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Evanstonian Beni Keown, proudly wearing a purple Northwestern sweatshirt, will be featured as a participant in the 2020 JEOPARDY! College Championship, airing over the next two weeks on ABC Channel 7 at 3:30 p.m. He was the only freshman selected from the 15 players – eight women and seven men. The players are all currently enrolled college or university students, with only one student per college permitted. The quarterfinals take place April 6-10 and the semi-finals and finals take place April 13-17. Beni’s match, previously taped, will be aired on April 9.
The RoundTable interviewed Beni recently via Zoom to learn more about how he was accepted as one of the final 15 and what it was like being on the set with famed host Alex Trebek. Beni is sworn to secrecy, though, with signed legal releases, and thus is not permitted to speak about the outcome of his JEOPARDY! experience. The RoundTable will be watching television this Thursday like the rest of the country to find out which players advance to the semi-finals.
Beni has always had a knack for trivia. While a student at Evanston Township High School, he said, he participated in the school’s Scholastic Bowl, “JEOPARDY! on teams,” and served as captain during his senior year. Now a freshman in the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern, he joined the University’s Quizbowl team, the college version of Scholastic Bowl, and he enjoys both the competition with and the socializing among the other participants.
Last year one of his friends suggested he take the online qualifying test for the JEOPARDY! College Championship. Beni said he had fun answering the 50 questions on the online test and estimated he did okay with his answers but did not think much more about it. About a month later, he and several hundred other students were invited to one of several regional audition sites to play part of a mock game and be interviewed by the JEOPARDY! staff. Again, it was a fun experience, he said, but he did not think he would advance to the next round.
In mid-January, Beni received the call inviting him to Los Angeles as one of the final 15 students chosen. Against daunting odds, from approximately 18,000 students who had taken the online qualifying exam, Beni had snared a spot to compete for the prize of $100,000. Of the 15 students selected, Beni was the only freshman. He acknowledged, “It’s kind of surreal to think about, that I made it to the final 15. That’s an accomplishment in itself.”
When asked if he had made any friends among the other students over the two days of taping, Beni replied enthusiastically. “Oh, yeah. We are still in contact and we talk pretty frequently. We are going to try to set up some live-stream thing so we can watch all the games together. The thing I was most surprised about in the experience was how pleasant all the other contestants were. I was expecting it to be 14 other people who just wanted to go in and win the $100,000, but, I like all of them. I still like all of them, and we are still in contact. It was a surprising bonus to being on the show.”
Beni’s father, David, was able to go with him to Los Angeles and watch the taping. The entire experience did not disappoint. Beni said, “One of the things that I appreciated about the trip was JEOPARDY! did their best to make it as good an experience for us as they could. They flew us out on a Saturday and gave us a per diem check and Sunday to do whatever we wanted, and they put us up in a nice hotel. It was a good time.”
One of the highlights of the entire experience was meeting JEOPARDY!’s legendary and award-winning host, Alex Trebek, one of the most beloved and popular entertainment figures of all time. Beni said, “The first time I actually saw him was when he came out for our game. At the beginning of every JEOPARDY! show, the host voiceover guy does his announcement, ‘This—is—JEO—PAR—DY! Here’s your host, Alex Trebek!’ and then he walks out. It was very surreal, a really cool moment. I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s Alex Trebek,’ but it’s kind of something you have to get over quickly, because right after that you have to play for a lot of money, so I tried to just move past it.”
The JEOPARDY! team also scheduled time to prepare and execute a multi-media marketing campaign promoting the JEOPARDY! College Championship. Contestants participated in staged group photos, video promos, and social media over the two days of taping.
Aside from the requisite college sweatshirt from their respective institutions, the student contestants were asked to show up with their hair ‘done’ and ready for some stage makeup to be applied. This was Beni’s first experience wearing makeup, one he says he is not eager to revisit. During the taping of his match, Beni said that every time there was a break, someone ran up “dabbing his face with powder or something.” Even so, Beni admits he looks quite pale next to Mr. Trebek’s artificially burnished complexion.
Beni also said Mr. Trebek is really quite funny, something that does not always come across on television. Mr. Trebek chitchats briefly with the contestants after each game and also answers questions from the studio audience during breaks. (The show was taped in early February before all the ‘stay at home’ restrictions where implemented.) While live tapings of JEOPARDY! have stopped, Beni estimates there are probably at least four weeks of unseen, pre-recorded shows to look forward to.
The entire tournament was taped over two days, meaning Mr. Trebek only works two days a week. This work schedule has allowed Mr. Trebek time to rest and regain strength in-between cancer treatments. In March 2019, he announced via a video posted online that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He told the audience that he has “good days and less good days,” but remains optimistic.
After the tournament concluded, the JEOPARDY! staff hosted a cocktail reception and dinner for all the contestants. Beni said he would have hung out with the group longer, but he had a lab to write up that night and an early flight to Chicago the next day. His flight landed at 3:30 p.m., and he went immediately to his 4 p.m. lab class on campus.
His professors have been very supportive, allowing him to juggle his school requirements while participating in the JEOPARDY! experience. Some of his high- school teachers have learned of this, and that has been fun for him as well. too. As of this writing, no one from Northwestern has reached out to him. “Maybe they’re waiting to see how I do,” he mused.
Mr. Keown, Beni’s father, said he was proud and nervous watching his son compete. He said, “You always want your kid to do well. One of my friends, whose son is a place kicker for his college football team, summed it up perfectly. ‘Watching him took years off my life, but also added years that I could not have imagined.’ Just by being there, Beni won, regardless of the outcome of his matches. We are very proud of him.”