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Who is Holly Hassel?

MTU prof reflects on ‘Jeopardy!’ experience

Photo courtesy of Jeopardy Productions Inc. Holly Hassel, professor and director of composition at Michigan Technological University, stands with “Jeopardy!” host Ken Jennings after filming a recent Champions Wildcard Tournament episode that ran Monday. Hassel qualified for the tournament by winning a game during an earlier appearance that aired in June.

HOUGHTON — Even for the select few who make it onto the “Jeopardy!” stage, being picked is usually a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For Holly Hassel, it was twice in a life.

Hassel, a Calumet resident and professor and director of composition at Michigan Technological University, competed in an episode shown Monday as part of the Champions Wildcard Tournament, which brought back previous winners to vie for a spot in the upcoming Tournament of Champions.

Her previous win came back in June 2023, when she was still at her previous position at the North Dakota State.

Hassel had been interested in the show since childhood, when she’d watch it after school.

“Even as an elementary schooler, it was like, ‘Cool, I’m learning things,'” she said.

In college, she’d applied to be on the show, but didn’t get in. Auditioning was harder then, requiring an in-person tryout, usually in a larger metropolitan area.

Now, there’s an “anytime” test, which people can take online. People who score highly enough there take another version of the test — except synchronized over Zoom in a lockdown browser.

Hassel passed that standard, too. That put her into the contestant pool, from which “Jeopardy!” producers assign contestants.

Nine months later, she got the call — in the middle of her job interview with Tech.

“I was like, ‘Sorry, I have to take this call from ‘Jeopardy,'” dropping her voice to a stage whisper.

A month later, she was in Culver City, taping episodes.

Before her appearances, she shored up her knowledge in the areas she needed help. Taking a page from “Jeopardy!” legend James Holzhauer, she checked out children’s nonfiction books from the library, which helped her review basics like world capitals and major rivers.

For her return trip, Hassel added a new wrinkle: Writing songs to help her remember facts. Missing the rock band she’d started with fellow English professors in North Dakota, she’d taken to writing a song a day on her Casio keyboard. When she learned she’d be part of the tournament, she melded her songwriting and her research.

One song listed the countries that start with G, and their capitals. Another song explored Greater Antilles and Lesser Antilles, both groups of Caribbean islands.

“I started feeding into my musical side, but also I don’t know all the capitals of the countries,” she said. “Now I do. So that’s one of my little study tricks.”

The contestants get to develop a camaraderie. She’s kept in touch with a fellow contestant who is a children’s book author, and plans to meet up with her during an upcoming trip to New York.

For the tournament, players were required to spend five days there. Unlike the regular episodes, they also got to watch the other episodes from the crowd.

“That was interesting to me to meet this range of people who are super nerds,” she said. “… It’s been fun to meet people from all over. It’s been fun to see a show that I’ve watched for 40 years of my life, from behind the scenes, to what it’s actually like to be on the stage.”

She remembered her first trip, where her sister, who has stage 4 cancer, got to watch from the audience.

“That part was like a really incredible, special kind of experience for us to have together, knowing that she has a terminal illness,” she said. “And I honestly have never seen her so happy as when I won the game. She was messaging me even though she knew I was on stage, and I couldn’t respond, and she’s just like, ‘We’re crying. We’re so excited for you.’ It just brought her so much excitement and joy.”

On this return trip, she was able to bring her husband and children along. In the grand tradition of teenagers, her kids are not impressed, she said.

Another change was the hosts — Mayim Bialik during her initial run, and Ken Jennings for Monday’s show.

Bialik is more polished, while Jennings was more jovial, she said.

Aside from the occasional pause, the game unfolds in real time, with contestants chatting during the commercial breaks.

It was “the most cognitively taxing” thing she’s ever done, she said.

“There’s the process of processing the questions, think about whether you know it, trying to time the buzzer, listening to everybody else, monitoring your score, think about the strategy,” she said. “It is a tornado of thoughts and feelings.”

Hassel learned facets of the game that don’t come into play when you’re at home yelling answers at the screen.

First, there’s the buzzer to worry about. She started practicing at home with a pen. That also helped get her into the mindset of a contestant.

“It’s one thing to sit on the couch and be like, ‘I think it’s Guam,’ and it’s another thing to be like, ‘I have to make a choice right now in a decision with speed to buzz in and risk that amount of money,'” she said.

Her first time as a “Jeopardy!” contestant, she took a cautious approach of only buzzing in when she knew the answer.

In between appearances, she practiced at home with her husband.

“He’d be like, ‘You’re right more than you’re wrong. You might as well buzz in,'” she said.

On the return trip, she took a more confident approach. For every clue in the top three rows, intended to be the easiest questions, she would buzz in whether or not she knew the answer. After all, she had five seconds to figure it out.

Deciding to buzz is one thing; the other part is timing it correctly.

Players can’t buzz in until the question finishes. A false start locks them out for a quarter of a second — an eternity in a match against fellow champions.

Contestants are signaled by a bank of lights not visible to the TV audience. Hassel tried that, but found it was affecting her game. Instead, she just waited for host Ken Jennings to finish his question, and trusted that she’d come in after the staffer who activates the buzzers.

“For my gameplay personally, I felt a huge amount of pride that I went from a third of the time to two-thirds of the time getting in when I started to refine my buzzer technique,” she said.

Even with rapid-fire buzzer skills, much of the game comes down to luck. Hassel described herself as a more “old-school” player, with a preference for mowing down each category in order.

Other champions have redefined the “Jeopardy!” approach, hopping around the board in an attempt to maximize their chances at hitting a Daily Double clue.

Hassel incorporated some of that into her game — essentially a must now for players who want to compete.

Even with her strategy, the other contestants hit the Daily Double clues — including one about the Twin Cities, which would’ve been a gimme for the native Minnesotan.

“You can only prepare so much,” she said. “But you can’t predict where the deliverables are going to be. You can’t predict who gets them right. You can’t predict how hard they are. You can’t predict what the Final Jeopardy question is going to be.”

No contestants correctly answered Monday’s Final Jeopardy question: “The first vice president and the first president not born in one of the original 13 states were both born in this state.” (The answer turned out to be Kentucky, the home state of both President Abraham Lincoln and Martin Van Buren’s vice president, Richard Johnson.

Hassel and another contestant guessed Tennessee — off by only one, as the home state of Lincoln’s vice president and future President Andrew Johnson.

She wagered $8,800, leaving her with $100. Daniel Moore, who had led with $13,200, also guessed Tennessee and risked everything. The winner, Ron Cheung, also bet big ($12,401) but escaped with $1,599.

The show has developed an intense, data-driven fandom, some of whom later criticized the large size of the wager. The subject — U.S. Presidents and Vice Presidents — was an area she’d been studying. But in making her wager, she also factored in the caliber of player in an all-champions game.

“I guess I figured, ‘There’s no way everyone gets this wrong,’ and then everyone got it wrong,” she said. “You just never know, right? Anything can happen in a ‘Jeopardy!’ game.”

After it was announced a Calumet resident would be on the show, Hassel initially faced some skepticism on Facebook from people who questioned her Yooper credentials, she said.

Though a newcomer to the area, it’s where she lives and pays taxes, she said. She also liked being able to represent a small town and give it visibility on a national stage.

“I even bought a special copper necklace to wear, to represent the Copper Country,” she said.

The night of the show, Hassel held a watch party at Shute’s in Calumet.

“Everyone was so cool about it,” she said. “They were like ‘Yay, it was so great!” It was fun to watch.”

It’s been a “wild ride,” she said. Hassel came in with two baseline goals. One, keep a positive score to at least make it to Final Jeopardy. Two, don’t make any mistakes that would embarrass her once she got back to university: She used the example of a literature professor blanking on a literature question.

She hit those goals. And winning put her in even better company.

“Being able to say, ‘I’m a ‘Jeopardy!’ champion,’ … I didn’t need it, but that was my ideal outcome,” she said. “Anything after that, like being invited to play again, was just extra.”

She’s also proud of herself for stepping up to the challenge of being in the public eye.

“I’m not actually someone who loves public speaking or the spotlight or anything like that,” she said. “I’m actually a super nerd, kind of introverted, prefer to just be at home with my cats reading books. And so it was pretty anxiety-producing to go on national TV and beam out to the world. That’s not my deal. So I felt a sense of accomplishment looking back at 18-year-old Holly Hassel, who would have died before giving a speech in college. I feel like I’ve just really come a long way.”

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