Netanel Paley Excels in Jeopardy! College Championship
“Good luck, let’s go to work in the Jeopardy round. And now let’s take a look at the categories.”
And thus the contestants were off to a start. This past Monday (February 13th) Netanel Paley (YC ’18) competed in the first game of the Jeopardy! College Championship. Airing from February 13-24, the tournament features fifteen college students from across the United States competing against each other in games of three contestants each. The five quarterfinal matches all aired during the first week, with the five winners advancing to the semifinals which will be aired next week. Four “wildcard” contestants, the students who scored the highest out of all the non-winners, advanced to the semis as well. The three winners of the semifinals will advance to the two-game final round to compete for the grand prize: $100,000.
For the first matchup in this college tournament, Netanel donned his blue kippah sruga (knitted skullcap) and grey YU crew neck sweater (distributed to students on “Swag Day” this past October) over a buttoned red dress shirt. A Yeshiva College senior from Teaneck, NJ majoring in Biology, Netanel faced off against Esteban Fernandez, a freshman at San Francisco State University from Coronado, California, and Lilly Chin, a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from Decatur, Georgia.
Gameplay of Jeopardy! involves two rounds of thirty clues, the first round valuing clues from $200 to $1,000, and the second “Double Jeopardy!” round valuing clues from $400 to $2,000. Contestants choose clues, phrased in the form of answers to a question, from six unique categories with five clues each. After Trebek reads each answer, the contestants strive to think of the correct response in the form of a question, and buzz in first for the opportunity to collect the clue’s cash-value. Three random clues are labeled “Daily Double” (one in the first round, two in the second round), allowing the contestant who chances upon these lucky squares to wager from his/her earnings on the clue. After the two rounds of gameplay, a category appears for the one “Final Jeopardy!” clue. When all three contestants have put up a wager, the clue is revealed and they have thirty seconds to write down their responses as the famous “Think!” song teases them in the background.
Trebek began Monday’s game like any other, wishing good luck to the trio and introducing the six categories: “Baskets of Adorables,” “Celebrity Sibling Surnames,” “In Olden Times,” “Multiple Meanings,” “Languages,” and “Seeing Red.” Lilly chose the first clue and started off the game with two correct questions. She did not keep up her streak for long, though, as Netanel buzzed in quick enough to respond to the answer “It’s what gives ‘the red badge of courage’ its redness” with the correct question worth $600: “What is blood?”
Lilly scored in for the next two questions, after which Netanel hit his low point in the game with two incorrect questions, mistakenly asking “Who is Justinian?” for the clue “Around 313: This Roman emperor starts championing Christianity,” and wrongly inquiring “What is Spanish?” for the hint “This language is spoken by about 11 million in Europe & about 200 million in South America” (the correct responses were “Constantine” and “Portuguese,” respectively).
While this setback brought Netanel’s score to negative $800, he showed that he was still on his game in the next question when he successfully identified a picture of adorable hedgehogs in a basket. Commanding the board, Netanel picked the next clue and scored another question to bring his earnings back to the plus side.
Lilly got the next two clues, the second of which was the board’s “Daily Double” (she wagered $1,200 to bring her score up to $4,400). Netanel then stably responded “What is stable?” to add some more money, but, despite Netanel’s eager buzzer-pressing and hand-shaking, Lilly buzzed in earlier for the next three questions and answered correctly. By the first commercial break, Lilly led the game with $6,600, with Esteban and Netanel tied for second with $1,000 each.
After some advertisements, Alex Trebek spoke with each of the contestants to get to know them a bit. He began with Netanel (pronouncing his last name “Pä-lē”), prompting Netanel to speak a bit about his pro bono work for a worthwhile charity. Netanel then proceeded to describe his experience with the YU club “Music Vs.,” telling Trebek that “I perform music for seniors and children in hospitals and nursing homes. I sing a little bit and I play guitar and piano.” Trebek then asked if he does so as a soloist or not, and Netanel explained that “I usually go in a group with students from my university.” Trebek commended Netanel’s work with seniors and noted that there were apparently some seniors in the audience who would love Netanel’s volunteer work. Then Trebek prompted Esteban to describe his own pro bono work, and got Lilly to describe a very impressive-sounding blade-like invention that she worked on in an MIT course called “Elements of Mechanical Design.”
While some might have crumbled after watching Lilly’s impressively savage early start and hearing about her intimidatingly intellectual inventions, Netanel correctly identified “candy apple red” to score first after Trebek’s interviews, and he continued to score the next clue as well. Esteban got the next one, but then Netanel managed the biggest streak in the game until that point with four correct responses in a row.
Notably, the third of these four clues was the answer, “Before 100 A.D.: Manuscripts are stored in caves, to later be called these scrolls named for a body of water.” While perhaps not an objectively easy clue, the answer refers to famous Jewish scrolls that many knowledgeable Jews recognize; certainly many YU students, whose university offers entire courses on these scrolls, would have been able to identify the answer. Netanel did not disappoint, buzzing in first and, with a determined expression and deliberate delivery, responded correctly, “What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?”
“I was watching the episode in a classroom with about fifteen other people” reported Yaacov Bronstein (YC ’18), who joined his friends and classmates Monday night in YU’s Belfer Hall room 205 to spend thirty minutes of a film course (a CORE curriculum honors class in which Netanel is currently registered) to cheer on Netanel. “When the question came up, everyone in our class got excited, then when Netanel nailed the answer everyone went crazy. If that doesn’t vindicate Torah Umadda, nothing will.”
Unfortunately, Netanel would not tally any further earnings that round. Lilly scored on the next clue, and Esteban then correctly responded to four out of the five clues in the “Celebrity Sibling Surnames” category (one of the clues looking for “Osbourne” as the correct response left all of the contestants confused, and no one answered). Lilly then ended the first round with two more correct questions, bringing her halftime total to $7,200. Despite Netanel’s powerful performance, Esteban ended off the round on a good enough streak to tie with Netanel yet again. Both Netanel and Esteban accrued $4,200 going into “Double Jeopardy!”
After another set of advertisements “Double Jeopardy!” commenced, introducing a fresh board with thirty new clues worth double the first round amounts. The six new categories were: “Facts on February,” “Bodies of Water,” “Semiliterate Before & After,” “A ‘B’-Plus Student,” “Broadway Musicals,” and “Remember 2016?” Netanel began the round by correctly identifying the “VCR,” and he proceeded to pick a question from the category “Bodies of Water.” This choice made sense for Netanel, who used to compete in geography bees. “When Netanel was about three,” related Netanel’s sister Kira Paley (SCW ’19), “family legend has it that Netanel was once eating a piece of cheese, and mid-bite, exclaimed to my parents that the piece of cheese looked like Oklahoma because of how he bit it. Let’s just say he’s a geography buff, so I and my dad were relieved to see a geography category up on the board.”
Lilly wound up scoring that clue, after which none of the contestants figured out how to respond to the first answer from the category “Before & After” (the intended response was “The Home of the Brave New World,” a tricky combination of the final phrase from the United States national anthem and the title of a 1932 novel about the future).
Lilly lost money with an incorrect response to the next question (which Esteban got right), after which Lilly got three more correct clues to pass $10,000 and, after another clue that failed to garner a response, Lilly scored in yet another clue.
Then, at the eleventh question of the round, Netanel began to turn things around. Finally utilizing his geography skills, he astutely identified France’s Rhône River. In control of the board, Netanel chose another clue from the “Bodies of Water” category, and it turned out to be a “Daily Double.” He bravely wagered $3,000 (almost half of his earnings) and was given the answer: “The ‘thumb’ of Michigan’s ‘mitten’ juts north into this Great Lake.” Netanel closed his eyes, moved his lips in thought, and turned his head toward Trebek to quietly but confidently ask, “What is Lake Huron?” Of course he was correct, and he looked visibly relieved and even hinted a smile.
Netanel’s hot streak would continue. He impressively produced not only one, and not even only two, but three more correct responses in a row (identifying Kellyanne Conway, Myanmar, and Peter Thiel). Not only did these five clues mark the most correct responses in a row at that point in the game, but they also gave Netanel the first place lead over Lilly.
With half of the round to go, Lilly would not let Netanel hold his spot for long, as she went on to answer an astounding six clues in a row, including a “Daily Double” that earned her $2,000 and several complicated responses to clues from the “Before & After” category (Lilly was the only contestant to get any of these clues correct). No one was able to get the final clue from the “Before & After” category (“Alfred the Great Gatsby”), although Netanel did raise up his arm as if he had the answer on the tip of his tongue.
With the scores still close, Netanel correctly identified “Anglo-Saxons,” and was in a position with six questions left to take the lead over Lilly. However, after no one was able to correctly identify “Primrose” for the twenty-fifth clue, Lilly had secured her lead. With Lilly at $19,200, Netanel at $15,600, and only $2,800 in clues left on the board, all Lilly had to do to keep her lead was to stay afloat for the last five questions without any incorrect responses.
Esteban made a modest comeback by getting the next three clues (including two musicals), and then Lilly closed off the round with two correct questions (including identifying the play Hamilton with a wide grin, implying that she is quite familiar with the award-winning musical).
After two rounds Lilly led the game with $20,000, followed by Netanel with $15,600 and Esteban with $7,400. In total, Lilly answered correctly twenty-seven of the clues, Netanel got seventeen, and Esteban got eleven (five questions produced no correct response). Finally, before the third commercial break, Trebek explained how the five quarterfinal winners, as well as four wildcards from the non-winners, would advance to the semifinal round. He then revealed the “Final Jeopardy!” category and told the contestants to place their wages. The category? “Books of the Bible.”
Viewers in YU and across America marveled at the seemingly great luck for Netanel that he, as an Orthodox Yeshiva student, would have the opportunity to identify something probably very familiar to him. However, upon further consideration, some realized that “Books of the Bible” could potentially include the New Testament as well, something less familiar to this Modern Orthodox Jew from Teaneck. Vaughn Winchell, a five-time Jeopardy! champion from two years ago, noticed this, tweeting in real-time that he was “stereotyping, but I bet that Netanel’s chances in category drop sharply if the Bible book they ask about is 1 Corinthians.” Netanel himself confirmed to this author that he “was afraid the question would be about the New Testament.”
The clue was the answer: “It begins with God saying, ‘Take yet the sum of all the congregation of the Children of Israel.’” While Netanel kept a straight face after writing down his answer, Trebek soon revealed that Netanel correctly responded: “What is Numbers?” Netanel had wagered $2,400, and his successful response brought his total up to $18,000 (which, as Conservative rabbi/blogger Jason Miller pointed out on Twitter, was “one thousand times chai”). Esteban lost all of his earnings by incorrectly suggesting Exodus, and Lilly successfully identified Numbers, to bring her final total to $24,399 (the highest score so far for the entire tournament) and securing her a spot in the semifinals.
While Netanel finished in second place, his high score all but guaranteed him a spot in the semifinals. His conservative wager made sense because, in addition to the possibility of a New Testament clue, all that Netanel needed to make the next round was a high score — the actual money would not become his earnings. Andy Saunders, an online Jeopardy! enthusiast and stats-tracker, tweeted on his “The Jeopardy! Fan” account Monday night that Netanel’s odds of advancing were 99.397%. Doniel Weinreich (YC ’20) predicted the same, noting historical trends in the college tournaments. Doniel also added that he “saw a picture on Facebook of Netanel outside the Jeopardy! studio in a blue YU sweatshirt (he wore a gray one on Monday), so I have a feeling we’ll see that sweatshirt on TV in future rounds.” Even Trebek told Netanel that he would “stand up pretty well” with his $18,000 for a spot in the semifinals.
The show ended with footage of Trebek schmoozing with the three contestants as the credits rolled. The television muted the conversation, but Netanel could be seen standing with his hands in his pockets, listening seriously to Trebek and laughing occasionally too. Netanel explained to this author that Trebek “was basically making fun of Esteban for getting the final jeopardy wrong, and was saying it was a great game.”
“Though the students were in competition, the general feeling in the studio was one of fun,” explained Kira Paley, who was present in the audience. “All the contestants were friendly, good-natured, and generally just excited to be there and not really thinking about how they were all competing with one another.” Netanel emphasized as well that the atmosphere was not too intense. “We got to hang out a little bit before the taping while we were waiting to play,” told Netanel. “The other contestants hung out and watched movies in the green room while they waited to be called out for their shows, but I was first so I missed that. But I got to watch the other shows from the audience with the other contestants.” He added that “it’s funny, some of the other contestants theorized that the producers didn’t allow us to get to know each other so we would remain as competitive as possible.”
Many friends and family complimented Netanel for very politely saying “please” after each clue that he requested. There was communal excitement for Netanel as well. Hundreds of high school students took a break from YUNMUN (Yeshiva University Model United Nations) to watch Netanel and cheer him on together. Watch parties spontaneously formed by different televisions around YU’s campuses. Ari Tepler (YC ’17), who attended a watch party at the Teaneck Doghouse (with Netanel present), described about the event that “you certainly felt the energy and excitement from almost everyone, cheering for Netanel when he answered correctly. It was palpable and definitely an exciting atmosphere.”
Netanel led the wildcard contenders as of Thursday night.
As of Thursday night, Netanel officially secured a wildcard spot! Still holding the lead for the highest score of the non-winners, and with only one match left, it became a certainty Thursday night that Netanel would advance. Thus Netanel is guaranteed to take home at least $10,000. In a previous article about him, Netanel suggested that he might enjoy spending his earnings on a trip to an Ecuadorian cloud forest. Will this plan become a reality? “I don’t think so,” laughed Netanel, before adding with a grin: “But I’d like to put at least some of it towards a honeymoon fund.”
Update: This article was originally published online before Netanel participated in the tournament semifinals. On Wednesday, February 22nd Netanel matched up against Gary Tse from the U.S. Naval Academy and Mari Hanley from Stetson University. The game was well-played and down-to-the-wire exciting, and featured another “Jewish moment” when Netanel successfully identified the Hebrew phrase “Shalom Aleichem.” Unfortunately for Netanel and his fans, Gary won the game and advanced to the finals over Netanel. In the two-day final match, Lilly Chin, who beat Netanel in the quarterfinals, performed so well (according to Gary, she “just went beast mode and just destroyed us”) that she did not have to wager any money for the “Final Jeopardy!” question and she was able to answer the clue with a joke response: “Who is the spiciest memelord?” Reflecting on his experience, Netanel said that “I’m so grateful to Hashem for allowing me to have had this amazing experience and to all my family and friends for their support, jokes, and retroactive well-wishes!”