Tuesday night, Ken Jennings won the Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time tournament over James Holzhauer and Brad Rutter. Those three contestants got on the show because they were record-setters: Jennings with the longest streak of wins, Holzhauer with the largest single-game score, and Rutter as the all-time earnings champion in the show’s history.
But among the many people watching the tournament with great interest was another Jeopardy! record-setter, one whose title is more ignominious: Stephanie Hull, who, on March 12, 2015, ended the game with the lowest score in Jeopardy! history, -$6,800. I spoke to Hull, who’s never given an interview in the nearly five years since that fateful episode aired, on Tuesday afternoon, just before Jennings’ final triumph aired. I wanted to know what it was like to achieve a lifelong dream only to have it turn into a nightmare, and what the owner of the WOAT score thought about the GOAT tournament. Hull, now a professor of philosophy in Sedalia, Missouri, was funny, honest, and still emotional about the lows and the highs of her game-show experience. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Slate: What were your expectations going into the Greatest of All Time tournament? Did you think that one of these three players had a big advantage?
Stephanie Hull: My money was on Brad, personally, because Brad had the distinction of never having lost to a human before. So the surprising thing for me has been to see Brad struggle, but I’m not particularly surprised that Ken is doing as well as he is. These three guys—and really any set of three competitors on Jeopardy!—are pretty evenly matched. Everybody knows all of this stuff, so it’s just buzzer timing and gamesmanship, really.
Even with the questions at this higher level.
Yeah. There haven’t been that many of what they call “triple stumpers,” when all three players miss the question. The people in the Jeopardy! circles that I run in, the general opinion is that it’s actually not that much harder than regular tournament play. I would’ve thought they would’ve made it a lot harder, but it seems to be about the same as your average Tournament of Champions.
Why do you think Brad has struggled so much?
Well, I’m not sure what his preparation was like or what he did, but I kind of get the sense that Ken came in loaded for bear and wanted to beat Brad. Brad’s team won that team tournament that they did last year, and Ken came in second to Brad. So I think Ken spent a lot of time preparing and came in ready to beat Brad—and James.
Are you a student of Jeopardy! history? It seems like you have watched a lot of these shows and you really know a lot of these players well.
I’ve been watching Jeopardy! literally my entire life. I just turned 30 in August, so the current incarnation of the show with Alex as the host has been on longer than I’ve been alive. I remember Ken’s original run in 2003—that was like must-see TV for the nerds of Liberty High School. But there’s also a Jeopardy! community that’s part of this broader trivia community and I kind of am on the margins of that community, so everybody knows everybody.
I mean, it’s easy to make the argument that these three are the greatest of all time, but is there anyone else you think was an exceptional player who they ought to consider including in something like this?
My first thought would be Julia Collins, who is the longest-running female competitor on Jeopardy! She’s scary good at trivia, and she could’ve been out there as well. Really almost all of those people that were playing on the Team Tournament last year probably could have been in competition for this.
OK. Since it aired in March of 2015, have you rewatched your own Jeopardy! episode?
I have not rewatched my own episode. I don’t particularly want to rewatch my own episode. I watched it when it aired in my local market that day. And that’s the last time I’ve seen it. Today, actually preparing for this interview, I went to the Jeopardy! archives to look at my show, and that’s the first time I’ve done that.
Oh, wow. Really?
Yeah. I didn’t know if you were going to ask me details about gameplay. One of the things people who haven’t been on the show don’t necessarily realize is they pretty much tape it in the same amount of time that it takes to air. So each episode, the contestants are up there for less than 20 minutes.
It happens really fast.
Very fast. And I—I don’t really remember what happened in the Double Jeopardy! round very well. It’s kind of a blur in my head in many ways.
Well, let’s start with the positives. Looking over that Jeopardy! archive for that episode, you got a ton of questions right in this game, including a bunch that I never would’ve gotten right at all. What’s a question that you got right that you’re really proud of?
So I’m actually proud of the whole first round. But one of the things that always makes me smile is that I’m proud of getting several Potent Potables correct. I’m not a huge drinker, but most of the time people in grad school are, and I got that $800 Potent Potable on Drambuie correct, because a friend of mine had bought a round of shots of that several weeks before. [The question was “The name of this honey-whiskey liqueur is from a Scottish Gaelic phrase that means ‘the drink that satisfies.’ ”] So I had to say, “John, I knew this because of you.”
Plenty of people have had bad Jeopardy! matches. It seems to me that to end up with the lowest score of all time, a bunch of really unlikely things need to all happen at once.
What do you think it was that transformed an ordinary bad day on Jeopardy! into a historically bad score?
Two things stand out to me. The Daily Doubles were gotten by the other players and that is really key in terms of strategy. As we see when we look at the GOAT tournament, finding the Daily Doubles, getting them correct, and wagering a sufficient amount of money is super-duper important. All three of them were answered by the other players. [My competitor] Kristin [Sausville] got two of them. She answered them both incorrectly. And the third of them was answered correctly by Brad [King], who was the middle podium.
I was trying to focus on the bottom of the board, which is typically where they’re found, but that is not where they all were in this particular Double Jeopardy! board. And the other thing was I buzzed in and answered incorrectly on every $2,000 question. I was trying to get myself out of the hole with high-value questions. They were very difficult questions and I couldn’t get myself out of the hole. If you’ve ever seen that GIF of Kermit flapping his arms, doing that Kermit flail, that’s kind of what it was.
Right. At some point you realize: “Oh God, this is going badly. I need to answer these questions right.”
Desperation, desperation, desperation. Yeah. And I was thinking, “OK, if I get big money, I’ll get out of the hole,” but I couldn’t do it. You can tell by the end of the round, it was just a total brain fart at that point. Like the last question: “Speaking this way involves similes & metaphors,” and I buzzed in and said, “What is ‘metaphorically’?” And they were looking for figuratively. Like, my God, that’s terrible. But I was really in panic mode at that time. Total sheer panic.
As a viewer, seeing you buzz on all those $2,000 questions, it seems like you’re going down fighting. It’s not like you froze and thought: “Well, forget it. I’m not going to make this any worse for myself.” You went for it.
People have said that to me and I’m glad they feel that way, but I didn’t feel that way. And I still don’t feel that way about it. It’s good to go down fighting. But I still went down.
Imagine doing something that you’ve wanted to do your entire life and then it turning into that and you know you’re going to be on national TV, so you’re basically trying desperately not to cry. That’s kind of where I was.
And then the internet made fun of my face. So that was great.
Yeah. The response was pretty mean.
It was super mean. I’m not entirely sure, but I think it was one of the first kind of viral Jeopardy! moments, the game, my game, which, because both Brad and I ended up with negative scores, was the game played with only one person in Final Jeopardy!
Yeah, I think that’s right.
I deleted my Twitter the morning before it aired, and I’m really glad of that.
Kristin went to bat for you.
Kristin went to bat for me. Kristin—so I will say the hidden silver lining of this is what came out of this game and the internet nastiness. We created a community specifically for women who had been on Jeopardy!, a Facebook group, because it turns out the people who tend to get the most negativity on the internet are women. As people who live on the internet know.
And these women are some of the best friends I’ve ever had. It’s like an internet sorority of smart women who have opinions on a lot of different things and support each other and care about each other and help each other and we’re there for each other. And honestly, the friendship of Kristin Sausville is one of the things that I got out of my show that I really treasure. She’s a great friend and I’m really lucky I get to have her in my life. She’s a wonderful person.
In that moment right after the camera shut off, did Alex say anything to you? How did he respond to what had just happened to you?
Alex did not say anything to us, because he technically can’t at that point. He had to push forward and get through Final Jeopardy! with Kristin. I got pulled off the stage by Maggie Speak, who is one of the contestant coordinators, and Maggie is probably the most wonderful person you’ll ever meet. And she just hugged me. She hugged me while I sobbed. And she said: “It’s OK. You did your best. It’s OK.”
And then they brought us back up for the chat with Alex after Final Jeopardy! And that was when Alex said: “That was a really weird board. That was just so weird.” It was a weird Double Jeopardy! board.
So it wasn’t like on The Simpsons where Trebek sends in the goons to get Marge to pay back the money.
I did use that particular still from that episode of Marge as my profile picture on Facebook for a little while. No, you don’t have to pay back the money. I won $1,000 [for placing third], which was good. It paid for the trip to L.A. I had a lovely trip to L.A. at the beginning of January. In Missouri it was like 15 degrees and snowing.
That’s pretty good.
And I live in infamy on the internet.
I would argue that your infamy is not quite earned, because I think the single worst one-day performance is not you. I think it’s Wolf Blitzer.
That is what my husband says. He always says, “Well, Wolf Blitzer did worse.”
Is that comforting in any way?
It’s a little amusing, I guess. I don’t know. It’s hard to think of talking heads on TV as real people.
It does seem like Jeopardy! is on the cusp of a great change with Alex being sick and with producer Harry Friedman leaving. How do you think the show might evolve in coming years? And I’m particularly curious, given this Facebook community that you’ve created with fellow women who have been contestants on the show, what does that community think might be worth changing about the show?
Well, I think that Jeopardy! will continue after Trebek retires and hangs up his hat. I suspect the new host will be someone who we have never heard of. It won’t be a former contestant. I, for one, would like it if the host was female, but that’s not a huge criterion. These days the contestant coordinators are doing a really good job of trying to make sure there’s always at least one and sometimes more than one, sometimes two, sometimes three women in every game, which is really cool. The trivia community does seem to skew heavily male, but it’s not as male-dominated actually as it is perceived. We’re out there. It’s just that we need to amplify our own voices, and we probably need a little bit of help amplifying our own voices too.
All right. Here’s my final question for you. Watching this GOAT tournament has really made me wish that Jeopardy! would institute, like, a Redemption Tournament, in which the three players with the lowest one-game totals compete against each other. Would you go back for a Redemption Tournament?
Yeah, sure. I’d go back on a Redemption Tournament, if they invited me. I can think of some people who are my fellow one-and-dones who I would certainly have a good time playing with. So yeah, I’d go back.
Good to know. I’m going to make it my life goal to make that happen.