Halfway through his first appearance on Jeopardy!, Henry Baer (BS ’18) was in a hole. With a score of $2,600, he was in third place, $4,800 behind the leader. But the Double Jeopardy round began with a promising omen for someone who had recently spent four years at Caltech: One of the six categories was “Astronauts.”
Baer, playing first, went right to the $1,600 clue in that subject and answered correctly, and then found a “daily double” clue in the same category, allowing him to bet any amount of his earnings so far. He wagered it all, answered correctly (“Who is John Glenn?”), and vaulted into first place.
“The questions didn’t cover anything I learned in a course at Caltech, but being in such close proximity to JPL, I was probably more aware of those facts,” says Baer, who majored in computer science but did take an astrobiology class his senior year. “It was definitely in my wheelhouse, so I was really happy when that category came up.”
The rest of the match, which aired Nov. 23, was a back-and-forth affair between Baer and the returning champ. But Baer came out on top, earning the right to defend his title in the next match. Which he did, handily. His performance so impressed Alex Trebek that the show’s legendary host introduced Baer’s third match this way: “Let me tell you something very simple about our champion, Henry. He’s good. So gear up.”
“I’ve been watching Jeopardy! since I was 5, so Alex Trebek was almost mythological to me. I really felt lucky that I had the chance to play the games with him hosting, and to talk to him. He was extremely kind.”
By the time Baer’s episodes were taped last fall, contestants and viewers knew that Trebek was being treated for cancer. Still, Baer says he was struck by Trebek’s enthusiasm. “That first game was so neck and neck, and he genuinely thought it was one of the more exciting games in recent memory. It was fun to know it wasn’t just another game for him.”
Although Baer’s luck ran out in his third match, he says the experience was especially meaningful because Trebek was still hosting the show; Trebek would pass away in early November, weeks after Baer’s games were recorded.
“I’ve been watching Jeopardy! since I was 5, so Alex Trebek was almost mythological to me,” Baer says. “I really felt lucky that I had the chance to play the games with him hosting, and to talk to him. He was extremely kind.”
Baer, now the founding engineer at San Francisco-based Merge, a business-to-business software integration platform provider, said proximity to JPL wasn’t the only way in which Caltech helped prepare him for game show success. During his years in Pasadena, he led the Quiz Bowl Club, which he credits for honing his grasp of the kinds of history, geography, and mythology trivia that are Jeopardy! staples.