Interview with Jeopardy! Winner (& Academic Librarian) Veronica Vichit-Vadakan

Academic librarian Veronica Vichit-Vadakan is a jack of all trades. Systems Librarian at the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine and Part-Time Reference Librarian at WSU Vancouver, Veronica also puts in hours at the NW Film Center and fosters kittens. Mushroom forager, pie aficionado, chocolatier, and overall renaissance woman, this past January, Veronica added another accolade to her repertoire: Jeopardy! Champ. Veronica went on a 4-day winning streak, raking in a whopping $90,001 and charming the nation in the process.

The following interview was originally conducted by Beth Howlett at the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine, and has been edited for length.

Photo of Veronica Vichit-Vadakan with Alex Trebek
Veronica Vichit-Vadakan with Alex Trebek (Photo by Jeopardy! Productions, Inc.)

When did you start being a Jeopardy! fan?

I watched Jeopardy! when it first came back on the air in the 80s in grade school. In high school, I was a total Jeopardy! nerd, I watched every episode, followed along and tracked my answers. We had a teacher in high school who was also a big fan; he would arrange Jeopardy! tournaments every year, and one year I won! That was very exciting, but once I went off to college, I stopped watching. I didn’t watch it for probably 20+ years except for here and there if it happened to be on, but I was not a regular watcher.

What was the qualification process like?

When a friend suggested that I take the test, I hadn’t thought about Jeopardy! in many many years, but I thought, “Sure why not?”  The test is an online test of 50 questions. They do the tests once a year, and that’s it — that’s your opportunity to be on Jeopardy! The questions are a lot like the questions you would see on the show. They don’t tell you how you did and you don’t have to answer in the form of a question for the online test, which is good because you don’t have that much time — you only have 10 seconds for each question.

In between the test and the show there is an audition. The online test happened in January, and then that summer, I heard that I was invited for an audition. Luckily, the auditions were in Portland; they spread them out to different cities across the country and then they change them every year. They try to shift it around so that everyone gets a chance to be close to an audition city. The year that I took the test, just coincidentally, the audition city happened to be Portland. I got the call to audition about 4 months after I took the test.

Once you do the audition, you are in the contestant pool for 18 months — anytime between the time you audition and 18 months they might call you. For me it was about 16 months when they called me. I didn’t think I was going to be on the show and then at the last minute, I was. They give you four weeks notice… that’s enough time to buy a reasonably priced ticket to LA, get things in order to get time off work and stuff like that, but it’s not a ton of time.

How did you prepare for the show?

In between the time that I auditioned and the time that I was on the show, I hadn’t been watching the show for decades and even after I took the online test I still hadn’t really watched the show. So I started watching the show a lot — that’s what you hear again and again, the best way to prepare is to watch the show as much as possible. I started recording it and would play along, track how I was doing, and find my weak points. I used several different flashcard apps.

I was very very nervous when I showed up and I really didn’t feel prepared. I know a lot of people who go on Jeopardy! are serious trivia nerds and they have done bar trivia, College Bowl, all these quizzing tournaments, and I had never done any of that stuff. I don’t think my knowledge depth is that great, especially in comparison to other people on the show. After watching the show intensively for a year, I thought, “Oh my gosh, I can’t do that. How do they know these things?”

How many shows did you film in a day?

They only shoot two days a week, but it’s two weeks worth of shows. Five shows were filmed in a day. They do Monday through Friday in a single day, and then the very next day they’ll do another Monday through Friday, and then they take a break. Then they do it all again next week. There is about a 10-minute break between each filming, so it’s pretty fast-paced. If you win a show, they escort you off the stage very quickly. It’s such a whirlwind. They send you back to the dressing room; you have to change your clothes, get your makeup touched up, get your microphone back on, and then they push you back on the stage. That’s as much time as you have between each show. You do get a lunch break between the Wednesday and Thursday [tapings], but it’s a whirlwind. I kept saying I felt like a rag doll, asking myself, “What’s happening?”

How much of a calming presence is Alex Trebek? How did he influence your experience on the show?

Alex Trebek definitely is a very calming presence. We don’t get to spend a lot of time with him as contestants. We interact with him about as much as you see on the show. He comes out, does a little interview, and at the end of the show he’ll come chit chat with the contestants, but that’s about it. But even so, he seems like such a genuinely warm, charming, welcoming person. He’s so good at  putting people at ease. I think it also helps that I see this guy, the guy I’ve seen since I was a little kid, there he is — it was just very familiar.

Was that your jacket in the 5th and final game and if not, did wearing it affect the outcome?

They tell you to bring two changes of clothes so that you have three outfits potentially to wear if you win multiple shows; it was just unlucky for me that the first show [I recorded] had been a “Monday” [the first filming of the day], so I ran through all my clothes by the time I got to the “Friday” shoot. I was in the back dressing room after the “Thursday” show, going through my clothes with a producer, and everything looks the same — there’s no way I could rearrange these clothes to look any different. So the producer just started digging through the closet. I don’t even know where she came up with this jacket, but she pulled out a jacket and said, “I found this in the back of the closet, do you want to try it on? I think it’ll fit you.” And it actually did fit me, which was kind of surprising. I had a little bit of a premonition as I was putting it on that this was going to be bad luck; I’m [wearing] a randomly left behind, lost and found jacket, so I had a thought it might be bad luck. And then I went on and did lose that show! But I shouldn’t blame the blazer. Mostly, I was just really exhausted.

What does the winning streak mean for you? How did the experience impact or change you?

Well first of all, I won a nice amount of money, which I don’t actually have yet — they don’t send out checks until 4 months after the show airs, but it’s nice to know that it’s there. I was talking about doing some work on the backyard, building a catio for my cats.

But actually being on the show… it’s nice to have a little bit of recognition. It’s a pretty low-level fame; people are stopping me on the street to say hey. I’ve heard from friends from college who’ve written me nice messages to congratulate me, and that’s probably my favorite part.

Another really fun part about being on Jeopardy! that I hadn’t really thought of before I went on is that there is this whole community of people who have been on Jeopardy! who communicate with each other, and that’s been really fun. They’re a support group, a group of funny nerds to talk to.

When you went on did you know your episodes would run concurrent with the Greatest of All Time Tournament?

No, they didn’t tell us it was happening; they hadn’t announced it yet. I think they actually shot that tournament a week or two after we were on. I think we suffered a little from the comparison. It was kind of fun because those episodes were on at the same time, and there was kind of a high Jeopardy! awareness.

Is anything different now when you watch the show, having been a contestant and now familiar with both sides of the screen?

When you’re down there, you are with a big pool of contestants because they film two weeks worth of shows. There are a lot of people that ended up being on shows that followed me, so it was exciting [because] after I lost, I didn’t know what happened to all those people that I had met — you know, they’re not allowed to tell me the results of the games. [It was] exciting to watch the shows afterwards and say, “I know all those people!” And then I continued to watch, partly because now I’m more invested in the show. Also, there’s the possibility that I might be in the Tournament of Champions, so I kind of want to keep watching and try and keep training just in case that happens. Whenever I see someone win on a Monday, I think, “Hang in there. You got a long day ahead of you.”

Is there anything else you want to share about your experience?

The one thing that surprised me was the amount of questions that I don’t know the answers to now. I was watching my show, and reading that question, I would think, “I don’t know what that is.” And then I’d watch myself buzzing in, and watch myself answer correctly. I don’t know how that happened. I also saw the opposite where I 100% knew the answer to that question, and I know that November-me knew the answer to that question, too, but I saw myself buzzing with the wrong answer.

If you could design a Jeopardy! category and question, what would it be?

Well, it would probably be food-related. If there was a pie category, I would totally ace that. Okay, I’ve got it: Food in Movies. A category of movies with famous food scenes. I think that would make a great Jeopardy! category.

Veronica is the Systems Librarian at OCOM and Part-Time Reference Librarian at WSU-Vancouver, and recently accepted a position as a Faculty Librarian at PCC Cascade.