Paul Nelson placed $4,000 on the line, and the outcome of his wager depended on his vocabulary for sin.
In his second appearance on the quiz show “Jeopardy!,” which aired on Monday, Nov. 5, Nelson encountered the following Daily Double clue: “This 10-letter word means ‘greedy’ and goes back to one of the seven deadly sins.”
But Nelson, who graduated from Wheaton College in 2011 with a political science degree, knew his theological terms.
“What is avaricious?” he answered, heading toward a win.
Nelson became a reigning “Jeopardy!” champion in three episodes that aired this week, winning a three-day total of $45,400 in prize money, and he’s not done yet. Viewers can continue to follow his progress later this month.
Nelson said he has loved the show since he was a kid. He even took the timed online “Jeopardy!” test once at Wheaton, but he didn’t hear anything in response. Approximately 100,000 people take the online test every year, according to Maggie Speak, the “Jeopardy!” contestant producer.
After taking the test again this year, however, Nelson was invited to a live audition, and when he got a phone call asking him to come to Los Angeles for a live taping, his preparations began.
“You can study in that meantime, but I didn’t do that much,” he said.
Nelson said he spent some time browsing Wikipedia and talking with friends about what he considered to be his weak subjects, including sports and the arts.
When he arrived in California, he intended to relax before competing — with mixed results.
“I did go to the beach and got really sunburned the day before we taped,” Nelson said.
Television makeup covered his sunburn, and as he settled in for the day of taping, he said the show’s employees tried to set all of the contestants at ease.
“The whole show is very much like ‘The Hunger Games,’” Nelson said. “Just at the point when you’re becoming friends with these people and everything’s great, the show says, ‘Get out there on camera and knock each other off.’”
In that first game, Nelson bested seven-day champion Keith Whitener, a chemist who had already won over $100,000. It all came down to the Final Jeopardy! wager, under the category “College Football Team Nicknames.”
“The most terrifying moment in the game is having to tap the ‘finalize wager’ bar on the touch screen behind the podium,” he said. “I saw the category, and I was like, ‘Heck, no.’ I put down $0, and that was it.”
Nelson went on to win two more games in which he was the youngest contestant.
“There were a lot of people there with a lot of life experience under their belts, and the prospect of competing against them was daunting,” Nelson said.
He did have one advantage, however, when it came to hitting his buzzer at the right time.
“Video-game-trained nerves help with that,” Nelson said.
He had practiced buzzer-beating at home by playing along with the show on TV, using a high-backed chair as a podium and a pen as a buzzer.
Nelson said he didn’t spend much time with host Alex Trebek during the taping because contestants were only allowed to interact with him on stage.
“I found him very engaging and funny,” Nelson said. “He was very avuncular — he reminded me of an uncle.”
In fact, “characteristic of an uncle” appeared as a $2,000 clue in Nelson’s second game — and he responded correctly: “What is avuncular?”
Since the show films five episodes per day, each win kept him in session.
“You do start to get fatigued by the end, but the adrenaline keeps you going,” Nelson said. “Your fingers start to get twitchy with all the coffee you’re drinking.”
Nelson said he relied on more than caffeine: “I was praying so hard onstage. I had never prayed that hard in my life,” he said.
He also credited his winning ways, in part, to Wheaton College.
“The whole show is a testament to the value of a liberal arts education. It sounds corny, but it’s not,” Nelson said. “Wheaton teaches you to love learning, and that’s one of the main reasons I went on the show.”
Director of Student Activities Steve Ivester said the opportunity to compete on “Jeopardy!” fit well with what he knew about Nelson.
“He’s a classic liberal arts student,” Ivester said. “His engagement on campus reflected that. … He could contribute to any subject, any conversation.”
Nelson returned to his alma mater last weekend and attended a “Jeopardy!” viewing party with faculty from the politics and international relations department.
“We’re all very enthusiastic,” said professor of politics Bryan McGraw. “He was a very good student, but he was also very involved on campus. … I don’t think we were entirely surprised that he was on ‘Jeopardy!’”
Viewers can tune in on Wednesday, Nov. 21 to see if Nelson will continue to win in a fourth contest.
Photo Courtesy: Jeopardy Productions, Inc.
Printed in the November 9, 2012, issue of The Wheaton Record. Send comments to email@example.com.