Julia Collins on her record-breaking 'Jeopardy!' run, the upcoming category she would've aced

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Image Credit: Teresa Crawford/AP

On Monday, Julia Collins’ 20-game Jeopardy! winning streak came to an end when she bet everything on a Final Jeopardy clue that read: “The New England writer who in 1999 became the last person to win an Oscar for adapting his own novel as a screenplay.” Collins guessed Michael Chabon, when the correct answer was John Irving. However, despite her loss, Collins’ 20-game record puts her in second place for the most consecutive wins on the show, behind only Ken Jennings, and makes her the winningest woman in the show’s history.

But what was it about the final clue that threw her? And what is her advice to future contestants? We chatted with Collins about all of those things, as well as what she did with that money:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you choose to bet everything on Final Jeopardy?
JULIA COLLINS: That’s a good question. It was a new scenario for me. Every other game that I played, I was in the lead going into Final Jeopardy, so it was a novelty. It was something that hadn’t happened, and I guess I just thought I’d go for broke. I think if I had to do it again, I might not have bet the same way, but I don’t feel bad about it. Brian [Loughnane] was in the lead. I had talked to him a little bit before we played, and I figured he would bet to win, which is what he did. It was kind of a silly thing, because if he had gotten the wrong response and I had gotten it wrong but bet more modestly, I would still be playing, but as it was, he got the right response and I didn’t. He was going to win with that right response regardless of my wager, so I haven’t beaten myself up about it too much. I think if things had gone differently in terms of his response, then I might feel differently, but you can’t change what’s happened. It wouldn’t have changed the outcome with that Final Jeopardy clue.

So it sounds like it was a little bit about you reading him and anticipating what he was going to do.
A little bit. I just thought, “What would I do if I was in the lead? I would bet to win,” which is what I did every single day. The one time I made a little math mistake, but that was my strategy. I wasn’t going to go into Final Jeopardy in the lead, get the answer right, and not win the game. That was my mentality, and I had the feeling that was also going to be his mentality. I kind of would assume that about anybody, but definitely him. And that was the case.

Was there something they could’ve included in that clue that would’ve helped you?
I don’t know. I just couldn’t think of it. It never occurred to me that [John Irving] was the answer. I’ve read other books by him, but I haven’t read Cider House Rules and hadn’t — well, I watched a little bit of the movie after we taped and then had to turn it off, but I hadn’t seen the movie, hadn’t read the book. I’ve read a couple of his other books. I probably could’ve stood up there for a lot longer and not come up with the right response. He is associated with New England, that’s definitely true, but he’s not the writer I associate most with New England. I would’ve thought Stephen King, which frankly would’ve been a better guess than Michael Chabon. I was thinking of Wonder Boys, which came out in a year around 1999 [Ed. note: It came out in 2000]. I was thinking that was set in New England. I don’t know. I just wanted to write something. I didn’t actually think it was right, which was usually the case in Final Jeopardy — when I wasn’t right, it wasn’t because I thought I was right; I just thought “I don’t want to leave it blank.” That’s the way the cookie crumbles.

You wrote about being on Jeopardy! in your eighth-grade yearbook, so was this something you’d consistently been preparing for?
I haven’t been explicitly preparing for it. I feel like the things I’m interested in have been well-suited for being a Jeopardy! player. I love to read. I’ll read just about anything. I read a lot of different kinds of publications. I do read a lot, although I hadn’t read that book that was in question yesterday. [Laughs] I think that helps a lot. I like to do things where I’m learning. I’m good at remembering a lot of facts. I’ve always been that way. I found my niche with Jeopardy! It wasn’t so much that I’ve been preparing for Jeopardy! as that Jeopardy! was the right outlet for all my interests and strengths.

So when did you decide to formally try and become a contestant?
It had been an idle thought when I was a kid. I’m not sure if they had the kids tournament when I was a child. They did have the high school and college tournaments, but it didn’t occur to me at that time to try out. I think I thought my parents wouldn’t go for sending me to L.A. I didn’t really think about it seriously until I found that they have an online test that you can take to become a contestant. They offer it every January. It takes about 10 minutes. There’s 50 questions. It’s not a big time commitment. It’s a low threshold. It doesn’t require a lot for me to do it — a sound internet connection, basically.

In 2009 I took the test online the first time, and I actually got called to an in-person tryout that year. I think I was just way too nervous to be on TV at that point. I don’t think it was a knowledge-level issue, I think it was that I really wasn’t TV-ready. Then I took the test at least one other time and didn’t get called for a tryout. From what I gather, 100,000 or more take the test every year and they have about 2,000 come to the tryouts. I assume they randomly select or something.

So I took the test again in January 2013 and got called to try out in Detroit last summer, and then got a call in December inviting me to be a contestant in January, which is when my first show taped.

You’ve talked a lot about your buzzer skills, but what is the biggest tip you’d give future competitors?
Getting the hang of the buzzer, if you can get that down, you’ll be in a lot better of a position. But I would say try to learn the things you’re not as strong in before you get to the show, but once you get on stage, once the show starts, don’t focus on what you don’t know. I think that really rattles people. Or if you try to buzz in and someone beats you, don’t get discouraged. A lot of the game is psychological. I think a lot of people get frustrated or discouraged.

There were a few times when I think I got a little rattled, a few times when I buzzed in because I was like, “Oh, that’s too much silence, I want to buzz in!” [Laughs] But I found out yesterday that the number of questions I answered correctly from ringing in, excluding Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy, was like 92 percent, so I didn’t really ring in unless I knew the answer or I was pretty confident I could figure out the right response from the context. That’s a big thing. Focus on what you do know. It’s a little bit like if you ever took AP exams in high school, it’s “Write down as much as you know for the responses on the essays.” If you don’t know something, don’t talk about it. That’s not that different from how I approached Jeopardy! You don’t have to know everything to be successful.

What category would you ace, no questions asked?
The things that I would’ve said before I went on Jeopardy! were Literature, History, Art. I missed questions in all those categories. [Laughs] I don’t know if this is a spoiler, [but in] today’s game there’s a category on Rodgers and Hammerstein, and I was hoping for a Musicals category. I watched that game after I was done, and that Rodgers and Hammerstein category, I would’ve loved that. I would’ve been all over that! [Laughs] Even the things I’m the most interested in, I don’t know everything. But my strongest categories were definitely Literature, History, Art.

What did you do with the money? I read about Paris?
Yeah! I went in the interim between taping and airing. I thought, I’m not working, so I have all this time, and I have some savings, and I knew after mid-February after I finished taping the show that I was going to get this huge win total — even after taxes, it’s so much money, it’s incredible! And I thought, “What am I going to do with myself for these weeks until the shows air?” I kind of felt like I could take a little break from my job search, and I wanted to be able to enjoy the full experience of winning, to be able to do the fun things that go along with winning to the scale that I did. I wanted to take a break. So I thought, “What would be really fun and distract me from all the waiting around and get me away from this horrendous Chicago winter?” It was fantastic. I rented an apartment, I basically played tourist for a month. I had some people come and visit me while I was there. It was just a wonderful, wonderful time. That’s my big splurge with my winnings.

What would you want your clue to read? If in a future game, the answer was “Who is Julia Collins?”
Oh gosh! That’s an excellent question!

It could obviously say the winningest woman in the show’s history…
I guess you could say, “19-game winning streak stood as the longest since Ken Jennings for 10 years until this contestant broke it in 2014.” You could say that. That’s kind of boring. [Laughs]

Is there anything people don’t know about you?
This has been my hidden talent and secret ambition, so the cat’s out of the bag on those two. [Laughs] That I love Jeopardy! I love watching it; I love playing it even more than I love watching it. I just love watching TV. I don’t understand when people say, “I don’t have a TV.” I think TV gives you so much for so little. [Laughs] I love TV. I love comedies.

What’s your favorite show right now?
Some of my favorite shows have been ending. I loved 30 Rock. I have to say, The Simpsons never gets old for me. They just had that Lego episode. That was great! Not every episode is perfect, but it’s still funny. I still laugh out loud. The jokes are still funny, though I’m a pretty easy audience for a joke. Anything that makes me laugh, I’m happy to watch over and over again. Drama gets a little boring for me, but comedy never does. I really love TV. Movies are not as much my thing. I mean, I like movies because I’m a human being, but yeah, I just watch television. I just love it!

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