After semi-finals loss, McCormick freshman reflects on his “Jeopardy!” run


(Courtesy of Beni Keown)

McCormick freshman Beni Keown forms a claw with his hand, the symbol for the Wildcats. Keown made it to the semifinals of the “Jeopardy!” College Championship, making about $8,000 in winnings after taxes.

Keerti Gopal, Reporter

Going on a nationally televised game show was never part of Beni Keown’s plan.

Still, the McCormick freshman and Evanston native made it to semi-finals of this year’s “Jeopardy!” College Championship, which aired on April 13. Keown said he entered the semi-finals with a strong lead, but drew a blank on the final question and ultimately did not continue to the final round.

“It haunted me for a bit, the question that I went out on,” Keown told The Daily. “But I was happy overall with my performance.”

Keown took the show’s entrance test last October at the recommendation of a friend, not expecting anything to come from it. About a month later, he was surprised to be invited to St. Louis for an in-person audition and screen test.

The audition took place over a few hours, Keown said. Participants were given more tests and took part in mock game scenarios and personal interviews. Although he partook in competitive trivia since high school, the “Jeopardy!” audition was unlike anything Keown had experienced, he said.

“It was immediately clear that this was a TV production,” Keown noted. “[The staff] were very high energy, and everything almost felt like you had to put on an act and present the perfect image of yourself, or a TV worthy image of yourself.”

The competition taped in February, but Keown wasn’t allowed to speak about the results until after they aired. According to McCormick first-year Ben Timmins, Keown jokingly told his friends he won every time they asked, knowing they would have to wait until April to find out for sure.

Although he didn’t win the championship, Keown still left the “Jeopardy!” stage with about $8,000 in winnings after taxes, he said. Still, he added that the cash prize had never been his main focus.

“Money didn’t really cross my mind often when I was actually playing,” Keown said. “I just wanted to do as well as I could in the tournament, and then the money would come.”

For Keown, the appeal of “Jeopardy!” was the show’s content. A lifelong trivia lover, Keown was part of the scholastic bowl team at Evanston Township High School, and he is now a member of the Northwestern Quizbowl team.

Keown’s father, David Keown, said his son has always been an avid puzzle-doer.

“He loves learning about things and competing with his mind,” said David Keown. “We’ve always known he’s had a very good brain, ever since he was very little.”

Communications junior Jack Drummond, a member of Northwestern Quizbowl, noted that excelling at competitive trivia requires a very specific skill set that includes not only knowing a lot of information, but also being able to recall it quickly and under pressure.

Drummond added that Keown’s greatest strengths in Quizbowl are his wide-ranging knowledge base and his ability to collaborate with other members of the team.

“Beni can pull questions from just about anywhere,” Drummond said. “He takes it seriously, and that allows him to be very good.”

Being on “Jeopardy!” brought with it more exposure than Keown had ever experienced. Keown was being written and tweeted about across the country, and with millions of viewers tuning into the show, Keown said he felt like a public figure for a few days.

Losing in “Jeopardy!” taught him how to handle disappointment, Keown said. The exposure helped him learn how to stay composed under the pressure of a spotlight, giving him perspective that would be useful for facing future nerves.

“I highly doubt that there will be anything I do in my life that compares with going on national television like this,” he said. “So I guess I have that to compare every event in my life to, to say if you mess up it’s not going to be as bad as if you had messed up on national television.”

The public response he received was mostly positive, Keown said, adding that his friends and family were overwhelmingly supportive, keeping a close watch on his progress in the competition.

David Keown said his son’s jeopardy performance also left an impression on many people from around the country, people he wouldn’t normally see on a regular basis.

“They all commented on how good-humored and humble and gracious he was,” he said. “That’s the part that, in many ways, I enjoyed the most about this experience, was that it showed that side of Beni, that he’s really a good-humored person with a good sense of humor and conscious of those around him.”

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Twitter: @keerti_gopal

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