It was day 3 of Kirstin Cutts’ run on the game show “Jeopardy!,” and it looked it might be her last. She trailed the leading contestant, $10,600 to $14,000 with just one question left – Final Jeopardy.
Then Alex Trebek read the category — “Literary Figures” — and the clue. “When we first meet her in the novel, she’s wearing a green dress with 12 yards of fabric, and matching green slippers from Atlanta.”
Cutts graduated in 2013 with an AOC in English and French. So a literature question about a classic Southern novel—she’s from Gainesville, to boot—would be a breeze, right?
“Actually, I have never read ‘Gone With The Wind.’ I haven’t seen it – but I’ve seen the Carol Burnett sketch,” she says, breaking out in a peal of laughter, something she does a lot. “But, yeah, Atlanta, green dress, it’s gotta be Scarlett. It just has to be!”
It was, and she leapfrogged the leader, who missed the question. (His answer: The Good Witch.) Final score, $15,600 to $6,799, and on to another game.
For five days in February, Cutts was the darling of the nation’s trivia nerds. Her four victories and a final second-place finish netted her $51,403 in winnings. And while she and her New College classmates would often hit the trivia contests at local bars, her “Jeopardy!” run was more accident than destiny.
She signed up for the online test for potential contestants, and one night in January 2016 spotted the email with the link to the test. She’d forgotten all about it, but had nothing to do that night, so she sat up in bed with a glass of wine and took the test.
Then she went on with her life finishing her first year of graduate school at the University of Texas, Austin in art education, and by July had moved on to an internship in San Antonio.
Then she got the next email, inviting her to an in-person audition.
Two problems: the closest site was in Oklahoma City, and the audition was right when she was supposed to be moving into new digs in Austin. She told her mother, there’s no way I can do this, but mom persuaded her to try.
So it was off to Oklahoma City, where some 60 people showed up for the tryout. They took two written tests, got a run-through on gameplay, and played a short practice game. They also did a brief interview. “Tell us all the interesting things about you,” and “what would you do with all the money?”, as a way to judge the contestants’ appeal on camera, Cutts said.
(Her current answer to that question: “I can buy a car that’s only five years old instead of 10 years old, and maybe the next place I live will have a washer and dryer in the apartment!” she says, laughing again. “I feel like I’m setting my goals pretty realistically here!”)
Then: Thank you very much. If we like you, we’ll call you in the next 18 months.
The call came two months later, and in November, she headed to Los Angeles. The rest is “Jeopardy!” history.
Between the call and the tapings, Cutts got serious. She watched past episodes, studied and had friends with varying interests quiz her. She also studied wagering strategy, which helped in two come-from-behind wins.
But the reasons for her success started much earlier, with parents and teachers who encouraged her to pursue interests beyond the standards, and she credits New College for amplifying the love and skill of independent learning.
“If you’re the kind of person who’s drawn to New College, I think you’re already the kind of person who would do well on ‘Jeopardy!’” she said.
“If something interests you, you go and learn more about it, and if you’re going to do that independently, which is the whole thing New College emphasizes…” She pauses. “If something intrigues you, you go out and learn more about it on your own. And because you’re taking the initiative, it’s going to stick in your brain -— for eight years, and you can pull on it when you’re on international television!”
That media attention was a prize in itself, helping Cutts reconnect with her far-flung Novo family — perfect timing, as she’s just wrapped up her degree and is deciding where to go next.
“A friend of mine from New College — she was in my class, I haven’t talked to her in years — she’s in California now, and she messaged me, ‘I walked into a bar and there you were!’ She had no idea!”
“That was a really fun thing about it,” she said. “It gave me a reason to talk to all these people I hadn’t talked to in a long time, and it was a fun thing to share. I have good friends of mine from all over the country that I haven’t been able to see for a few years, and they’re saying, ‘We’re watching you and we’re rooting for you!’ and sending me updates.
“That was a really, really fun part of it. Knowing I had tiny fan clubs around the country was awesome. And now the ice has been broken, and I can talk to all these people again.”