Russian Professor Emily Frey Wins Big on Jeopardy!

Last week, yet another member of the Swarthmore Community graced the “Jeopardy!” stage. Earlier this month, Professor Emily Frey, visiting assistant professor of Russian literature, won four rounds of “Jeopardy!,” earning herself $64,503. Professor Frey’s first competition aired on October 30 and her last on November 2, though, in fact, all four shows had been filmed on August 22nd in Sony Pictures Studios.

This comes after Rebecca Rosenthal, class of 2020, participated in “Jeopardy!” last April in the College Championship, making it all the way to the semi-finals.

“[The] main thing I did was just watch a lot of episodes of ‘Jeopardy!,’” explained Frey. “That was partly because I have a little baby, and she was not yet four months old when I got the call. So I thought, ‘What could I do to prepare for “Jeopardy!” while I have this baby?’”

Frey also watched documentaries in preparation for the competition, memorizing every world capital. But recalling facts is not enough to win at “Jeopardy!,” Frey warned. Being good at trivia in a familiar setting versus in front of an audience can make all the difference.

“A lot of it has to do with speed, I think. The buzzer is a huge part of it and I knew that, but I didn’t know how true that was going to be,” said Professor Frey. “80 percent of the clues are buzzer races. Another thing that really matters is fatigue,” Frey added. “It’s because they film five episodes in one day.”

Frey, however, was not fazed by the audience. Her experience as a teacher, she said, accustomed her to performing in front of large groups and answering questions on the fly. In fact, Frey heard from Alex Trebek that teachers and lawyers always do the best on the show. Frey specified that her experience with languages helped her too. Knowing the root of words and how they relate to each other, she explained, helped in many of the categories.

According to Frey, having a liberal arts education — she attended Amherst College as an undergrad — also helped her excel in “Jeopardy!” “It’s a show that really rewards liberal arts knowledge, I think. There aren’t many categories that come up on things like science, and when they do, they tend to be things I remember from taking two courses in chemistry when I was an undergrad. It does tend to be things like knowledge of history and languages.”

Professor Frey was also taken aback by the charisma of the other contestants. From her first meeting with the other contestants, she was pleasantly surprised by their energy and optimism. Alex Trebek, too, was exceedingly charismatic and welcoming, even approaching Professor Frey for some tips on Russian pronunciation.

“He was just a really charming storyteller,” Professor Frey mused. “My husband [Assistant Professor of Math Noah Giansiracusa] was in the audience and he said ‘I would just love to have a dinner party and have Alex Trebek there.’ He’s just that kind of guy.”

“He loves to talk to the audience and answer questions from the audience, and one thing that happened in almost every game is there would be someone standing in the audience saying ‘you are the national pride of Canada!’ And he’d have to say something different every time, he just gets told that so often!”

At the same time as Frey was preparing and competing on “Jeopardy!” she was also becoming a mother. Frey found out she was pregnant the same day she auditioned for the show, and when Frey competed on the show, her daughter was only five months old.

“It was such funny timing, I auditioned for “Jeopardy!” in New York, and I thought I was so nervous — my stomach was just in knots; but then it didn’t go away after the audition, and I found out I was pregnant with my daughter on the day of my “Jeopardy!” audition. And then I got the call when she was three months old, so the timing was all so related between “Jeopardy!” and my daughter, so I think it will be really cool to show her that later.”

Being a new mom competing on “Jeopardy!” certainly had its challenges, though. Frey feared that she might not be able to compete in the show, having just had her daughter a few months prior.

“When I got the call, my husband and I thought, can we actually do this? There’s a stereotype of moms having ‘mom brain’ and being so forgetful and not being able to do anything and I just thought, ‘Alright, if Serena Williams can do this, I can do it too!’ It was sort of my first step in feeling like a person again,” she said.

Frey was met with overwhelming support from students, former students, and even former teachers. Her friends on Facebook who were also moms showed her a great amount of support.

“On Facebook, that’s been the main response that I’ve gotten from my friends who are moms: moms can do anything! Way to show them that we are more than just one thing.”

More than anything, though, Frey felt lucky, not only to have gotten as far as she did, but also just to have been on the show. Frey won three games in a row, losing narrowly in her fourth game.

“It’s just so much fun. It feels like skydiving. Every time, I felt like the earth had dropped out from under me. It’s just so unlike anything else you ever do in your life. I can see how it would be kind of addicting.”

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