Inside Sam Deutsch's Jeopardy! Win

Inside Sam Deutsch’s Jeopardy! Win

The University of Southern California junior from Bethesda won the $100,000 grand prize

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Sam Deutsch of Bethesda, after his Jeopardy! win. Photos courtesy of Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

During the final round of the 2016 Jeopardy! College Championship that was broadcast in February, Bethesda’s Sam Deutsch felt a wave of panic. There was only one question separating Deutsch, a 2013 graduate of Rockville’s Richard Montgomery High School, from the $100,000 grand prize. With the tournament on the line, he’d decided to go for broke, then realized he’d made a “huge mistake.” He was trailing an opponent by just one dollar. Caught up in the excitement, he forgot that if they both answered incorrectly, he would lose.  

“I immediately called over one of the producers to ask if I could change my bet,” says Deutsch, 20. “But it was too late.”

The University of Southern California junior had spent several weeks binge-watching Jeopardy! reruns to prepare for this moment, makeshift buzzer in hand. All at once, the time he’d spent sequestered in the green room between shows, the unbearably hot lights on the Hollywood set, and the elation at seeing friends and family in the studio audience flickered in his mind like a half-remembered dream, he says. As he gulped down water during the last commercial break, he figured his 15 minutes of fame were up.

Most of the tournament feels like a blur now, Deutsch says, but there’s one part he remembers well. The Final Jeopardy! category was “U.S. Senate,” and the championship hinged on correctly naming the male senator who cast 12,810 votes and served from 1973 to January 2009. With 30 seconds to answer, he wrote down, “Who is Byrd,” referring to Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Then, at the last second, he crossed it out and changed his response.

Host Alex Trebek read the other two contestants’ answers first—both of which were wrong—before coming to Deutsch. “It was like time stopped,” he says. And then the unthinkable happened: Trebek said his response—Joe Biden—was correct.  

“I didn’t even believe it at first,” Deutsch says. “Even when Alex called the winner over to the podium to get the trophy, I was just kind of standing there for the first few seconds not moving until the producers were like, ‘Go!’ ”

Deutsch, who credits a high school friend with pushing him to try out for Jeopardy!, knew one of the other contestants, Georgetown Day School graduate Noah Cowan, from back home. Cowan and Deutsch used to compete against each other at trivia events. “We would see each other almost every Saturday at Quiz Bowl tournaments, especially since the Georgetown Day School versus Richard Montgomery rivalry has always been strong,” says Cowan, a Brown University freshman who grew up in Bethesda.

Noah Cowan, who grew up in Bethesda, also competed on Jeopardy! recently.

“That first morning, they put all 15 of us on a bus from the hotel to the studio and it was cool to see a familiar face,” Deustch says. “We were all so nervous when we first got there, but knowing somebody from home made me feel a little more comfortable.”

Despite losing in the first round, Cowan says the whole process was “incredibly fun,” especially when he correctly answered a question about All the President’s Men. “That’s one of my favorite books and movies, so if I hadn’t gotten that one, I would have really kicked myself for a while,” he says.

As for Deutsch, who received a congratulatory letter from Vice President Joe Biden, he plans to use his winnings to help pay for law school, and to donate some of the money to the Nina Hyde Center for Breast Cancer Research at Georgetown University. “My mom is a breast cancer survivor and holds fundraisers for the center every year,” he says.

But Deutsch isn’t finished with Jeopardy! just yet. This fall, he’ll take on the year’s top players in the Tournament of Champions for a chance to win $250,000.

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