20-year-old Berkeley native competes on Jeopardy!

Alex Trebek and Matt Olson, the Berkeley resident competing on Jeopardy! Photos courtesy of Jeopardy!

In 2004, when Matt Olson was 12, he was captivated by Ken Jennings, the 30-year old man who won 74 Jeopardy! Games in a row.  It was the longest-winning streak ever on the popular game show and Jennings’ success catapulted him into national celebrity.

Ever since then, Olson, now 20, has wanted to compete on Jeopardy! When he was a student at Berkeley High, he took the online test to get on the show, but didn’t make it. In 2010, when he was a freshman at Stanford, he took the test another time. Again he failed.

But in 2012, Olson beat 12,000 other college students to win a spot on the Jeopardy! College Championship, which runs through February 14. If Olson triumphs (and he is contractually required not to reveal the outcome of the contest) he will win $100,000. His first appearance on the show is Tuesday Feb. 7. The show airs at 7 pm on KGO, channel 7.

“I’ve watched Jeopardy! Since I was a kid,” said Olson, now a sophomore at Stanford majoring in Symbolic Systems. “I’ve wanted to be on the show for a really long time. It’s pretty cool. I got my dream.”


The fact that Olson finally made the cut is no surprise to his friends. He was widely regarded as one of the smartest students at Berkeley High. He was the co-captain of the BHS Quiz Bowl team, a Jeopardy-like game that pits teams against one another.

Olson said Quiz Bowl helped him prepare for Jeopardy!, but no more than studying Latin or classics or history. He did bone up on the names of presidents and capitals of countries before the competition, he said.

“Matt has been preparing for Jeopardy all of his life,” said Charlotte Wayne, Olson’s classmate at both BHS and Stanford.

To qualify for Jeopardy!, Olson took an online test that posed about 50 questions. In October, he was invited down to Los Angeles to audition. He was put into a group with a number of other students. They played a mock game. He was also interviewed and had to explain what he would do with the earnings if he won.

The contestants in 2012 Jeopardy! College Championships. Matt Olson is on the far left

Olson returned to Los Angeles in early January. He and the 15 other students were put up at a Hilton Hotel. They taped the show over a two-day period.

“You don’t really appreciate at home how quickly it (a game) goes,” said Olson. “You don’t really have time to think of answers. It’s really a game of reflex and subconscious associations rather than knowledge.”

Olson was impressed by the other collegiate competitors, who came from schools of all ranks and sizes, he said. There were students from Harvard, Columbia, and MIT, but others were from North Texas, Goucher, and Indiana.

Since Stanford holds the world record for wins in the Jeopardy! College Championship, (its students have won twice) Olson did feel pressure to perform.

“I did feel self-imposed pressure to perform as a Stanford student and make my school proud,” said Olson.

It was also great to meet the host Alex Trebek, although he didn’t spend much time with the contestants, said Olson. But he did spend time joking with the contestants on breaks. All the students also got their picture taken with the host.

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