Larissa Kelly, Jeopardy! Champ
Historian makes history: Larissa Kelly, a Berkeley Ph.D. candidate on the quiz show “Jeopardy!”

Update: Larissa Kelly is back on Jeopardy! (March 13, 2009)

The drama that actually took place in a much more compressed interval back in February of this year played out over seven separate days in the latter part of May.

That its star, Larissa Kelly, was no longer in California, or even the United States, didn’t matter. It was literally academic. (Kelly was, like the serious Ph.D. candidate she is, pursuing her dissertation research, which took her to Mexico.)

Her role in the episodic television quiz show Jeopardy!1 was “previously recorded” in a two-day burst, then broadcast to the nation in distinct weekday segments, as is standard procedure for the highly-rated program.

“Jeopardy!” Basics for $100

Each daily installment is a conflict among the minds and buzzer-reflexes of three contestants who are provided with clues in the form of “answers” worth varying dollar amounts in a variety of categories. They respond with what they hope are the right “questions.” Not too surprisingly, the one with the most money at the end is the winner or “champion” of that day’s show, and is eligible to return and compete in the next show.

Larissa Kelly kept winning and kept coming back for more, creating buzz among the game’s fanbase with her style of play — alert but calm, and bold in her bets. Before it was over, she had pNow she belongs to historylayed the game longer and won more cash in regular (non-tournament) play than any other woman contestant and, more amazingly, had become the third-largest money winner in the show’s 24-year history.

The program’s producers frequently estimate that 32 million people tune in to watch the battle of wits and play along at home.

Right after the big win: Larissa Kelly and Jeopardy host Alex Trebek (photo courtesy of Jeopardy Productions)
Right after the big win: Larissa Kelly and Jeopardy host Alex Trebek (photo courtesy of Jeopardy Productions)

So just who the heck is Larissa Kelly?

On the show, she was billed simply as “a grad student from El Cerrito, California.” Many local people who saw the first show suspected her institution was Berkeley, not one of those other places within commuting distance. Some searched the Web and found a few confirming references.

She grew up in Newton2, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, and went to Princeton as an undergrad. As a freshman there she met a classmate named Jeff Hoppes, who lived in the same “residential college” (i.e., dorm). It didn’t take long to establish that they were both already veteran quiz kids (not their term). Larissa competed in the National Geography Bee in elementary and middle school; Jeff came in third in the country in that Bee when he was in seventh grade. Both competed in quizbowl3 in high school, then at Princeton, and following that, at Berkeley4, where both came to seek Ph.D.s in history, hers in Latin American, his in British. They were married5 in the summer of 2002, after Princeton and before Berkeley.

Also a Jeopardy! alum: Husband and fellow Berkeley history grad student Jeff Hoppes on the Berkeley Quiz Bowl team with Chancellor Birgeneau after their 3rd place finish at the 2005 ACF National Championship.
Also a Jeopardy! alum: Husband and fellow Berkeley history grad student Jeff Hoppes (middle) on the Berkeley Quiz Bowl team with Chancellor Birgeneau after their 3rd place finish at the 2005 ACF National Championship.

Her opponents

There are always three contestants, one of whom is the “returning champion” from the preceding show. In Larissa’s seven contests, she faced a physician’s assistant, a housewife, two students, a trainer, a librarian, a freelance writer, an art history professor, an emergency-room doctor, a mastering technician, a construction worker, a journalist, an attorney, and a protocol systems coordinator, from every major region in the country7. She beat all but one.


The central figure in Jeopardy is its host, Alex Trebek, an unusually civilized figure in the universe of game shows. He’s urbane, friendly, relaxed, informal, quick, and very much in command. Under Trebek, its third host, since 1984 the show has achieved its greatest success and has been ranked “number two among the 50 greatest game shows of all time” by TV Guide. A Canada native of French and Ukrainian stock, Trebek has a degree in philosophy from the University of Ottawa and a broadcasting background in news and sports. His penchant for precision in pronouncing English and foreign words helps raise the show above the common herd — and is often satirized.

Day One (Tuesday, May 20)

This was the 5,467th show for Jeopardy and Larissa’s first.

Voice-over announcer Johnnie Gilbert called out, as he always does, “This … is … Jeopardy!

He introduced the three contestants by their full names (first names are used, by and large, as the show proceeds). Larissa faced Ameet from Phoenix and Mary Kay from Wisconsin Rapids, the woman who won the “day” before.

Play proceeded. Ameet was either unlucky, outclassed, or both, and had a horrible game. Mary Kay’s hometown paper, the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune, told community readers the next day that the mother of two, after winning her first day with $22,400 “zipped through categories” in the first round of her second day on the show faster than the reporter could write them down, and came up with a $10,000 lead. But then “Larissa Kelly from El Cerrito, Calif., pretty much dominated the second round.”

So back to Wisconsin Rapids went Mary Kay. Larissa, the new champion, had $45,200, a strong win.

Day Two (Wednesday, May 21)

Ready to rumble: Brandon from Denver and Ruth from Redding, Massachusetts.

During the brief chat with contestants, Alex identified Larissa as “a graduate student in Latin American History working on her Ph.D. on… what subject?”

Larissa: “On the history of archaeology in Mexico in the 19th century.”

Alex: “Are you close to finishing your dissertation?”

Larissa: “Not as close as I’d like to be.”

Larissa stacked up correct solutions worth various hundreds for a lead of $6,000. (Sample, in the category Peruvian Food and Drink. Clue: “This appetizer of raw fish marinated in citrus juice is found in nearly every restaurant; the liquid is called tiger’s milk and is a delicacy on its own.” Correct question: “What is ceviche?”)

She swept a category on opera, at one point finding a coveted “Daily Double.” Leading her opponents by $5,000, she bet her entire lead, came up with the correct question (“Who is Faust?”), doubling her lead to $10,000.

In the second half, taking mainly high-value clues, she went into the Final Jeopardy portion with $30,400, and was teased by Trebek (“A little off your game, aren’t you, Larissa?”). Her opponents, far behind, both missed the Final Jeopardy question. She didn’t, and wound up with a two-day total of $80,000.

Day Three (Thursday, May 22)

Larissa faced two “biblical ladies,” as Alex described Deborah and Judith. In chat, we learned that Judith had met a weight-loss goal, 60 pounds. Deborah, we were informed, had “learned an important lesson about temporary work opportunities” — the temp service “told me my first job would be as a receptionist for a company that had ‘cryo’ in their name, and I should have asked what they froze. I spent eight weeks answering the phone at a sperm bank.” Larissa, we were told, had once lost a game of tic-tac-toe to a chicken (which in reality had a computer playing for it, programmed to allow no one else to score).

The lead on this show see-sawed, with Deborah mainly ahead. In the final stretch, Larissa grabbed a narrow advantage (“not a big runaway like you’ve made on the last two shows,” said Trebek).

It all came down to Final Jeopardy: not only being right, but betting right, in the category Early 20th Century Plays. The scene went like this:

Alex: Here is the clue: “Its preface says, ‘The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it.‘ You have 30 seconds. Good luck.”

[Interlude with the Jeopardy! thinking music8, which is anything but conducive to thought, while contestants write their questions and their bets.]

Alex: Judith, you were in third place with $13,200, and you wrote down “What is Pygmalion?” by George Bernard Shaw. You are correct. And your response earns $3,001. You move to $16,201.

Let’s go to Deborah. Pygmalion? Yes. And $13,000 the wager, ooh, very good, bringing you to $26,800. You move into the lead.

Now we come to Larissa Kelly, with $16,000. Pygmalion is there, and her wager — was it enough? — $12,000! Yes indeed! $28,000 today, another big payday. And now a three-day total of $108,600.

At Berkeley, word started to filter around that a Cal person was on the show, and winning.

Day Four (Friday, May 23)

All three contestants were academic: Will, a student, Sara, an art history professor, and Larissa, about whom Alex revealed something new. Her husband, in the audience, looked familiar. Had he been on the show? Yes. How did he do? Very well, but he was playing against Ken Jennings. (This needed no further explanation to the show’s devotees; Jennings is the all-time record holder on Jeopardy, with 74 straight wins for over $2.5 million in his games back in 2004.)

In this game, Larissa was third place — in other words, last — at the first commercial break, and last at the end of the Jeopardy round (halfway through the show), behind by $4,000.

At the end of the Double Jeopardy round, with the game almost over, she was in second place, behind the leader by $2,200.

In Final Jeopardy, she bet steep, and won the game with $37,597 — nearly $17,000 ahead of her nearest rival, making her a four-day champion with $146,197.

By the time this show aired, the quiz community was watching intently and e-mailing, and out in cyberspace the blogosphere was heating up. A Larissa fan base was growing. People were telling their friends to watch her and posting on blogs. Some rushed home to watch each day, others tuned in at their workplaces. One post said, “I came into the crew room and asked ‘How’s our girl doing?’… The lady in first missed her Final Jeopardy answer, giving the victory to Larissa. Us guys whooped and hollered like we were watching a football game.”

Day Five (Monday, May 26)

Now she faced John, an ER physician from South Haven, Michigan and Heather, a mastering technician from Ashville, North Carolina. Who, if they weren’t intimidated already, must not have appreciated Trebek chiming in with this, when introducing Larissa: “If you’re like me, you love watching a contestant at the top of his or her game, and that really applies to Larissa Kelly, who is our current champion, winning almost a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. She has demonstrated skills in so many different categories. It’s going to be difficult for Heather or John to replace her as champion, but it’s possible.”

As Alex chatted with the contestants, we learned that John is a deputy medical examiner in Michigan, and his office, lacking the “gizmos,” bears little relation to what people see on CSI. “We have to rely on the brain and experience.” Heather hiked up her pant leg to display her lucky socks.

With the game underway, in the first, or Jeopardy, round, Larissa had a lucrative partial run of the Quotations category and, perhaps not surprisingly, ran straight through the American History category.

She stayed out, or was beaten to the punch, in the Heavyweights category, until the $1,000 clue, “This British-born boxer won the WBC heavyweight title in 1992.” Her question, “Who is Lennox Lewis?” was correct. The round ended with Larissa leading, $7,200 to $1,000 and $1,000.

In the second half, John and Larissa traded the lead back and forth, then Heather took it. All three contestants were stumped by clues on James Baldwin and James Joyce. Going into the one-clue Final Jeopardy round, Heather had $17,000, Larissa was right behind with $16,800, and John trailed with $9,600. The last category was Demographics. The clue was: “In 2005 the World Health Organization appropriately decided to stop hiring people who do this.”

On his screen, John wrote no question. “It was a toughie,” said Trebek. John lost the 2,500 he’d bet, leaving him with 7,100.

Larissa had written “What is smoke?” “You are correct,” said Trebek, “They don’t want people who smoke.” She had bet all of this day’s accumulation, so she doubled it to $33,600.

And Heather? She was squinting and shaking her head, having written this bizarre question: “What is execute?” She finished in last place. So much for the lucky socks.

Larissa had already, in a previous show, lasted though more games and won more money than any other woman in Jeopardy history.

Larissa’s five-game total was now $179,797. This would add to the next day’s suspense.

Day Six (Tuesday, May 27)

Locked and loaded: a Maryland construction worker named Dan and Jennifer, an Arizona journalist.

Alex Trebek told them their daunting task: “Not counting our special tournaments, Larissa Kelly has now moved into the number four position of all-time winners on Jeopardy. If she manages to win this game today, she could take over the number three spot very easily. Jennifer and Dan are here to stop her. If they can.”

In fact, they couldn’t. But they tried, and provided an exciting finish.

(Larissa had already, in an earlier show, lasted though more games and won more money than any other woman in Jeopardy history.)

The sister: Arianna Kelly, yet another Jeopardy alum in the family
The sister: Arianna Kelly, yet another Jeopardy alum in the family

Contestant chat revealed yet another family connection between Larissa and Jeopardy: her sister Arianna9 had also competed on the show, in episodes that aired last January. And, by the way, the sisters grew up in a house with 30,000 books (counted by their father). Had Larissa read all, or most of them? “Not even close.” Where did she get all her learning? “Oh, here and there.” A good place, Trebek said; where he got his as well.

In the game, Larissa led most of the way. She seemed to let the other two pick off the low-denomination clues, then swoop in for the high ones. Some of these played to her obvious strength in history, but she had little trouble with poetry, (“What is ‘Mending Wall’?”), geology (“What is loam?”) and pop culture (“Who are Jay and Silent Bob?”)10.

Final Jeopardy was the icing on the cake. The category was Films of the 1950s. The clue was:”The action in this film begins at 10:30 a.m. and plays out in almost-real time until 12:15.” Here are those final moments:

Alex: “Dan, we come to you first. You had $11,800. I think you struggled…and you did in fact. Unable to come up with anything. It’ll cost you how much money? $7,200. That drops you down to $4,600.

“Let’s go to Jennifer. $20,200 going into Final. She came up with ‘What is “High Noon’?’ You are correct. Your wager … $20,199, putting you into the lead with $40,399.

“Look at the poker face on our champion, Larissa Kelly. $21,800. Do we have ‘High Noon’ there? We do. Do we have enough of a wager? $21,000. We do. $42,800, and you remain champion, and now a very impressive two hundred twenty-two thousand, five hundred ninety-seven dollars. What a game!”

Day Seven (Wednesday, May 28)

Facing an attorney from Alexandria, Virginia, (Nan Reiner) and a trainer from East Greenbush, New York (Pat Roche), Larissa was introduced as “a special young lady. She’s won a lot of money, almost a quarter million dollars…Pat and Nan, you know, of course, you’ll have to work very hard to replace her. But it could happen.”

Almost right away, Trainer Pat picked, and swept, the category Football Coaches (which included a fact about one coach that would have utterly astonished any Cal fan who knew only his record here11.

A few exchanges later, Larissa briefly had a minus total for this day’s play. She soon came out of the red, but never really caught back up, thanks to an $8,000 bet on a DailyDouble, in the style that had brought her so far, but this time backfired12.

From now on, it was all going to be about Pat. We had already learned that earlier in his life he had been an au pair guy to a family in Berlin with three active sons. But we didn’t learn much more. He lost the next day. On a sports question13. To a woman.

(Kelly, however, will be back, in a future Jeopardy Tournament of Champions.)

Now she belongs to History. And the blogs.

Right after the second show, a self-proclaimed “middle-aged researcher” posted this online: “I’d like to say I recorded today’s episode due to an admiration of intellectual prowess, but the truth is that the winner, Larissa Kelly of El Cerrito, Calif., is just so damn cute. And smart. She smoked them in today’s show also.”

Another said, “I’ve only watched her two nights now, but I’m already in love. Too bad she’s married.”

The following are from web page and blog postings during and right after the span of Kelly’s seven Jeopardy appearances.

“You mean that soft-spoken, cute-as-a-button girl…who strikes like a cobra when you’re least expecting it?”

“Monday, this blog had about 2,400 hits. Yesterday, it had 24,000 hits. The difference between those numbers is a name, and that name is Larissa Kelly.”

“With all of the terrible news of natural disasters in the U.S., China, and Burma, I welcomed this fun and positive distraction. Larissa’s shows were recorded a few months ago, but their broadcast turned out to be very good timing indeed.”

“I’ll miss you, Larissa Kelly, freaky calm super smart girl who is younger than me…”

Related category: Berkeley’s other Jeopardy alums

Larissa Kelly has made the biggest splash, but other people from Berkeley tried the waters at Jeopardy in years past. Barbara Gross Davis, a three-degree14 Berkeley alumna who is now assistant vice provost for undergraduate education on this campus, appeared in the 1970s, when the show was taped on the other coast and had a different host.

Maggie Sokilik, who directs the College of Engineering’s Technical Communication Program (and worked in the Graduate Division for several years), tried her hand in 1986. She and Davis each had one Jeopardy appearance, making it into the Final Jeopardy round but not coming up with the correct response.

Berkeley’s biggest gun on the show until the advent of Kelly was Daniel Melia, an associate professor in the rhetoric department and the Celtic studies program15. Melia competed in 1997, an era when winners could come away with physical prizes as well as cash. He won five shows, collecting $75,600 and a new Corvette (which he still has; license plate: JPRDGUY). In 2005 he returned to the Culver City studios to match wits in Jeopardy’s Tournament of Champions. Less interesting than how he did (just fine16) is the fact that he was married on the show’s set (to a college English teacher) in a ceremony led by another former contestant, Bob Harris, who had become a deputy commissioner of civil marriage of Los Angeles County.


1 The excitement-inducing exclamation point is part of the show’s name. Since you’ve been officially notified, it will be left off in the remainder of this piece.

2 After which the Fig Newton was named.

3 Which has its own intense subculture; Google it, if you dare

4 According to Larissa, Berkeley was “a top choice from the beginning” because it was strong in both British and Latin American history” — plus it accepted them both and offered funding. Both have served as GSIs several times, and each has had funding from the Graduate Division, including the Dean’s Normative Time Fellowship.

5 The ceremony, less than 15 minutes long, took place August 3, 2002, in Concord, Mass. Witnesses included Princeton College Bowlers (quiz, not ten-pin), one of whom posted that “any team with both Mr. Hoppes and Mrs. Kelly on it is a formidable one. Their breadth and depth of knowledge is fearsome.” After being pelted with birdseed in lieu of rice (Jeff being an avid birdwatcher), the couple left immediately on a two-week sightseeing honeymoon on their way to Berkeley.

6 She chose to study what happened in and around archaelogy during the 19th the century in Mexico because she finds the period fascinating, in part because it “gives you ringside seats to some entertaining characters,” such as the Emperor Maximilian, basically a foreign usurper who nonetheless “wanted to cast himself in the mold of liberal, enlightened monarch,” Benito Juarez, Mexico’s first indigenous president, and “a steady stream of Europeans and North Americans who come to study (or steal) Mexican antiquities, many of whom have ideas that are, to put it charitably, wacky. (The best is probably Augustus Le Plongeon, who believed that his wife was the reincarnation of an Egyptian queen who had led ancient people in a migration from Egypt to the Yucatan.)” Jeff’s dissertation is on the experiences of soldiers during the English civil war.

7 They hailed from Wisconsin, Texas, Pennsylvania, Arizona (2), Colorado, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York (2), Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland.

8 Composed by Merv Griffin, the show’s creator, as are themes for many of his programs.

9 Arianna Kelly, according to Larissa, is winding up her third year at Harvard Law School and “will start work this fall as an assistant district attorney in Boston.”

11 The correct question was “Who are the Buffalo Bills?” The clue was: “This team’s Marv Levy is the only coach to lead his team to 4 straight Super Bowl appearances.” As head football coach at Berkeley from 1960 to ’63, Levy’s teams had eight wins, 29 losses, and three ties. People change.

12 In an e-mail from Mexico, Larissa said her husband and her sister had both told her “they wished they had bet bigger in Daily Doubles,” which “can be the most effective way of changing the course of the game (of course, that change can also turn out to be a negative one..” She put a smiley emoticon after that last phrase. (In high school and college mock trials, Larissa frequently played the defendant, and because she looked so innocent she tended to be acquitted of the “crimes,” even murder, manslaughter, or negligent homicide.)

13 In the category Annual Sporting Events, the clue was “With an estimated sellout crowd of 267,925, it claims to be the best-attended single-day sporting event in the U.S.” Contestant Steve Frappier tried “What is the Daytona 500?” That was Pat’s guess, too. Alison Becker, a researcher from Los Angeles, came up with the right one: “What is the Rose Bowl?”

14 B.A. in psychology, M.A. and Ph.D. in educational psychology

15 Melia, like Sokolik, has a Graduate Division connection: he served as associate dean from 1984 to 1987. In another coincidence, he directed Berkeley’s College Writing Programs, in which Sokolik, another wearer of many hats, was a lecturer.

16 Melia won $100,000 in the 2005 tournament, and returned for an Ultimate Tournament of Champions earlier this year, winning another $72,201. He says “the game is fun to play even if you lose,” Which everyone eventually does.