Last week, Leonard Cooper became one of the most celebrated contestants on Jeopardy! ever, joining the ranks of Ken Jennings or Brad Rutter. And he’s got an advantage over those other guys: he’s only 17. Leonard’s performance in the teen tournament is the stuff of quiz show history. On Tuesday’s episode, he was trailing by $16,000 as he entered the second game of the finale. He landed on a Daily Double, bid $18,000, got it right, and nonchalantly scrawled a final Jeopardy! nonanswer to a World War II question: “Who is some guy in Normandy but I just won $75,000.” Obviously this all went viral on YouTube.
On a trip to New York this week, Leonard—a high school senior from Little Rock, Arkansas—got a first taste of his newfound celebrity. A crowd of kids swarmed around him during a visit to the Museum of Natural History, asking for photographs. On the Today show, he challenged Al Roker and Willie Geist to a game of presidential trivia (and lost). “I didn’t know the rules,” he says. “Al just started storming the beaches.”
Cooper filmed his Jeopardy! episodes in November. After he clinched the trophy, he had to keep his win a secret from his teachers, friends, grandparents, and older brother. “If I told someone and it had gotten out,” he says, “I think it they would have taken the money back. ’Cause it would have been breach of contract.” He couldn’t even put it on his college application to Brown University, which he submitted in January. “I just told them I was a contestant and make sure to watch, it was going to be exciting!” He has yet to hear back from the admissions office, but he’s a smart guy, with an SAT score of 2180 and 10 AP courses.
Leonard sat down with The Daily Beast’s Ramin Setoodeh to talk all things Jeopardy! His mom, who came with him, occasionally interjected.
Hi, Leonard! It’s so good to meet you. So where were you when the episode aired last week?
Actually, in Arkansas, at least in my city, the show airs at 11 a.m. My entire senior class went to a local pizza place and saw the episode. We were all yelling. It was really fun.
What happened after they saw you win?
They all cheered. I was getting a lot of congratulations.
When did you realize it had gone viral?
I haven’t Googled myself yet. But I started getting texts from people, through people from other people, just people passing messages down.
Did you read all the stories online?
Yeah. I read some of the stuff. I saw the one on Grantland.
Is all the attention weird?
It’s really weird.
You were trailing by a lot after the first game. Did you know you had to do something dramatic?
I’ve been watching Jeopardy! for a lot of years. I’ve seen tournaments before, and when people are down, I haven’t really seen anyone make a comeback. I knew I had to figure out some way to catch up. I hadn’t gotten a Daily Double the entire tournament. The kid to my far right, Nilai, he was getting them, he’d do these wagers, get them right and have a huge jump. So I knew if I didn’t get that last Daily Double, I wasn’t going to win. When it actually popped up for me, I was really surprised that I actually got it. I just said, “Whatever, $18,000.” I just went for it. After I said it, I was looking at the board, hoping that the question would be one I knew.
Leonard’s mom: It was intense, especially when he made the wager. You could hear the crowd. The man next to me said, ‘Do you think he meant $1,800!?’
That question was about 12 Angry Men. Did you know the answer right away?
I knew it as soon as I saw it.
Then you enter Final Jeopardy! with the subject “military men.” Did you think anybody could catch you?
They gave us a sheet of paper with the totals from the other day so we could do the math. I saw that Barrett couldn’t catch up to me. Even though I knew he was going to get the answer right—military, U.S. government—that was [his specialty]. I was really glad he couldn’t catch up to me. Nilai, I saw his score, I knew he could and would try to wager and get ahead of me. But then I started thinking about the category, how it was about U.S. history, how young he was—he’s a freshman—he hadn’t really taken any history classes yet. So I wrote down zero, because I didn’t think he was going to get the answer right.
So when you wrote down that you’d won $75,000, you knew there was a chance you wouldn’t be the winner? What would’ve happened if you lost?
It would have been pretty embarrassing, the guy who wrote down “I won $75,000” not winning $75,000. I was thinking I’d still be happy going home with $40,000 [the second-place prize], even with the ridicule and shame of writing that down and not getting it.
“Steve Harvey said, ‘Hi man.’ It was really crazy.”
Your answer cracked up Alex Trebek. What did he say to you after you won?
He said, “Congratulations!” And he said that answer reminded him of something his son might say if he was on the show.
Did you cram a lot to be on the show?
I pretty much winged it. It’s funny, because the 15 contestants there were all talking. Apparently, there’s a website that has every single answer from every single Jeopardy! game all categorized. A lot of them had been looking at the site. I had no idea it existed. So they were all studying the questions. I wasn’t focusing on getting information. I was focusing on getting faster than everyone else.
What’s the secret to the buzzer?
The buzzer is tricky! After Alex reads the full question, there’s a series of lights that come on around the board. If you buzz in before those lights come on, then you get locked out for a quarter of a second. Getting the buzzer down is probably the most important part. I would say every contestant in every game knows on average about 80 percent of the questions on the board.
What are you going to do with your $75,000 prize?
Put some definitely in college. Put it in the bank. I play the guitar, so I was going to buy a new guitar, maybe some sound equipment amps, all that. Possibly put some down on a car.
If you get into Brown, what do you want to study?
He’s going to need to save his money, Mom.
Leonard’s mom: That’s what I’m saying.
Has anybody famous recognized you?
Steve Harvey [a guest host on the Today show when he was on] said, “Hi, man.” It was really crazy that Steve Harvey recognized me! It’s just so strange when you see him, and he says, “I saw that, that was awesome.” It’s crazy seeing Steve Harvey shaking your hand.
And he asked about your afro?
Yeah. He was talking about me getting it lined and trimming it down. He was giving me instructions. He said shape it up or smooth around the edges. I always let it grow.
OK, one last question before I let you go—and it’s a trivia question. Can you name all five members of One Direction? Go!
Um. Let me think of five British-sounding names. I don’t even know if they are British.
They are British.
Well, I got that part right. I have absolutely no idea.
Leonard’s mom: They are too young for him. He’s old school.