Twenty-time Jeopardy! champion Julia Collins did not know that the human brain swells when you’re sick. Her doctor delivered this factoid and prescribed antibiotics for her illness—which would persist undiagnosed for nearly seven weeks—and told her to sit near a window and do nothing. She canceled bridesmaid dress shopping and wedding cake tasting with her best friend. And instead of studying for the Tournament of Champions, taping in Los Angeles in a few days, she watched How I Met Your Mother on Netflix.
“It’s a real bummer,” she told me after the tournament. “It’s a real drag. My brain was like a pile of mush.”
The processing errors of her mind manifested in a few debilitating ways: Her wagers, written with Jeopardy!’s signature light pen, were messy; she was a few milliseconds slow on the buzzer; when watching one of her tournament matches on television last week, she had no recollection of answering a Daily Double correctly. She said she spelled her name incorrectly when an audience member asked for an autograph and she just couldn’t remember what haiku she wrote—a getting-to-know-you exercise for contestants on the show—when getting her makeup done. (“Hitting the buzzer / OMG I’m the new champ / The best time ever”)
Yet, Collins never doubted herself. “I’m certainly not in the mind-set that I need to be locking myself away,” she said before the tournament. “I mean, I’m good at this.”
She was, of course, correct.
The unemployed 31-year-old advanced to the final round of the Tournament of Champions, where she will play Arthur Chu and Ben Ingram. Her performance, as many have noted, has been like Michael Jordan’s “Flu Game” in the 1997 NBA Finals. The winner, who will be crowned on television Friday, gets $250,000. (While the tournament, a battle of the top players of the last two years, was actually taped over two days at the end of September, the first rule of Jeopardy! is that you keep your mouth shut and not spoil the illusion that things unfold in real-time.)
The native of Chicago’s North Shore, known for her sweaters and necklaces and friendly Midwestern persona, slaughtered 40 contestants earlier this year to win $428,100—second only to Ken Jennings (74 games, $2.4 million).
For the 50-year-old quiz show, television’s 30-minute Mensa test with bathroom breaks, this is a wet dream. Chu, derided by Internet trolls for his use of game theory when bouncing around the board, versus Collins, a traditional player, who looks more like she’s baking a cake when on television. Just look at the Star Wars-inspired picture headlining the tournament: the largest heads are Collins, hands on her cheeks and flashing her perfect teeth, and Chu, boasting a classic “I’m smarter than you” face.
The tournament itself is like the second season of a reality show. The contestants are minor celebrities, having stayed relevant on Twitter (#fakeToC2014 is a real thing, and so is live-tweeting a game) and Reddit and the Internet. They banter with Alex Trebek and tell stories of life after Jeopardy! And then there are the in-game quips, like “I’ll polish off that category” or “I’ll make it a true Daily Double,” said with a little too much confidence. This isn’t exactly high-octane television, though. Arguably the most exhilarating moment of the tournament so far, a collision of geek culture and celebrity, happened last week when Chu answered the $1,000 question in the category “Beyoncé”:
Trebek: Jay Z is featured on this Beyoncé song that mentions “that liquor get into me.”
Chu: What is “Drunk on Love”?
Grammatically correct, yes. Still the wrong answer.
If Trebek were a high-school teacher, Chu would be the whiz kid who doesn’t turn in his homework because he was on Twitter all night fighting misogynists (he writes regularly for this site). Collins is the star pupil who listens attentively and raises her hand, probably far too much (she confessed she’s the person who won’t shut up on museum tours). Trebek has spent four television weeks, in reality four or five days of taping, with her. In her semifinal match, he joked “Now you can get to lie down for a while” in the post-game chat.
“She’s not pompous,” said Lizy Dastin, Collins’s friend who was at 15 of her regular-season games and the Tournament of Champions. “She’s just so humble and smart.”
“To win 20 games takes incredible stamina, and a certain amount of luck,” Chuck Forrest, the champion who in 1985 pioneered the “Forrest Bounce” wrote in an email. “She did it the old-fashioned way.”
Chu said Collins seems like someone he could be friends with outside the game. “Julia’s a really sweet person and a really cool person,” he said. “Obviously she’s an incredibly smart person as well or she wouldn’t have had the winning streak she did.”
She is, after all, the person who wrote in an eighth-grade yearbook that “Julia Collins will be the Ten Time Jeopardy Champion,’ winning each tournament twice.”
Collins said that most of her knowledge is from “here and there,” so there was no need to cram before the tournament. For a few hours every day she would read big books at the library, watch reruns of the show, and dig through questions in the J! Archive, an unofficial database of old clues. “Everybody who’s won a Nobel Peace Prize is a finite list that I can memorize,” she said, nonchalantly. “Then there’s the whole wide world of physics.” Then she got sick.
Before taping, contestants were quarantined in the green room. Collins closed her eyes and lay down on the couch as the other champions watched Planes, Trains and Automobiles. And so she waited through the 30-minute episode tapings, the 15-minute breaks, the five episodes a day. When she wasn’t lying down, she spent the game wanting to put her head down. This is going to be over soon and then I don’t have to stand up anymore today, she thought.
“Julia was really, really sick,” Chu said. “She literally had to lie down in between sessions in order to recover her strength.”
Collins did not look ill in her quarterfinal match, thought her friend said she was pale and that her hand was shaking on the buzzer. She ditched her sweaters for a shiny black dress with a black belt and a pearl necklace (“I thought I would dress up a little more”). She squinted, blinked sporadically, and tilted her head, as if straining to wrestle answers from her brain. If you were to judge her by these facial gestures, you’d think she was just confused.
When she buzzed in, she was another person. The friendly aura vanished, her eyes dead, voice robotic and confident she was correct. (In fact, she knew the correct answer 92 percent of the time she buzzed in during her 20-game streak.) While Collins lost this match, her $9,100 total was enough to earn a Wild Card and advance.
In the semifinals, she was in a peculiar position for someone of Jeopardy! royalty: She stood at the third podium, the loser spot on the far right side of the television screen. From there, for the first time in 22 games, she could see the other contestants, especially when looking at Trebek.
Only 24 hours since her previous match, Collins was now visibly sick (she said she considered dropping out of the tournament that morning). Her voice was raspy and after answering questions she paused, as if about to faint. As the Final Jeopardy! song played, she leaned down on the podium, holding her head up with her hands. She still won.
Trebek floated a theory to why Collins was sick after another match:
Trebek: Julia’s under the weather, but I think that’s because you and Arthur managed to slip a little stuff into her food this morning.
Other contestant: Well, she’s still got game obviously!
Collins doesn’t know where she got the bug. After her first run on the show ended in February, she spent a month living in Paris and seven days in London to escape the brutal Chicago winter. She said she may have caught it when she went to San Francisco for a wedding. Or maybe it was from the handles of a grocery store shopping cart.
Only a few weeks ago, she was unable to stand for more than 15 minutes. She struggled to concentrate on crossword puzzles and read books, so she just watched television. “I was talking to my doctor,” she said, “and I was like, ‘Is this what it feels like to be old?’ And he was like, ‘Kind of.’ Where it doesn’t seem like there’s anything wrong with me but I can’t really do very much.” She went on: “It’s very strange to me, and very annoying, very irritating, because I can’t live my life.”
The official diagnosis: a mono-like virus that makes you really, really tired. The obvious question: Did Jeopardy! make her sick?
Her best friend and bride-to-be Liz Logan said, “I know it was hard for her, wanting to live up to her past success, having that expectation on her, and yet not having her body on her side.” Collins admits that she was slightly nervous, but said she’s no hypochondriac.
“Nervous anticipation is not abject terror or anything like that,” she said.
Chu, who doesn’t seem to sleep much these days, said he envies her. “We’re very different in the ways we’ve handled our ‘Jeopardy! fame,’” he said. “In all honesty she may be handling it better, in terms of not letting it affect her as a person or screw up her life.”
“I mean, my life is not that stressful,” Collins said, feeling better. “I don’t have a job. And I’m not really worried about that.” And how could she be stressed? She’s the second-winningest Jeopardy! contestant in history. For those who have a problem with that, she offered a charming, subtle middle finger.
“When I watch Jeopardy! I really try not to judge the contestants,” she said. “They’re strangers, people I don’t know. It’s just not how I watch the game. I don’t even notice the contestants half the time. I watch and then I forget about it.” She went on: “I don’t really like or dislike the clues. I don’t get emotionally invested. I enjoy watching the show. I’ve always enjoyed watching the show.”