You'd never know it to watch him now — master of
instant recall and quick-fingered wizard with
the signaling button — but senior Scott Menke is not
exactly a lifelong Jeopardy fan.
In fact, his path to success in this month's Jeopardy
College Tournament wound through a
different TV show altogether: a brazenly irreverent daily
sports talk show on ESPN.
"I had heard of Jeopardy, and had seen the show, but
really didn't watch it at all," said Menke, a
big winner in last week's quarterfinal who will appear
tonight in the first of the tournament's three
"As it turned out, the way I got hooked ended up being
through sports," said the
applied mathematics major in the Whiting School of
Engineering. "I used to watch a show on ESPN called
Pardon the Interruption every evening in high school. They
started bringing up a guy named Ken
Jennings, who was having an unbelievable streak on
Menke started flipping channels after PTI to catch
Jennings, who in 2004 set the Jeopardy
record with an amazing 74 consecutive nightly victories.
"There was something so mesmerizing about watching him
answer questions," Menke said. "I
know it sounds crazy, but it just drew me in. There was
something soothing and inevitable about Ken
Jennings decimating his opponents."
From there Menke's interest in Jeopardy grew and grew;
as a Johns Hopkins sophomore, he
started setting his digital video recorder to catch every
show and watched the recordings in blocks
when he got some free time.
"My roommates don't really understand my obsession,"
he said. "In fact, I can't really
comprehend it either. But I think I've missed only a
handful of episodes over the past two years."
Whatever sparked the obsession, it's working for him.
Menke, 21, from Flemington, N.J., blew
away the competition in his quarterfinal, which aired May
5. He amassed $25,199, well over double the
score of worthy competitors from Michigan State and the
University of Virginia. He took four out of a
possible five answers in three separate categories
(High-Tech Cinema, Geography and Latin),
responded correctly on 32 of 36 clues and managed to ring
in first on all three lucrative "daily double"
"I found the third daily double, looked up to see what
I should wager, and noticed that I had
$27,000," Menke said. "At that point, I thought to myself,
'Wow, I'm going to the semifinals.' I didn't
wager very much and decided to play it safe after that."
One of his few misses was in Final Jeopardy (category:
On the Moon), but by then it was too
late: Even though he lost money on the question and both
his adversaries answered correctly, they
were too far behind and could not catch him.
Menke — who minors in entrepreneurship and
management, is active in the Johns Hopkins Chess
Club and is interested in starting a business in artificial
intelligence someday — said he greatly enjoyed
his fellow competitors, students from Harvard, Prince-ton,
Emory, Ohio State, Missouri, Kansas and
St. John's College, among others.
"We hung out a lot on the bus rides to the studio and
back, and after the tapings were
complete. These people know so much," he said. "I thought I
had an advantage on the buzzer, but
these guys were true buffs, knowledgeable in so many areas.
I can't say enough about how fortunate I
was to find all three daily doubles and to get categories
that I had a handle on. Luck plays a big part in
this game, and I had a lot of it."
Having the first match behind him was something of a
relief, Menke says.
"I was just glad that I'd won a game, that people back
home could say they know someone who'd
won on Jeopardy, that my parents didn't fly to L.A. for
nothing," he said. "I didn't want them to leave
empty-handed. They were just having fun, but I didn't want
to disappoint them."
The three sets of three semifinalists — five
daily winners from last week and four "wild card"
high scorers from among the nonwinners — will appear
on the air tonight, Tuesday and Wednesday for
the right to advance to a two-game final to be broadcast
Thursday and Friday. The semifinalists are
guaranteed a $10,000 prize. The eventual champion receives
a minimum of $100,000.
Menke cannot disclose the results of tonight's
semifinal match or say whether he will advance
to the finals. He did say, however, that the semifinal
— taped the day after the quarterfinal — turns
to be much closer than the first-round match.
"It wasn't a runaway for anyone," he said.
Scott Menke's appearance in the semifinal of Jeopardy
College Tournament airs tonight, May 11,
at 7 p.m. on WMAR-TV in Baltimore and at 7:30 p.m. on
WJLA-TV in Washington. Winners of the
semifinal rounds go on to the finals on Thursday and