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Published: Friday, 2/8/2013

Adrian professor wouldn't trade ‘Jeopardy!' experience for anything

BY KIRK BAIRD
CULTURE SHOCK

"If it were a nation, a state with a two-word name in this country would be the world's sixth most-populous at 200 million."

This is the final Jeopardy! clue that ended Stephanie Jass' seven-game reign in October. She answered "Outer Mongolia." The correct response: India.

"I was trying to figure out the two-word state, and drawing a complete blank, mostly because I was thinking of China — forgetting that they have provinces, not states," she said. "I wrote down ‘Outer Mongolia' because I thought it was funny and I like to write down something, even if it's a total guess.

"A lot of people have said to me that it really is a confusing question and I agree, but the woman next to me got it right so it can't be that confusing. I just read it wrong and that can happen all the time in that game."

Months after her ouster from the popular game show it's neither the clue — awkward wording aside — that sticks with the 42-year-old Milan, Mich., resident, nor that her lucrative run came to a sudden end.

It's that Jass could have won that match and remained reigning champ, even with her incorrect response.

"[The winner] waged so little that had I bet zero I would have retained my title. That's the only part that bothers me," Jass said. "I could have bet zero and won."

As it is, the associate history professor at Adrian College walked away with $147,570 in winnings, making her among the top overall performers in Jeopardy!'s long-running history.

"For a day and a half of work, my hourly rate is pretty astronomical right now," Jass joked.

She has the opportunity to earn even more by competing on Jeopardy!'s Tournament of Champions, in which 15 winning contestants from the previous 18 months go head to head.

The 10 total episodes in the tournament were taped mid-January, and naturally Jass cannot disclose how she fared. She did reveal that she appears in the first episode of the tournament, which is scheduled to air at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday on WTOL-TV, Channel 11. To celebrate her Jeopardy! accomplishments as well as her return to the show, Jass was invited to speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Tecumseh District Library, 215 N. Ottawa St., in Tecumseh, Mich. Later, in the library's own Jeopardy!-style tournament, Jass will compete against Tecumseh City Manager Kevin Welch and Tecumseh District Library Director S. Gayle Hazelbaker, and then Tecumseh Mayor Dick Johnson and Tecumseh Area Historical Society President Eric Burdick.

"I'll be talking about my experiences and answering questions," she said, "and playing Jeopardy! against some local luminaries. I guess I better be honing my skills on the practice buzzer at home."

It's as much her skill with the buzzer as her decades of accumulated trivia knowledge that made Jass such a formidable Jeopardy! opponent. "I've seen plenty of people who knew more than I did but just couldn't get the buzzer right," she said. "It's a very human process."

Being a lifelong book junkie didn't hurt, either.

"I read the encyclopedia just for fun because I'm that big of a nerd," Jass said. "I'm under no illusions."

Still, there is a significant difference in being a trivia nerd and a Jeopardy!-winning trivia nerd, as Jass discovered with her return to the show. Big success meant big expectations.

"I now have a fanbase of people rooting for me ... whereas before nobody felt it except me," she said. "I'm a competitive person anyway. Winning is important to me; you don't want to like an idiot" on TV.

To those fans Jass would ask to temper expectations about her performance on Jeopardy!'s Tournament of Champions. "It's just a different game," she said, in terms of the ability level of contestants and in the difficulty level of questions.

Even how the former winners were treated by the show's producers was different than what they experienced when first competing on Jeopardy!.

"It's a much more celebratory attitude and they made everybody feel, no matter what happens, you're all champions," she said. "No matter how I did, it was such a great experience, I wouldn't trade it for anything."

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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