For months, Jen Sosnowski had been keeping a secret from friends, neighbors and colleagues.
Many were aware that in April, the high school science teacher flew to Los Angeles for an appearance on the popular TV game show “Jeopardy!”
Sosnowski, 38, was back from California a few days later. But she wasn’t supposed divulge the outcome.
Wednesday night the nation learned it. And amid peals of jubilation, screams and cheers, so did a viewing party held by Community High School in Roanoke, where Sosnowski teaches. She can now call herself a Jeopardy! champion. In last night’s airing, she won big — $28,801.
Because of some late-arising technical difficulties, the event had to be moved at the last minute from the private school’s auditorium in downtown Roanoke to Academic Director Josh Chapman’s living room in the Raleigh Court neighborhood.
There, a packed room of students and staff watched a classic come-from-behind effort. Sosnowski laid off on the first 14 questions in the game (which has only 61 questions in all). At the end of round 1, she trailed the field with $2,000.
“A lot of those questions were not in my wheelhouse,” she told the viewing party. Plus, “I was nervous,” she said.
Sosnowski holds bachelor’s degrees in music and biology, and a master’s in biology, too. She grew up in Salem, and is a 1995 graduate of Salem High School. The Jeopardy! bug bit her more than 20 years ago, in her teens. Watching the show was a regular family pastime, she told me.
She’s been trying to get on Jeopardy! for years — so has her husband, Sean Neff. And that’s no cakewalk, even for a longtime fan who has three college degrees.
The show runs an annual online test that winnows the field of would-be contestants. People who do well may be invited to auditions, which are held in major cities around the country. Even then, the chances they’ll get an invitation to compete are slim.
Sosnowski said Jeopardy! calls about 3,000 people annually to auditions. Of those, 300 to 400 actually wind up on the show.
She’s been to auditions on four occasions in the past eight or so years — all of them in Washington, D.C. Her husband has been called to auditions in Atlanta and Nashville. (He’s still waiting for a Jeopardy! invitation.)
At those, would-be contestants take another test on paper. Then, “there’s a short mock game, and a short interview, to make sure you’re vaguely presentable and you don’t shout a curse word if you get a wrong answer,” Sosnowski said.
“You don’t get a lot of information on the criteria they’re looking for,” she told me. But the contestant coordinators always urge would-be players not to give up if they’re passed over after an audition.
“They tell you, ‘Some of our best players have had to audition four or five times,’” Sosnowski said.
Her last audition was in April 2016. This past March, finally, Sosnowski got an invitation to appear on the show. It came in a phone call about three weeks before the April taping.
Jeopardy! contestants pay their own airfare to Los Angeles, and they pay for their hotel stay and meals, too. The show offers contestants discounted hotel rooms, which brings the cost down to around $125 per night.
But nobody walks away with less than $1,000, the prize for third-place finishers. That covers most of the expenses for the trip.
All the tapings for two weeks worth of shows are done on Mondays and Tuesdays in a studio in Culver City. And then it’s months before a show airs.
“Out of the 15 or so [contestants] that were there, I think four were teachers and one was a college professor,” Sosnowski told me. “They’re all very smart; they’re all very interesting. You bond together pretty quickly.”
Each show takes about 45 minutes to tape, including breaks and, occasionally, do-overs by host Alex Trebek, Sosnowski said. The Jeopardy! set was smaller than she had expected, based on years of watching the televised game. In all, the stage is a bit bigger than the one in Community High’s auditorium.
For the show that aired last night, Sosnowski was matched against defending champion Laura Kelsay, a hotel reception clerk from Grand Island, Nebraska, and Jay Oalman, a data marketing manager from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Heading into the contest, Kelsay appeared to be a formidable competitor. Over two games, she had racked $42,300 in winnings.
“The previous two games, she ripped through,” Sosnowski said.
The first half of round one was largely a duel between Kelsay and Oalman. But thanks in part to two correctly answered Daily Doubles — and daring wagers Sosnowski made on them — by the end of the second round she led the field, with $15,400. Kelsay had $14,400, and Oalman’s total was $8,400.
“A couple of the questions I knew because I was a chemistry teacher, and they involved chemicals,” Sosnowski said. “One of the Daily Doubles I got because of my husband.”
It was about Francis Gary Powers, the U2 spy plane pilot from Southwest Virginia shot down over the Soviet Union on a reconnaissance flight in 1960, and which branch of the military he served in (The Air Force). Until two years ago, Sosnowski had never heard of Powers. Neff told her the story during a visit to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum.
The final round category was “Ancient History.” Sosnowski’s third-round wager was $13,401 — just enough to ensure that, if she got the answer right, she’d beat the highest possible total Kelsay could achieve, if Kelsay bet her whole bank and got the question right, too.
Here’s the clue: “Battles at Trebbia and Trasimene were among the victories of this man, who was born in Africa and died near the Black Sea.”
All three of the competitors correctly answered “Hannibal.” Kelsay, who bet $7,500 on the third round, finished second, with $21,900. Oalman wagered $3,601 in the final round, and ended up with a distant $12,001.
How did Sosnowski celebrate after her big win?
Still in Los Angeles, “I went out to a celebratory dinner, at a nice restaurant, by myself,” she told me. “Actually, I had to persuade myself that I was a Jeopardy! champion and that I had won $28,000.”
She hasn’t yet gotten her check from the show. Winnings from any one episode aren’t paid until after it airs, months after the taping.
Sosnowski’s donating $2,000 of the winnings to Community High School. “Aside from that, “I still haven’t decided [what to do with the rest]. I don’t have any expensive hobbies.” The taxman will take a healthy bite, for sure.
And because she’s a Jeopardy! champion, Sosnowski will be on TV again tonight, defending her crown. That episode will air at 7:30 p.m. on WDBJ-7.
How did she do? You’ll have to tune in to find out.