of like the Nobel Prize calling you,” Allen said.
The tournament, hosted by Mayim Bialik, will include 15 professors from colleges and universities across the country going head-to-head for a chance to win $100,000 and a spot in the upcoming Tournament of Champions.
Despite the large grand prize, Allen said he is not in it for the money, a sentiment shared by the other professors competing in the tournament. He grew up watching “Jeopardy!” with his grandfather and has been hooked on the show ever since. Allen said he has built up “warm feelings around the show” and considers it a “part of his history.”
Allen’s preparation for the show has been a process years in the making and said becoming familiar with the recurring trivia categories is a must. From there, it’s all about “knowing your strengths and building on your weaknesses.”
As a business professor with a Ph.D. in computer science, Allen’s strengths are, unsurprisingly, business, economics and technology. Having grown up overseas in Saudi Arabia, world geography is one of Allen’s strong suits as he attended high school in both Switzerland and Greece and boasts a knowledge of almost 200 world capitals.
“I don’t need to study that stuff,” Allen said. “Canadian geography might be my dream category.” As a conversation starter during downtime between tapings, Allen inquired about the other contestants’ dream categories since most contestants also have a niche interest or two.
Allen’s weaknesses? Pop culture, fiction and literature. In terms of the trivia categories, William Shakespeare is the Montague to his Capulet, otherwise known as a challenger he did not want to see in the tournament. However, he’s studied up on these weaknesses, taking notes from the 2019 Jeopardy champ, James Holzhauer, who subscribed to People’s Magazine and Entertainment Weekly to brush up on his pop culture knowledge.
The instructors in the tournament specialize in a range of disciplines, with random, sometimes unexpected, hobbies sprinkled in. For Allen’s matchup, viewers will see him paired against a botany professor from North Carolina and an associate professor of French literature from Delaware, who he found were fun and interesting competitors to be in “hand to hand combat with.”
“When you’re dealing with your profs, you know that they’re really strong in their particular area. But there’s usually some other weird thing,” Allen said. “And then you find it, it comes out when they start answering these $2,000 clues like they’re nothing and you’re like, ‘Whoa, where’d that come from?’”
Interestingly enough, contestants also have to practice hitting the buzzer and mastering this seemingly simple task is an important aspect of the contestants’ success. Buzzing in, according to Allen, is harder to prepare for than the questions themselves. Luckily, in a tournament, contestants are granted more time to practice buzzing in and get feedback from coordinators, as opposed to regular tapings of the show.
Jeopardy is taped weeks to months in advance of an episode’s airing, so Allen has already been to the studio and met and competed with the other contestants. According to Allen, his first taste of the “Hollywood lifestyle” on the set included a lot of downtime, strict COVID-19 protocols, and a sense of camaraderie.
In addition to being tested for COVID-19 twice before being let on the studio lot and then again every two days while taping, Allen had to carry around a small zip-close bag to hold his mask and hand sanitizer. Before putting his mask on or taking it off, Allen had to first sanitize his hands. With the absence of a live studio audience, production crews took on the task of clapping when the applause sign lit up. “It’s kind of weird to be in that world,” Allen said.
In a way, COVID-19 guidelines helped him secure a spot on the show. Allen thinks his previous rejections can be blamed on his height since he is a whopping 6’7’’ tall. This is an issue because the show’s producers try to even out the height of the contestants with the use of platforms behind the podiums. Since auditions for the tournament were online this time around, he felt his height could not be perceived as an obstacle.
According to Allen, sometimes the contestants were able to watch other matchups, but most of the time, that was not the case because the others’ results affected their performances. Therefore, Allen spent a lot of time in the dark on the day of the quarterfinals tapings.
“They would call people in, and say, ‘Okay, these are the next three Colosseum gladiators,’” Allen said jokingly. “And they were keeping us on the “Wheel of Fortune” lot. It was dark since they weren’t taping and they’re like, ‘Don’t touch that wheel. You’re gonna die if you touch that wheel.’ I sat there for like six or seven hours, waiting for my chance.”
While sitting in the unlit “Wheel of Fortune” studio, Allen and other contestants were not allowed access to electronics so as to prevent any potential cheating.
“It’s a digital cleanse at the same time,” Allen said. “You’re just stuck freaking out about your one chance to do this thing you’ve dreamed up, but that’s why it was nice to have a tournament, because everyone was really nice and supportive.”
Although he hasn’t yet broadcast the information to his students to avoid distracting them from their lessons, Allen did tell his dean, Charles Moses. Moses, a longtime “Jeopardy!”-lover himself, was “pumped” when he learned the news, even offering to help train Allen for the tournament.
Allen hopes to have a watch party organized when his episode airs on Dec. 10 for USF’s trivia fans, which includes students and alumni who take part in smaller-scale trivia nights around the city.
“It’s fun to see representation from your own university in such a big tournament,” said Peter Lassalle-Klein, a USF alum who regularly attends trivia nights at The Bitter End, a bar on Clement Street.
Although many USF students may not be as big of fans of the show as Allen, it is still a special moment to see one’s professor competing for academic glory on television.
The tournament will air on weekdays from Dec. 6 through Dec. 17 on ABC. Check your local listings.