Friends of Leah Libresco ’11, a math and political science double major in Jonathan Edwards College, describe her as a person of eclectic interests.
Now, Libresco can add being a “Jeopardy!” semi-finalist to her long list of extracurriculars, which includes being president of the Yale Political Union and a staff columnist for the News.
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On Friday’s episode of the popular television quiz show, Libresco placed second, racking up $21,000 and a wildcard spot in the semi-final round of this year’s College Championship. Lindsay Eanet, a University of Missouri senior, narrowly beat Libresco, earning $22,100. Out of 15 quarterfinalists who played throughout the week, each night’s winners are guaranteed a spot in the semi-finals. The four runner-ups with the biggest scores — dubbed “wild cards” — are also added to this round.
Libresco said she is slated to appear in another episode of the show Tuesday, when viewers will see her vye for a spot in the final round. She is not allowed to disclose the results before then.
But Libresco’s $21,000 win from Friday’s episode only represents a score, she said after a viewing party held at the JE buttery Friday evening; each semi-finalist wins at least $10,000.
The viewing party gathered more than 40 of Libresco’s friends and fellow members of the YPU, as she donned a blue “Jeopardy!” jacket she received while taping the program in Los Angeles. More often than not, attendees at Friday’s gathering shouted responses in the form of questions in accordance with the show’s format. A shoe was jokingly thrown in reaction to an opponent’s correct response, while others teased Libresco when she did not get an “obvious” clue right.
“I can’t believe you didn’t get ‘Oscar Wilde’” an attendee said in reaction to one of her incorrect responses. (The clue, in the category “The Prisoner” was: “This Dublin-born man was released from prison bankrupt in 1897; ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ was released in 1898.”)
For friend Dylan Morris ’11, Libresco’s many passions make her a good match for the quiz show.
“She’s the ideal ‘Jeopardy!’ contestant,” he said.
Libresco applied to be a contestant for the show once before, as a sophomore, inspired by her friend Dara Lind ’09, who had done an earlier stint on the show. Libresco took an online test in August, and in October she went to Boston for an in-person tryout.
Then, while having lunch with friends in the Timothy Dwight dining hall during reading period last semester, Libresco responded to a missed call from a “Jeopardy!” representative. Morris said Libresco ran toward her friends yelling, “I need a paper and pen right now!” Morris said he helped her to write down dates for her flight out to Los Angeles. Out of approximately 300 applicants, Libresco had been selected as one of the 15 contestants in the show’s college tournament, she said.
Libresco admits she did not study for the game, instead only browsing Wikipedia once in a while, in additional to her usual, daily readings of The New York Times. Once she was in the studio in California, she said she was not nervous because the odds of winning were out of her hands, and as a quarter-finalist, she had an assured winning of $5,000.
“There was a lot that was out of my control,” she said in an interview. “I said to myself I would give it my best try, have fun, and if there was a clue about a song, I would sing the answer.”
She said a lot of the outcome depends on the contestants’ reflexes in timing the buzzers they need to press to respond to each clue, something Libresco said she found frustrating. Viewers at home might not know, she added, that contestants cannot buzz while the host, Alex Trebek, talks. Once Trebek finishes speaking, a light goes off, and any player who buzzes in too early, gets locked out for a second of play.
Libresco said some of the clue categories, such as the nuclear energy category, suited her interests. She failed at some civil rights questions, while her father, a civil rights scholar, watched in the audience, she said. Her boyfriend, Christopher Pagliarella ’12 said he was pleased but surprised that she got all the New Testament questions right since she labels herself a “hardcore atheist.”
“My dream category would be smallpox,” she said, noting that she is focusing on epidemiology within her political science major. “It’s the coolest disease ever.”
As the “Final Jeopardy!” round aired on television, the audience in the viewing party watched Libresco cross her fingers on-screen and later rejoice when she realized she had moved on to the semi-finals.
Libresco’s suitemate, Sarah Winsberg ’11, said she was not surprised when she learned Libresco had opted to do “Jeopardy!,” saying she has diverse pursuits, ranging from abstract algebra to glass-blowing.
“Everyone who comes in to our suite knows what bookshelf is hers,” Winsberg said. “It is filled with books on science fiction and diseases.”
Libresco said she plans to spend her winnings on voice lessons, summer housing and her elaborate Halloween costumes.