A Q&A with Ryan Bilger, the EHS grad taking “Jeopardy!” by storm

Bilger and Trebek pose together at the “Jeopardy!” studio. Photo courtesy of Bilger.

What’s the difference between competing on a high school academic team, and on a nationally televised trivia show? According to Ryan Bilger, not much. While “Jeopardy!” is certainly a far cry from the Emmaus High School Academic Team, Bilger has found his new stride in the spotlight, channeling his trivial talents from previous competitions.

A 2015 EHS graduate, Bilger demonstrated a passion for trivia early on, participating in the Academic Team. Today, he can say that he has competed on the nationally renowned television show, “Jeopardy!”, meeting Alex Trebek and earning up to $63,849 in prize money as of July 5.

Bilger’s third round on “Jeopardy!” will air on July 8.

Stinger: What activities were you a part of when you attended EHS?

Bilger: I was in German Club, I was on the Academic Team for three years, I did Envirothon for a year my senior year. I mostly tried to stay focused on the stuff that I was into, though, so those are the ones I can remember off hand, as far as school activities go.

Stinger: Where do you go to college?

Bilger: I am currently between undergrad and grad school so I graduated from Gettysburg College in May and this coming fall, starting next month, I will be a master’s student at West Virginia University studying public history.

Stinger: Why did you want to compete on “Jeopardy!”?

Bilger: As I said, I was on the Academic Team and we were really good the years that I played; we won the PBS Scholastic Scrimmage my senior year, and I went to the state tournament three times, so I’ve always been super involved in trivia competitions and when I went to college, there wasn’t a team at Gettysburg so I started a team there and kept playing. It was always something where you’d watch with your family, and you’re sitting there answering all the questions and people ask you ‘well, why don’t you try out?’ And I’ve known some people through Quiz Bowl who have gone on the show, and they say the same thing: ‘you should try it, it’s a really good experience.’ So I said, ‘alright, what the hell?’

Stinger: Did you have to audition to make it on “Jeopardy!”? What was that process like?

Bilger: It’s a multi-step process to get on the show. First thing you do is, a couple times a year there is a 50-question online test that you sit at your computer and you take the test one night, and answer the questions… after you do that, when you register for the online test they give you a list of cities, to say, if I’m picked for an in-person audition, which is the number two [audition], what city would I want to go to, and I picked Philadelphia because that was easiest for me. 

Stinger: Have you auditioned before?

Bilger: This was not my first time getting an in-person audition [for “Jeopardy!”]. I auditioned for the college tournament the previous year so I guess it was in fall of 2017 that I auditioned for the college tournament, and they can only take 15 people, that’s all that gets on the college tournament so I didn’t get on, so it goes. I thought I’d try again the next year…I felt I did really well on the test. It was early September when I had been invited and I went to Philadelphia to audition for the regular adult-version “Jeopardy!”.

Stinger: What was the in-person audition like?

Bilger: When you arrive, the first thing you do is take a second online test. Basically, they’re just making sure you didn’t cheat on the first one. So they take them back and they grade them, and during that time you get time to talk with the other try out trialists. Then they come back, and they break you up in groups of three to play a mini game. They have a board, you stand there with a buzzer that you hold in a regular game, and you play. They’re just trying to get an idea of like, are you comfortable up there? Are you poised? They’re just trying to get an idea of how you would be on the show. 

Stinger: What happened next?

Bilger: After you play for a little bit, they stop and they do a mini-interview with the three people they’ve brought up… after that the audition ends and you just head off out into the world, and they say, ‘anytime in the next 18 months, we can call you and say, come to LA.’

Stinger: Who are your biggest supporters?

Bilger: My family. When you go on the show, you have to sign an agreement… that says ‘I will not spoil the show to the public before I go on.’ So not a ton of people, of course, knew what happened [on the show], but my dad knew because he was able to accompany me out to Los Angeles and he was able to be in the studio to watch, and we told my mom when we got back, and my girlfriend knew. But other than that, it was pretty quiet. We were keeping my extended family, like my cousins and my grandparents, in total suspense… they’ve been great. All of my friends from Emmaus and college have been awesome.

Stinger: How did your supporters react after your first appearance on “Jeopardy!” aired?

Bilger: One of the hardest things last night was after the episode aired, my phone exploded with messages from Twitter, Facebook, comments, Facebook messenger, [and] Snapchat. I did my darn best to try and respond to each and every one of them. I really really appreciate every bit of support that I’ve gotten. Not only my family, but my friends and members of the public have been fantastic to me.

Stinger: How did you prepare or practice for the show?

Bilger: In some senses, I’ve been preparing for 21 years. I’ve always been interested in facts and knowledge and just general, random stuff. I’ve played in Academic Team [and] Quiz Bowl competitions all the way through high school and college, so honestly I was confident in my grasp on the quote-on-quote academic subjects, like history, literature, geography, even science-y things. So my studying was me cramming on pop-culture; trying to look at old Oscar winners, popular actors and actresses, I tried to study broadway musicals… it was that and [practicing buzzing in with good timing]. If you don’t get that buzzer down, you’re dead in the water.

Stinger: Did you personally meet Alex Trebek? How would you describe him?

Bilger: Pretty much all the interactions you have with Alex Trebek as a player are what you see on screen. He does come over and talk to you after the game, and you don’t get the audio from that, but I wish I did because I forgot what he said that made me chuckle. But after he comes and talks, he goes back to his dressing room to change for the next show. 

Stinger: What were your personal interactions like with Trebek?

Bilger: Alex gave me some crap, he gave me some schtick… but it was all in good jest, and it was during this time that Alex was really in a lot of pain from his chemo and his cancer treatments. So I said to myself, first off, I’m having fun and this is fine. And if Alex giving me some schtick can help him get through the day, that is a price I am absolutely fine with. Alex is very good, he is very professional, and he is a fun, nice guy.

Stinger: How does it feel to be answering questions with all the cameras on you?

Bilger: Once the first couple of minutes went by and I got into the swing of the game, it’s like yeah, there’s cameras, and yeah, there’s Alex Trebek, but I’ve been answering trivia questions that people have been throwing at me for years, and this is a bigger scale, but it’s just something that I’ve always done. So I was able to have that mindset adjustment and just say, ‘yeah, so what, it’s just Alex Trebek asking me the questions this time, okay, whatever!’ And that was very helpful… I was able to find that comfort zone very quickly.

Stinger: Do you have any advice for someone who would like to be on “Jeopardy!”?

Bilger: General thing, just be curious. Consume whatever you are interested in as much as you want. Never stop learning new things. I mean even just playing Quiz Bowl, before I even dreamed of going on “Jeopardy!”, it’s exposed me to a variety of new things… that’s my general advice. 

Stinger: What do you hope to do with your prize money?

Bilger: Welp, there’s the very boring answer of what I’m probably actually going to do with it, and there’s the dreamy answer, so I will give you both of them. The boring answer is that my dad is an accountant, and I am already thinking about starting a retirement account. As a 22-year-old, people tell you to start stocking away money as early as you possibly can. But most people my age just do not have the capital to do that. As somebody who has now gotten it for standing in front of a podium and answering trivia questions, I intend to use that. [The dreamy answer is that] I’m a park ranger now and I love the [National] Parks, and I want to try to visit as many of them as I can. So if I can plan some sort of nice vacation, I’m a grad student so I don’t know how much time I have, but sometime down the road, [I would like to].

Stinger: Is there anything you would like to add that I did not ask?

Bilger: Just thank you so much to everybody for the support. I try to respond to every single thing that people send to me, and if I miss you, I’m sorry. I appreciate every bit of the support, everybody has been fantastic.

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