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Second time's the charm: Duke employee details her Jeopardy! journey

<p>Duke employee Abby Grubbs with Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek. Courtesy of Jeopardy Productions, Inc.</p>

Duke employee Abby Grubbs with Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek. Courtesy of Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

Duke employee Abby Grubbs took her first online Jeopardy! test in 2016. Three years later, she finally made it on the show.

Grubbs, a program coordinator for Duke’s Global Education Office, appeared on the Oct. 1 Jeopardy! taping, finishing with the second place prize of $2,000. As someone who watched the show “off-and-on” since she was young, Grubbs had her first in-person Jeopardy! audition in 2016 but didn’t make it on. Her second attempt in 2019 was a different story.

“I was actually on vacation at the time when I got the call [that I would be on the show], so I don’t think it really sunk in until I was back at home in North Carolina, and I was like ‘Oh my gosh, I really need to study,’” she said.

Her goal to appear on the show began around 2012, she recalled, after returning from a stint abroad to the United States, where she could finally watch Jeopardy! again. Grubbs added that it was her husband who encouraged her to try out for the program, pointing out that she usually knew the answers to most questions.

When her first attempt to get on the show didn’t pan out—which is fairly typical, she noted—Grubbs took the online test again in April 2019 and was invited to an in-person audition in June. A month later, she learned that she’d have the chance to compete on Jeopardy!

Grubbs’ attitude transformed from “disbelief to work mode” shortly after getting the call, and she kicked her preparation into full swing.

She took a page from the book of Jeopardy! champion James Holzhauer, who dominated the show earlier in 2019 with a 32-game winning streak that netted him more than $2.4 million. One way Holzhauer prepared was by studying children’s books, and Grubbs decided to follow suit.

“My mom actually bought a set of children’s books especially for me,” she said.

Turning to an online Jeopardy! clue archive and listening to podcasts featuring former contestants, Grubbs began studying for her appearance. She credited her husband, friends and co-workers for helping her out along the way.

When she was called out to film in Los Angeles, Grubbs was scheduled to be one of the contestants appearing on the first day of taping. Jeopardy! films shows in two-day taping periods, with five shows per day, she explained.

What surprised her most was that a familiar face remained behind the champion’s lectern.

“The most shocking thing when I arrived on the first day was that Jason Zuffranieri was still there, and he was the champion from last season,” she said. “So I knew he was on a really long run.”

During the first day of taping, however, Zuffranieri’s 19-game winning streak came to an end. Grubbs’ name also wasn’t called, so she’d need to come back for the second taping period.

Grubbs got her chance to play the following day, but was unable to time her buzzer speed correctly and was beaten to the punch by other contestants.

“That was my huge weak point,” she said. “I just got off the rhythm, and it’s really hard to correct when you’re in that high-pressure situation.”

And although they might appear to be competitive on camera, Grubbs noted that her fellow contestants were friendly and supportive during the taping.

“I thought that with the other contestants, things would be super competitive,” she said. “I guess in some sense they were, but everybody was so nice. And we all got along really well and were super supportive of each other.”

For those aspiring to appear on Jeopardy!, Grubbs explained that studying common clues and weak spots is the most important step. Practicing buzzer timing, however, is also essential for success. Grubbs added that the process of auditioning is “really fun” and that she was disappointed she wouldn’t have the chance to go through it again.

Even though Grubbs might not have become a Jeopardy! champion, her appearance on the show was still a memorable moment.

“It was a really fun game, and I’m glad I got to have the experience,” she said.

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