To Jeopardy! winner, Trebek’s no Helmholz

This interview originally appeared in the University of Chicago
Magazine’s blog UChiBLOGo (

Here’s another option if you’ve got some time!

In December 2007 Dan Pawson, JD’06, began a nine-game winning streak on Jeopardy! He returned in January to participate in the 2009 Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions, which aired in March. Although Pawson was happy to discuss his new fame, we don’t recommend mentioning the articles of the Constitution. Especially you, Professor Helmholz.

How did you get on the show?

Pawson: “I got on the show by taking the online test in January 2007. If you pass and they pick you, you go to a regional in-person audition, which happened for me in May 2007. Then I got the call to come on in August.”

What kind of preparation did you do before a show?

Pawson: “I don’t have any great mental-stimulation techniques right before a game, but I did a lot of studying before the Tournament of Champions—world capitals, Shakespeare, opera, and a bunch of other categories that come up time and time again. A lot of them paid off.”

Any I’m-kicking-myself moments?

Pawson: “No question—the $2,000 question asking how many articles are in the Constitution. It is to my everlasting shame that I answered “six” instead of the correct answer [seven]. I just started counting them in my head—Congress, executive, judiciary, full faith and credit, supremacy, amendments—but the ratification article slipped my mind. I am never going to forgive myself for that.”

Do you have any behind-the-scenes secrets to share?

Pawson: “For the games we were allowed to watch from the audience (in the quarterfinals, contestants that haven’t played yet are sequestered), we’re all quietly playing along, and virtually every one of us is phantom-buzzing. It’s a disturbing compulsion.”

Do you have big plans for your earnings (more than $420,000 combined)?

Pawson: “The $170,000 I won in my first run is mostly accounted for now—a bunch to a house fund, a car, a trip to Vegas, some charitable contributions, and I paid off a bunch of my student loans. With the quarter million from the TOC, [my wife and I] are doubling the house fund, paying off almost all of the rest of my loans, charity again, and taking a trip to Europe.”

Which is more nerve-wracking: Final Jeopardy! or facing the Socratic Method at the Law School?

Pawson: “The worst thing that could happen on TV is that I embarrass myself in front of 12 million people. In law school, I could get a withering comment and stare from Professor Helmholz. I’m not sure there’s anything that compares to that.”