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A wild 'Jeopardy!' ride


July 19, 2019

Jana Peterson

Carlton graduate Sam Kavanaugh as seen on television during the "Jeopardy!" game show where he won five times. His six appearances were recorded in late March and early April.

Carlton's Ed Kavanaugh remembers coming in from the field and finding his son, Sam, in front of the TV, intently watching "Jeopardy!" and playing along with the contestants, clicking a pen each time he wanted to "buzz in."

Practice makes perfect.

The 2009 Carlton High School graduate made a bold and brilliant "Jeopardy!" run, winning five straight games before his winning streak came to an end in Game Six.

Kavanaugh won a total of $156,202, coming out of the final day's action with zero dollars, after betting all $6,000 on the final "Jeopardy!" clue.

A "Jeopardy!" discussion board,, blamed the loss on new champion Roey Hadar's quick use of the buzzer and Roey's good luck landing on three Daily Double questions.

But it's not over yet. Winning five games in a row puts Kavanaugh at the top of the leaderboard for the next "Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions," when 15 top performers come back to the stage for the chance to win $250,000.

The Pine Knot News spoke with Kavanaugh on Tuesday, the day he won his fifth game. He shared the remarkable story of how he almost missed his chance to be on "Jeopardy!" - they called when he was camping in the Australian Outback with no cell service - and how life's happy accidents came together to make him a winning contestant.

Being curious and wanting to learn is key, he said.

Being the son of teachers got the young Sam Kavanaugh off to a good start. Spending the first four years of his life in Australia made him curious about other places and cultures, as did growing up with a father who taught geography and a mother from Australia. Going to school in the small school district of Carlton was a big factor too, he said, because he got to be part of so many different extracurricular activities, from Knowledge Bowl to football and track to theater. Each one taught him different skills, and the close relationships he formed with teachers also helped this boy who loved to learn. Even being a teacher helped him prepare.

"You've never been in front of a more hostile crowd than the first day with a middle school class," he said, adding that he loves that age group, but knows they like to try on different behaviors.

Sports helped him learn to compete.

"I'd say my style is pretty fearless, betting big when I need to," he said. "That wide range of background experiences, the whole thing fed into the idea of learning about everything."

Going to state four years in a row with his Knowledge Bowl team was the perfect training, he said.

"That level of competition really helps for this show. They're both exhausting, all-day events," he said, revealing that Jeopardy tapes five shows a day, although in his case he was on three shows in a row the first day at the Los Angeles studio and three more on the second.

Almost perfect timing

After missing the call from the "Jeopardy!" producers when he was camping - an email finally got through - Kavanaugh returned home and prepared for his debut, which was three weeks later.

Almost two years earlier, he had been invited to try out for the show after taking an online test.

A middle school and high school teacher by profession, Sam was substitute-teaching before and after his trip to Australia, which meant he could turn down job calls to prepare for the show; which he did, focusing on some of his "weaker" categories and continuing to play in an online trivia league.

But three weeks was really just the icing on the cake in a lifetime of learning, starting with all the maps in the hallways of his home, and after-school sessions with his mom, the late Jane Kavanaugh, who shared his love of the game show and would play with him after he came home from school.

Watching the show with his mom taught him more than facts and categories, though - it also taught him strategy.

"I absolutely studied strategies," he said. "There are really only two categories guaranteed to come up every game: addition and subtraction, and game theory."

When he was growing up, Kavanaugh said he would watch the final phase of the competition, when all three contestants get the same question and have to write down their answers and final bids; he would not only write down his answer, he would calculate how much each contestant should bid to win.

"I'd yell at the TV when people didn't wager enough," he said. "You should generally lean in and bet big."

Jana Peterson

Carlton grad Sam Kavanaugh poses with Jeopardy host Alex Trebek. Kavanaugh posted a message on his Facebook page June 30 about the show. "As many of you know, being on this show has been something I've dreamed about, prepared for, and otherwise obsessed over for years," he wrote. "I feel so grateful that I've finally been given the chance to say something foolish in front of The Most Trusted Man in America, Alex Trebek."

Self knowledge is also important, he said. A person needs to know what they do and don't know, and know when to hit the buzzer and when to let another contestant try first.

It was a fun run, he said.

Kavanaugh came home last Friday to help his dad around the farm and watch his third show air at the Streetcar Kitchen and Pub, owned by his aunt and uncle, Rob and Teresa Kavanaugh, who had been offering free drinks to customers each time Sam got a Daily Double question right.

He watched his fourth episode at the neighborhood bar where he plays in a team trivia league. He said it was fun walking in that night, and seeing the look on people's faces as they realized, "Crap, he's the guy from 'Jeopardy!'"

"We definitely don't win every week, but we did happen to win last night," he said about the bar game.

When asked if there was anything else he'd like to share, Sam Kavanaugh had just one comment.

"If I ever see a teacher of mine, I'll definitely buy them a drink," he said.

His dad would approve.

"It really does take a village," he said. "A lot of the people who have been here the last four days had something to do with it, whether it was teachers, Knowledge Bowl, the bus driver or what."


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