Sam Kavanaugh won the "Jeopardy" Tournament of Champions in mid-April, but he couldn't share his secret with the world until the final-round episode aired the Friday leading into Memorial Day weekend. Coincidentally, that's the same day the Minneapolis-based substitute teacher received his prize — a $250,000 check — in the mail.
"Because of the holiday, I haven't been able to deposit it yet," he said last Tuesday. "I'll be going to the bank right after this phone call."
Before dashing off, the Carlton native, who went on a five-day winning streak on the show in 2019, shared his thoughts on the recent victory and what lies ahead.
Q: Do you have a particular strategy that you use?
A: Strategy is certainly my strength. I wasn't the most knowledgeable person in the tournament. Of the 15 competitors, I was probably somewhere in the middle. I take advantage of betting well, especially on Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy. I'm very aware of the point values. I also know what I don't know. You need to be careful about ringing in when you're wrong.
Q: What categories are you weakest at?
A: My brain seems to categorize celebrities by faces before names. Like, I'll know who an actor is and can name a bunch of movies he's in, but I can't come up with the name right away. I worked at that with digital flash cards. Anytime that happened while I was playing at home, I'd write down the guy's name on the back of his photo and then come up with kind of mnemonic device to help me recall.
Q: The questions seemed considerably harder during the tournament.
A: I've tracked my scores for years while playing at home. I try to simulate the real game as best I can. I stand behind the couch with a pen to click and wear clothes that I would wear on air. In previous tournaments, I would score between 20 to 25% less than usual. So I knew they would be harder going in, but I had time to prepare.
Q: Was there any time in the tournament that you felt vulnerable?
A: During the first quarter-final I only had $1,400 after the first round. You usually need to finish with at least $11,000 to advance, and then there's only a 50% chance. So I knew I had quite a bit of work to do. I was having a problem getting used to the cadences of the guest host [former tourney champ Buzzy Cohen]. You can't ring in until the host is done with the question. If you do, you're locked out for a half second. I started to get his rhythm in the second round and later doubled my score with a Daily Double. I ended up winning with $20,000.
Q: Past winners like Buzzy and Ken Jennings have made a career out of being associated with "Jeopardy." Do you plan to do the same?
A: I'm kind of open to possibilities. I don't think I would make a good host. I don't think I have the personality. If they asked, I would say yes, but I doubt they will. Every four or five years, they tend to have super tournaments with past champs. I might be back for that. I love testing myself against the best players.
Q: Any thoughts on how you'll spend the money?
A: We'll see. The last time around, I got Lasik surgery and bought a new car. I really want to travel quite a bit. I'm hoping to take it slow and not blow it all frivolously.
Q: Any strange fan encounters, either this time around or after you won in 2019?
A: Not too many. Sometimes people recognize me at bar trivia. I have the most fun with it in the classroom. As a substitute teacher, sometimes the lesson plan doesn't fill up the whole time, so I'll play a game with the students. I'll ask them to look at the world map and pick two countries. If I can't give them the capital of each one, they get to leave five minutes early. There's only one time they stumped me. They got to leave early that day.
"Jeopardy" airs locally at 4:30 p.m. weekdays on KARE, Ch. 11