She won Jeopardy three times -- and arm wrestled Alex Trebek

Amelia Hershberger on Jeopardy

A few hundred people appear on Jeopardy each year. And of those, only a handful end up as winners on the quiz show. And even fewer end up arm wrestling Alex Trebek.

Actually, there's probably only one contestant who'll end up arm wrestling Alex Trebek this year. And that person is Amelia Hershberger from Albany.

The Center Square resident -- she grew up in Greene County, went to UAlbany, and now works for the state courts system -- racked up $43,000 in prize money in the course of winning three times in episodes that aired last month.

And then there was that whole situation with Alex Trebek and the feats of strength.

We got a chance to talk with her recently about superfluous knowledge, the real scoop on Trebek, spending the prize money, and her Albany Jeopardy categories...

Everyone's watched Jeopardy, so what was it that prompted you to say, I'm going to do that?

I've always been the sort of person who's that guy -- "Did you know that X is the case?"

Someone was talking with me about Jeopardy the other day, they were like, "How did you know that Amazing Grace clue?" And I'm like, well... First I read it and thought it was William Wilberforce who wrote it because he was the driving force behind ending the Atlantic slave trader... But, no, he was just the legislator... And then I watched that Benedict Cumberbatch movie that they made about it six years ago...

Point being that I had absolutely not relationship to "hymns" as a category for that question, but I tend to retain information that's probably superfluous at the time. Because I find things interesting, I guess. And that has always served me well when watching Jeopardy.

And I've watched it my whole life, basically. My dad would watch it and I would watch it as a kid.

Amelia Hershberger

So you take the test and do the audition, and you're finally there on the set. It's about to start. What's going through your mind?

They do a really good job of making you feel as though the stakes are higher than you think, and the hope that things could go really well -- but also, you know, 400 people a year are on this show. Don't stress out, don't become anxious.

It all happens really quickly so you don't have a lot of time to be super nervous. And because the questions happen in such a rapid-fire way, and you're trying to buzz in so quickly, most of your energy is spent on trying to access that information. And it doesn't give you a lot of time to fret over anything, which is good. It probably makes for better television, too, so it works for them.

Was there anything about the experience that surprised you?

Back in the 1900s when I was in high school -- I was on the debate team and the quiz team. (self-mocking tone) I was the captain of the quiz team -- I was very cool. And I went to these matches and tournaments and it's so cut-throat. Everybody's fiercely competitive! It's probably a function of being teenagers, who knows.

So I was sort of prepared to go to Jeopardy and think, nobody's here to make friends, like a reality television thing. But, in fact, it was incredibly congenial. Like, I've kept in touch with a ton of people I've met there. Everybody was excited to be there. Of course, everybody wants to win -- nobody flies across the country to not win any money if they can help it. But everyone was excited to have the story that "I was on Jeopardy."

So I was sort of prepared to go to Jeopardy and think, nobody's here to make friends, like a reality television thing. But, in fact, it was incredibly congenial. Like, I've kept in touch with a ton of people I've met there.

And that's how I went into it. Worst case scenario I do this, go out to California, and come home and the story is that I was on Jeopardy that time, and it's fun.

You really go into it with the understanding that anything can happen and you can't get too bogged down in the outcome at the point in time that it's happening because it's out of your control. The part that's in your control is what information do you have. And then you're up against two other people -- and I would say that most of the time everybody up there knows the answer and it's just a matter of who gets to it quickly.

There was one round where I missed -- [the category] was like "Avengers and Other Roles" or something. I love Mark Ruffalo! You Can Count on Me is one of my favorite movies! And the question was like, so and so was in Foxcatcher. And I'm like, Channing Tatum and Steve Carell aren't Avengers... and my brain just couldn't come up with it. And it's like, man, that's one that I knew. But in the moment you just have to move on, next question, get through it.

You've gotta give us the real scoop on Alex Trebek. Like, not the "oh, no, he's great" line...

I love him.

You love him!

I love Alex Trebek! I think he's great. I feel like people give him a really hard time just because he does not suffer fools gladly. But he's my people. I had listened to a podcast he was on and he went on for a really long time about how he had replaced part of his sprinkler system himself (laughing) and I thought it was the most adorable thing I'd ever heard. And he's just unflappable...

He has all the answers! Of course he's unflappable!

It's not even that. Yeah, he has all the answers, but he mispronounces things and they re-dub it and whatever. But it's more that he doesn't miss a beat. He's recording promos and taking questions from the audience during breaks in the taping. He's up the whole time. If you're having a great day [as a contestant], if you're up there for a week. And he's there regardless. And he does a really good job. Even just reading from a script or a card he has a clear sense of inflection or what he's supposed to do.

And he makes these sort of in-jokes to himself. I suspect this is just because you have to keep this job interesting for 30 years. So he's entertaining himself to some degree, right? You get the sense he has a really good sense of humor.

How did the arm wrestling thing come about?

They ask you for your potential anecdotes. I mean, that's everyone's least favorite part of the show, right? So I had said I once won an arm wrestling contest -- which is true. But it was at my friend's bachelorette party. I mean, I am a strong -- I move furniture. But I thought it'd be, you know, "I hear you're very strong..." You know, I am. Moving on.

So I did not know that was coming. And that's one of the things about it, he's kind of sizing you up, thinking, "Is she going to go along with this? Is this going to make for a good clip?" And he has good instincts about that stuff.

So, no, I did not see that coming. And I think they may have cut out the part where I was like, "Is this a good idea?!" (laughing) Which I remember saying, but maybe I didn't.

So you won, what, $43,000? Do you have plans for the money?

I'm... very excited about the prospect of paying for the heating system I put in last year. It's very exciting stuff.

I have a two year old. So the sensible thing to do is to save money for his eventual education. We are going to take a vacation this summer, but probably nothing too extravagant. My husband has said, "Can we set aside 400 bucks for a PS4?" And I thought, yes, I think we can manage that. I've run the numbers on the net gain versus taxes. It's all good.

It's mostly going to be practical. I'm still a fairly boring quiz show winner.

The nice thing about it -- and I think this is probably for the best -- is that you do your taping, you wait for it to air, and then sometime thereafter theoretically someone will send me a check. So you have some time to consider what the right course of action is, which is probably for the best. I think if somebody had just handed me a check as I walked out of the studio, I think it would have been a recipe for me to be like, "Ooh, I can just buy stuff." So, no, I did not go that route.

OK, let's say you can pick the categories for an Albany Jeopardy. What are your categories?

Oh, wow. I think you probably have to come up with something related to William Kennedy.

Machine Politics is always a good one.

Architecture isn't bad.

I actually in college took a class about the history and culture of Albany that was really fun and I'm trying to remember some of it...

Comparative Coffee Shops.

Titans of Industry.

Hospitals You've Known and Loved. (laughing)

Jeopardy winners of the Capital Region.

Yeah. I'm actually in touch with a couple other people from the area who have been on.

Do you guys get together in a secret club now?

I mean, if we do, no one's told me, so I should find out...

No, mostly just online, tweeting at each other and stuff. It's been really cool to keep in touch with people. Because, again, I went into this thinking people aren't going to be nice. But it's not true at all. Everyone's been amazing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Comments

Probably the coolest Jeopardy contestant I've ever heard of...

She looks astonishingly young for someone who was in high school in the 1900s!

I betcha there are more than just a couple winners in the area. It's not like there's a database of these things.

The J! Archive shows Linda Zusman, Roger Green and Paul Glaser as previous winners from Albany. Not exhaustive by any means.

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