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Oncologist Wins Big on Jeopardy!

Jul 20, 2011

ASCO member Jay Rhee, MD, reached the semifinals for the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions. In the first video , Dr. Rhee discusses with Alex Trebek his experience being interviewed by ASCO Connection. In the second video, he discusses the earnings from his original Jeopardy! run. Also, visit Dr. Rhee's Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions page on Facebook.

ASCO member Jay Rhee, MD, made the news this summer with his five-win streak on the trivia game show Jeopardy!. Dr. Rhee, of Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis, won more than $100,000 during his tenure on the show, but told ASCO Connection that he would never quit his day job in medical oncology. In the interview below, Dr. Rhee discusses his game-show experience and his dedication to medicine.

AC: What made you decide to try out for Jeopardy!?
Dr. Rhee:
I played College Bowl when I was a junior and senior. I’ve watched Jeopardy! on and off, and I’d always thought about trying out. I tried out once before in 2002 and never got a callback, which is apparently standard. Most people who are on the show don’t get called back after their first try.

AC: What was the audition process?
Dr. Rhee:
I received an email with an invitation to take the Jeopardy! online test, which is how they do their screening now. About six weeks after taking the test, I was invited to an in-person interview. Regional interviews take place throughout the country and mine happened to be in Washington, DC, not far from Annapolis. There, you take a written test and participate in a mock game. That was in June 2009, and at that point they say you’re in the “active contestant file” for 18 months. They didn’t call within 18 months, but in January [2011], I got the call! I went to LA at the end of February [2011], taped my shows, and then had to keep a moratorium on the results until they aired.

AC: Did you do anything special to prepare?
Dr. Rhee:
I already read the news, like the New York Times, almost every day. I got a subscription to Entertainment Weekly because I wasn’t up on Justin Bieber or American Idol. I bought a global almanac, which had lists of everything—Nobel Prize winners, presidents, etc.—and I did some reading on Wikipedia. But it can get boring and after work you don’t always feel like studying. So on the flight to LA, which took about six hours, I did a lot of cramming on things like state and world capitals. I’m sure if you asked me now I wouldn’t remember half of that stuff, but I was hoping it would get into my short-term memory.

AC: Were there any categories that you hoped wouldn’t come up?
Dr. Rhee:
Medicine! It’s really bad to get a category in your profession because you can’t win. If you get the questions right, everybody says, “Well, you should get it right, you’re a doctor.” And if you get it wrong, or even if you know the answer and get beaten to the buzzer, you get razzed. Sometimes you know too much about a category and overthink it, so you can get it wrong that way as well, and it makes you look like a fool.

AC: Did you get to know the other contestants?
Dr. Rhee:
I was sequestered with them for over three hours before taping started. Most of the time is spent going over standard practices, filling out forms, and taping spots for your local affiliate. We spent some time going over our humorous stories or anecdotes [which are shared with the audience and viewers following the first commercial break]. We bonded over the fact that none of us had been on the show before. It’s almost like the first day of residency—you feel a sort of kinship because you’re all about to share an experience.

AC: Was it difficult to think of so many amusing anecdotes to share on air, since you need something different for each game?
Dr. Rhee:
It was getting pretty difficult. Some people just regurgitate their CVs, but I went in the opposite direction: I thought of the most embarrassing things I could say about myself and hoped people would laugh.

AC: What was the hardest part of the game?
Dr. Rhee:
The buzzer. Most of the time all three contestants know the answer, but you can’t just buzz in when you see the clue. What you don’t see on TV is that someone activates the buzzers after [host] Alex Trebek reads the question. Lights come on around the game board and that’s when you can buzz in. You have to be quick without buzzing in too early and getting locked out.

AC: What was going through your mind after the first win?
Dr. Rhee:
It was unreal. Before the taping, when I talked with my wife about my expectations, I said, “I hope I don’t look like an idiot. I hope I don’t end up dropping out of Final Jeopardy because I’m in the negative.” If I won a game, I’d be over the moon because then you can say you won on Jeopardy!. We had some pie-in-the-sky hopes about how many times I might win and the possibility of five wins was nowhere in there. When you look at the history of who wins five games, I don’t consider myself to be in the same class as those players.

Luck plays a huge part in how you do. A lot depends on the contestants you play and the categories that come up. You could be awesome but get a Final Jeopardy clue that you don’t know anything about. Or you be on the show with someone like [74-time Jeopardy! winner] Ken Jennings—you could be the second-best player in the show’s history and no one will ever know. A lot of things have to go your way to win even once. To win five times is like playing blackjack; you just ride it to the top.

AC: Do you have any special plans for your winnings?
Dr. Rhee:
I bought a sump pump for our basement, and then the basement flooded anyway. Now we have a huge engineering project, Panama Canal-style, to redo the pipes around the basement, and I think a lot of the winnings will be spent on that. Unfortunately, the fancy Chanel bag that I promised my wife on TV is also still very much on the table!

AC: Now that you’ve had a very successful run on Jeopardy!, what’s next?
Dr. Rhee:
Jeopardy! was a great experience. There’s a rumor that there will be another Tournament of Champions. I’d love to participate if that happens. But really, not much else has changed. Colleagues joke that I can retire now, but I have a day job while trivia is a hobby. The priority is what I do day in and day out: treating patients, participating in clinical trials. If I had to pick between doing what I do every day versus going on Jeopardy!, it’s not even a decision.

AC: Did your experience as an oncologist help you on the show?
Dr. Rhee:
It helped me feel more relaxed. Sometimes when you’re immersed in facts it can be difficult to interact with people, but as an oncologist, you have so many personal interactions with your patients and colleagues. Oncology also puts things in perspective: you brood after you lose or get a tough question, but when you come into the office and see a patient with metastatic disease, it’s very hard to feel sorry for yourself.

AC: What led you to oncology?
Dr. Rhee:
Even when I did my internal medicine residency, I knew I wanted to go into oncology. It’s a field where you can make a vast difference in peoples’ lives. In some cases, you can extend somebody’s survival not by one or two years but by decades, and there aren’t many fields of medicine in which that is possible. Even when you can’t, you can help people in so many ways: physical, emotional, spiritual. It’s very humanistic, and it’s very close to what you think about when you’re 12 years old and say you want to be a doctor.


Lisa Greaves

Nov, 11 2011 10:48 AM

Congratulations to Dr. Rhee on an impressive performance in the Jeopardy Tournament of Champions. As an ASCO employee who is a Jeopardy fanatic it was thrilling to see one of our members on the show. Dr. Rhee displayed a winning combination of knowledge, game skills, and incredible likeability. His shout out to ASCO and ASCO Connection left Alex Trebec almost speechless! I am certain that Dr. Rhee's patients benefit from the traits that came through so clearly over the airwaves.

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