Recent Swarthmore alumnus Danny Loss ’04 appeared on Jeopardy! on Tuesday, October 17, 2006. Despite a valiant effort, including a near-sweep of the Northernmost National Capitals category, he ultimately finished in third place (netting a $1,000 cash prize) after being the only contestant to answer the Final Jeopardy question incorrectly.
In an e-mail, Loss wrote that he landed a Jeopardy! audition after taking a 50-question online test. “They didn’t tell you how you did, but I’d guess that I got 43-45 right. It must have been good enough because I got an e-mail inviting me to an audition a few weeks later.” At the actual audition, he took another 50-question test, “presumably to make sure that we hadn’t cheated on the online test and that we actually knew stuff,” before playing a mock game, buzzers and all. “It was pretty clear that the contestant coordinators were just interested in enthusiasm and energy as getting the right answers. So having done some theater in the past definitely helped; even if I didn’t actually feel confident the whole time I was able to act as if I was.”
Did his studies at Swarthmore contribute to landing him on the show? He double majored in history and linguistics at Swarthmore, and while “I don’t think there were any questions that I learned the answers to at Swat,” he also said that “being able to read quickly, obviously a good skill to have at Swat, is a huge plus for Jeopardy.”
While Loss watched Jeopardy regularly in high school, “from college onwards I would only watch it if I happened to be flipping through the channels. But I’ve always enjoyed trivia games and I have the memory for random facts that makes me good at them. So when I had a chance to audition, I jumped at it.”
Loss’ origins as a Swattie were clear when he wrote that “I actually wish the clues had been harder.” He guessed that all three contestants knew the correct response for the majority of the clues, meaning that “the buzzer is the most important part of the game… so it’s really just a matter of timing; if you buzz in before Alex Trebek has finished reading the clue you get locked out for a quarter of a second.” Loss was also able to keep his cool under pressure. “It was pretty nerve-wracking at the beginning of the game since it took me almost two whole categories before I buzzed in, but once I got going it the pressure vanished.”
Loss had $1,800 after the first round. He landed on the Daily Double (“It’s the only U.S. state whose flag includes the Union Jack”), but got it wrong (“What is Mississippi?” should have been “Hawaii”) after betting his entire $1,600, knocking him straight back down to zero. As a result, “as late as halfway through Double Jeopardy I was under $3,000, but I found my groove towards the end of Double Jeopardy and nearly swept the Northernmost National Capital category… if I had gotten the final northernmost capitals clue I would have been just $1,000 out of first place and in great shape for Final Jeopardy. But I got beaten by Jim [McMurty, the returning champion] and was in third place going into Final Jeopardy.”
At this point, everyone still had a chance at the win; Jim had $11,300, and Joe Liebrandt (the eventual winner) had $14,200. The Final Jeopardy clue was “In Latin the name of this math field meant a pebble used in counting, and the word also has the medical meaning ‘stone.'” Both of the other contestants correctly guessed “calculus,” but despite his linguistics background, Loss incorrectly guessed “petrus.” He recalls, “I just couldn’t get past ‘pebble’ in the Final Jeopardy clue and could only come up with things like “rock” (hence “petrus”). In retrospect “calculus” makes perfect sense, but hindsight will do that.”
The Gazette wanted to know what Loss thought of Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, but unfortunately that’s a question “that I always need to disappoint people about. The contestants have no interactions with him outside of what you see on the show, so there’s really not enough time to form much of an impression of him. At times I think he tries a bit too hard to be funny, but he’s obviously good at his job.”
What is Loss doing now? “After I graduated from Swat I did a master’s degree in modern European history at the University of Cambridge,” he wrote. “Then I came back to the US and looked, unsuccessfully, for a history-related job.” His friend Sarah Cohodes ’05 finally found him a job at the Urban Institute in DC, where he spent a year researching in the Education Policy Center. “This past summer I moved up to Boston with my girlfriend, Rebecca Rogers ’04. For the past three months I’ve been working as a temporary library assistant in the Judaica Divison of the Harvard College Library. Next week I start a real job in the French-Italian Division of the Harvard library.”
“I was thinking about going to library school,” wrote Loss, “but the more time I’ve spent away from history the more I want to go back to it.” He’s currently in the process of applying to history PhD programs for the next academic year, he said, jesting, “Typical Swattie career path, really…”
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