Q&A: Jeopardy-Winning Reporter Kara Spak

Forget Pulitzers. Late last month Chicago Sun-Times reporter Kara Spak nabbed a rarer prize: she won $85,401 on Jeopardy. Spak triumphed five nights in a row—a feat that almost guarantees a spot in the program’s famed “Tournament of Champions”—and picked up a few fans along the way. In a story she wrote for the paper after her sixth game aired, Spak mentioned an “anonymous ‘Jeopardy!’ watcher who sent me cyber cigars and a message that he was ‘lighting a portofino’ after every win.” Spak, who filmed her six shows over two days in late July and early August, spoke with CJR assistant editor Joel Meares Monday about her Jeopardy experience and how her background in newspapers helped her grab the cash. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Why Jeopardy?

The first time I thought that I wanted to be on the show was at some point in high school when they had those Teen Tournaments. My three brothers and I would watch those and play against each other. That was when the seed was planted. Then, in 1989 or 1990, there was a holiday parade in Pittsburgh where I grew up and Alex Trebek was the celebrity. I went down with a friend of mine from high school, and we yelled at him from the side of the road—he was in a convertible, had a moustache, the whole thing. We were cheering for him and he said, “Got my picture, ladies?”

Was this your first attempt to get on?

The first time I tried out was 1998, right after I moved to Chicago. It was before they had the online tests; you sent in a postcard and if you got picked for an audition they called you. I got called and there were probably two hundred people in this huge ballroom and we took a fifty-question test. I took the test, I didn’t pass it, and I left. I took the online test three other times. The third time that I passed the online test I got invited to audition in Chicago—luckily I didn’t have to travel too far—and then made it onto the show.

Did you jump for joy?

I was pretty excited but I didn’t scream or anything like that. I switched into work mode. They give you about a month’s notice, which is enough to get a cheap plane ticket but not enough to do any serious studying. I didn’t think I would win, but I thought that it was a legitimate opportunity to win some quick money and didn’t want to blow it. I got a couple of books and basically started trying to refresh stuff that I already knew.

How do you study for something as broad as Jeopardy?

There are many people online who love Jeopardy in almost a crazy way. One of the blogs I read was somebody who said, here are the ten subjects you need to know: U.S. presidents, Greek mythological figures, and so on. I didn’t know the presidents that well so I bought presidential and first lady flash cards. For the entire month I walked around with these flash cards, and if I showed up early for an interview or I was at a press conference that ran late, I would study my flash cards.

Sounds like high school.

I actually really liked studying. I would read great writing, and intellectual books; now I watch The Bachelor and The Real Housewives of New Jersey or D.C. It was a good excuse to turn off the TV and study a little. I covered court for three or four years, and I now cover a lot of murders, like kids getting shot and stuff like that, so when I get home I just kind of want to unwind with something totally mindless.

Did you use any of your reporting skills to prepare?

No. I just Googled.

What was your favorite category over the six shows you were on?

“Number one ‘love’ songs,” where “love” had to appear in every answer. I worked in the Chicago suburbs for nine years before I got the job in the city, and I’d always lived in the city and commuted out to the suburbs, including a few really distant suburbs. When I was starting out, I had to cover these night meetings, like city council or local school boards, and on the way home I would listen to Delilah on Lite FM. After nine years of that I thought I would do well in that category. The only one I missed was a Captain and Tennille song.

Have you come across any fans in your reporting?

I’ve been really surprised at how interested people are. Just this morning, a Northwestern University professor won the Nobel Prize; he’s in Denmark as a visiting professor. I was talking to his wife, who likes the Sun-Times, and she knew about me being on Jeopardy.

How did your colleagues respond to the show?

They were super supportive. The editor actually bought pizza for the first day. Jeopardy is on at 3.30 p.m. in Chicago, and the news meeting is usually at 3 p.m., but they moved it back to 2.30 p.m. for the first show so that everybody could watch. For every game, including the one after I lost, everyone sat around the TV and cheered.

Did your career in journalism—or degree at the Columbia J-School—help in your success?

I will say this: something that really helped me is that I read three or four newspapers a day. I read The Chicago Sun-Times, The Chicago Tribune, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Daily Herald—suburban Chicago newspaper—and I read The Pittsburgh Gazette every day online. It helped with world capitals; I’d give a shout-out to The New York Times for that one.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.