Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.
While many Jews who have never been to Israel anticipate their first visit to the Western Wall, Jason Keller also has the Tel Aviv Scrabble Club—one of the world’s largest clubs of its kind—in mind.
A brainy tour of the Holy Land would only be natural for the 30-year-old Highland Park, NJ, resident, who last month won $213,900 during a nine-episode run on Jeopardy!, the classic answers-and-questions quiz show.
“I would love to see everything that Israel has to offer,” Keller said. “I really want to tour the country, but I’ll admit that if I happen to go during a time when there’s a Scrabble tournament, I may go to the Scrabble tournament.”
Appearing on Jeopardy! marked the fulfillment of a 16-year quest for Keller, who benefitted from a lifelong appreciation for trivia and brain games. He had been sending postcards and self-addressed stamped envelopes to the show since he was a teenager.
When the registration process evolved to online testing as the first qualifying filter, Keller passed that test four separate times and received three in-person auditions. Eventually, he wowed producers by telling them about his friendships with former Jeopardy! contestants through Scrabble tournaments, quiz bowls and other events.
“This is something that I've wanted for a really long time, and I’ve usually been an optimist,” he said. “I always felt that it would happen eventually.”
Nearly three months after his June audition, Keller was called to appear in late October. The show tapes five shows a day, two days a week, and Keller’s first game was the final show of a Tuesday taping.
As he stood on the stage, Keller grew more excited hearing famed announcer Johnny Gilbert:
From the middle position—between Leslie Hamilton, a teacher and swim coach from Erlanger, Ky., and one-day champ Beth Watkins, a graduate student of medieval studies from Savannah, Ga.—the exam prep tutor was ready.
“There were some nerves, but it was more like ‘Here we go,’” Keller said. “I was more nervous sitting in the audience before my game. By the time I got up there, I felt relieved, and thought I would just see what happened. I thought I had a pretty good shot.”
Keller took control of the game early, accumulating $7,000 after the first round and $20,200 heading into Final Jeopardy, $6,400 more than second-place Hamilton.
The final answer, “A Roman legal term for a debtor sentenced to servitude is the origin of this term for a slave to a vice,” stumped Keller’s opponents, and his response of “What is addict?” made him a champion.
“I prepared myself for everything, from the best to the worst,” he said. “I dreamed about winning game number 75 [thus setting a record] and having all this confetti in the studio and having [former Jeopardy champion] Ken Jennings watching. I also had visions of getting on one show, having the categories not go my way and being really angry about it afterward.”
Keller’s winnings were the sixth-most in Jeopardy’s long history and the largest of the current season. His nine-day run is also among the longest since the show relaxed its rule that forced champions to retire after five straight wins.
During his run, Keller defeated an elementary school teacher, comedy writer, travel specialist, medical student, grocer, librarian, chef and assistant principal, among others. Keller gave the most correct responses in each of his nine wins, answering 229 questions in that span.
Three times, he entered Final Jeopardy as a runaway winner—meaning he had more than twice the amount of the second-place score—and twice won despite trailing.
With his fifth win, Keller guaranteed himself a spot in the Tournament of Champions.
“That was my first thought,” he said. “Not a lot of people get to do that. It was just wonderful.”
Keller wished his mother a happy birthday on his 10th show, which aired Dec. 29, thanking her for instilling in him a love of all games. They played Wheel of Fortune when he was a child, and Jeopardy eventually became an evening viewing staple.
He got a Scrabble board in third grade, learned how to play chess from his dad, and learned card games from his grandparents.
After a whirlwind weekend of commuting between coasts, Keller lost despite a last-minute charge. Tired by the taping of that day’s fourth episode, Keller didn’t know that the correct response to, “Concluding a four-book series, his 2004 novel ‘Folly and Glory’ features Kit Carson, William Clark & Jim Bowie,” was author Larry McMurtry.
He lost to Dave Leach, a software analyst from Atlanta, Ga., who also didn’t know the answer.
“I knew that [McMurtry was] a writer who does stories about the West, but I don’t know if I would’ve come up with that about him,” Keller said. “I was disappointed. There’s always regret when it’s over. You love the experience, and you don’t want it to end.”
For the Tournament of Champions, Keller will seek to improve his breadth of knowledge. While he thrived at geography, opera, women in sports and literature, he considers movies, animals and questions that ask for specific dates as weaknesses.
Raised in a Conservative Jewish home, Keller became intrigued with the prospect of traveling to Israel after hearing about his younger brother’s experiences on a Taglit-Birthright trip.
But for his next public endeavor, Keller is thinking bigger, picturing himself in physical jeopardy while dashing around the world on The Amazing Race.
“There could be a bunch of different angles,” Keller said with a laugh. “My younger brother thinks we should go on together. I could do the brainy stuff, and he can do the physical stuff. Or maybe they’d want two long-running Jeopardy! champions [on a team].”