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Why Philadelphia makes great Jeopardy players, from Celeste DiNucci to Ryan Long

08 Nov 2022 11:13 AM | Travis Oliver (Administrator)


"With all the history and learning institutions, the city “has a richness to it.”


Philadelphia Jeopardy champ Ryan Long on the May 26 show
Philadelphia Jeopardy champ Ryan Long on the May 26 show
Oct. 31, 2022, 7:00 p.m.

The list of things Philadelphians have to cheer for right now feels pretty long: The Phillies are in the World Series. The Eagles are undefeated. The Union are headed to the MLS Cup.
But wait! There’s more.

Another event with a promising local competitor hit TV screens this week: Philadelphian Ryan Long competed on Jeopardy’s Tournament of Champions. For self-described nerds like this Billy Penn reporter, this competition is our personal World Series.

Long — a Mt. Airy resident who’s worked as a rideshare driver, water ice truck driver, bouncer, and street sweeper — is nothing short of a Philly trivia legend. He won the most games of any Philadelphian who’s ever been on the show (16, to be exact), earned recognition from the mayor for his achievement, and even hosted a category of Philly video clues on an episode of Celebrity Jeopardy (while wearing a vintage Eagles jersey, of course).

He didn’t win in Monday night’s tournament kickoff, which was considered extremely tough by all involved.
But Long is one in a line of many Philadelphia contestants in Jeopardy’s decades-long history.

The city is even home to another multi-time champ, who won five games in 2006 and proceeded to win the 2007 Tournament of Champions.
Last season alone, the show’s 38th, featured six contestants from Philadelphia. Add a handful from the Philly suburbs, and people who still identify strongly with the region, and the group becomes even bigger.
With its ties to early U.S. history, numerous thriving cultural institutions, bustling Quizzo culture, and more, Philadelphia has played a starring role in many of these players’ stories.

Billy Penn spoke with eight former Jeopardy contestants about their time on the show, what led them there, and how Philly has played a role in their lives and love for learning.

Erica Weiner-Amachi: Aiming not to be the ‘loser from Philly’
Erica Weiner-Amachi, an elementary school teacher who’s lived in Philly for a decade and a half, flew out to Culver City, California, to tape her Jeopardy episodes while Ryan Long’s streak was airing earlier this year.

Since Jeopardy tapes episodes a few weeks or months in advance, their time didn’t overlap — but she was the first Philadelphian to play after his streak ended, and she still felt a tiiiiiny bit of pressure.

“It adds to that part of like, I don’t want to let everyone down. I don’t want to be like, the loser from Philadelphia,” Weiner-Amachi said, laughing. “Could I hopefully be a part of a streak of people who win from Philadelphia?”
Twice she came close — first when she lost in a rare sudden death round, and then a few months later during Jeopardy’s “Second Chance” week. She went into Final Jeopardy with the lead but lost out on a tricky clue none of her fellow contestants knew either.

Still, the experience was exciting and fun, she told Billy Penn.
Between the museums, the history, the Free Library, and the many enthusiastic people who just love to “talk your ear off about something that interests them,” Philly offers a lot of opportunities to learn, she observed.
“It has a richness to it where you can learn about so much stuff, just by going out and doing things,” Weiner-Amachi said, “and interesting knowledge-building things are [at] a reasonable price point.”

Barry Margulies: An on-air speaking voice that ‘screamed’ Philly
Barry Margulies, a scientific reviewer at the National Institutes of Health and a Towson University professor emeritus, appeared on the show this past June.

Officially, he repped his current town to the north of Baltimore. But all Margulies could hear when he watched his episode back was the Philly accent he’d developed growing up in Cheltenham Township.
“In my head, I don’t hear an accent,” Margulies said. “Watching the show… oh my God, my voice screams Philadelphia. All of the funny vowels. All of the odd pronunciation … you can take the guy out of Philly, but you can’t take the Philly out of the guy.”

His love for trivia blossomed when he was a young kid watching late-night reruns of the Groucho Marx show “You Bet Your Life” on Fox 29, he said. As a teenager, Margulies formed a team that bounced around the local trivia circuit in Montco, where they often lost because they “tended to debate more with one another than we actually answered the questions.”
It took him 10 years of taking the online test to finally make it onto the show.
Going into his Jeopardy game, Margulies crossed his fingers and hoped for some familiar territory, like science (his professional field) or sports. Even though his kids grew up in Maryland, Margulies said he raised them to “bleed Eagles green, Flyers orange, Sixers red, white, and blue, and Phillies red.”

But the sports clues never came — instead, he faced reigning six-game winner Eric Ahasic and fellow challenger Megan Wachspress, who went on to win the match and five more after that. Margulies finished the game in third place.

Even so, Margulies came out of the experience appreciative of the camaraderie with the other contestants, and grateful he finally got to achieve a longtime goal, “absolutely a bucket list item.”
Bonnie Kistler: Facing off with Ryan Long

Bonnie Kistler, a novelist and former lawyer, appeared on the show this past May representing Sarasota, Florida.

Kistler grew up and went to college in the Philly suburbs before landing at Penn for law school and then working at Center City firms for several decades. She switched careers and moved down to Florida a few years ago, she said, “but of course, [Philly is] still my hometown.”
Kistler said aspects of the city probably played a role in her love for learning.

“Even though Philadelphia has a reputation of being a blue collar town, it’s the home of some major learning institutions, major educational institutions, and I think it has a real population of intelligentsia,” Kistler said. “And I was lucky enough in my decades there to to be, you know, mixing with those people.”

A Jeopardy fan since childhood, Kistler decided to take the online test during lockdown in 2020. She ended up having a couple close calls: a detached retina forced the rescheduling of her Zoom audition , and she had  some discomfort about traveling on an airplane during the pandemic. Even so, the show called her back again.
Once she finally made it on, she ended up being matched with Ryan Long, whom she “cozied right up to” as a fellow Philadelphian during downtime, she said.

Kistler finished the Double Jeopardy round with exactly half of Long’s total, and wagered it all in Final Jeopardy, hoping to tie. She didn’t respond correctly, though, and ended up losing it all to finish in third place.
Kistler said she set two goals for herself: not to embarrass her family, and not to finish Double Jeopardy with $0 or less.

“Fortunately, I was able to meet those two goals,” she said. “Well, I’m not sure about [the] embarrassing my family part. That might have happened — they haven’t told me.”

Pam Sung: First big pandemic foray out of Philly
Pam Sung started taking the Jeopardy online test when she was a teen. Her opportunity finally arrived in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sung, a physician scientist, lived in Philly for 9 years for her residency and a fellowship. (She’s since relocated to Buffalo, New York.) Always “a trivia buff,” she’s sure living in Philly provided more unique material for her repository of random knowledge.

“A lot of people ask questions about New York or whatever, and I lived in New York for a while, but the Philly questions are a bit more obscure,” Sung said.

Her venture to Culver City to tape her episode in December 2020 was her first trip since the pandemic began.

Everyone at the taping had to socially distance and eat lunch outside, and there was no live audience (which Sung said relieved some of the pressure of being on stage). One downside, she said, was that her husband couldn’t come along.

She placed second in her game, and even though she didn’t win, she found the experience a “nice icebreaker” that made for some great memories.
Robin Falco: That lucky Hamilton doll from Old City
During Robin Falco’s  Jeopardy appearance, a lifelong dream, Alex Trebek asked her to show off her good luck charm: a string doll of Alexander Hamilton she’d bought in Old City.

It was the late 2010s, and like so many other people, Falco — who’s lived in the Philly region since childhood and currently resides in King of Prussia — had gotten really into the musical “Hamilton.” The interest had sent her on a bit of an 18th century history kick.

“All this history is right here, and it’s fascinating,” Falco said. “You read letters and see things about Philadelphia in the colonial era, and all those streets still there. Some of the houses are like, literally the same.”
Falco, a Jeopardy fan since childhood, took the online test multiple times and auditioned for the show in person twice. In advance of the second one, she decided to come down to the city for the weekend and explore historic sites. She wandered into an Old City shop, came across a string doll of Alexander Hamilton, and bought it.

Taking the Jeopardy test the next day, Falco nearly yelped when she saw a question about “Hamilton” composer, Lin Manuel Miranda. So when she found out she made it onto the show, she took the string doll with her to the West Coast as a good-luck charm.

Falco appeared on the show in 2019, placing second in a game against Jeopardy super-champ James Holzhauer, who went on to win nearly $2.5 million over 33 appearances. When the contestant interview portion came around, Falco said, then-host Alex Trebek asked her to show off her good luck charm.

Since appearing on Jeopardy, there have been some ups and downs for Falco: she had to endure online harassment after she criticized her opponent in a TV interview, she said.

But she enjoys being part of a great community of Jeopardy alums, she said — including a sub-group in Philly who sometimes gets together for Quizzo or to go to museums or exhibitions.

Liz Fischer: Talking about her Quaker-styler wedding on air
Liz Fischer, an attorney who’s lived in Philly for over a decade and spent childhood summers in the area, appeared on Jeopardy in 2017. During her post-commercial break anecdote, she recounted her Quaker-style wedding, when she got married in her living room on Halloween with no officiant present.

Fischer, who’d watched the show since she was little, took first place against six-game champ Alan Lin, with $25,601 in winnings. Returning for the next game, she placed second.
Fischer still watches the show regularly, and especially enjoyed watching Ryan Long’s impressive run. She was particularly excited when he mentioned being a bouncer at Castle Roxx in Manayunk — that’s her neighborhood, and she wondered whether he might’ve even checked her ID.

Fischer’s also part of the local group of Jeopardy alums who hang out to play trivia or go on outings in and around the city together.
“I love that there’s no shame among or hierarchy among Jeopardy contestants,” Fischer said. “Some of the people that I’ve met through that group have made it to the Tournament of Champions, so they’re like rockstars. And then there are other people that … didn’t really get to do Final Jeopardy. There’s no sort of snottiness about ‘Oh, I won.'”
Melissa Lake: Making a Jeopardy-influenced move
Melissa Lake, a special education teacher who lives in Manayunk, might not even have moved to Philadelphia if it weren’t for Jeopardy.
Lake — who grew up outside New York City but lived in Reading, Pa. when she appeared on Jeopardy in 2015 — watched  the show with her mom and grandma, and started taking the test to get on as soon as  it started being offered online. She appeared on the show matched up against someone who’d just beaten a 5-day champ.

After finishing in second place, she felt pretty deflated: “It was like a whirlwind experience,” Lake said. “And I look back on it now and I really appreciate it, but it’s pretty rough when you don’t win.”
Later, she discovered the part that really impacted her life: the show’s strong network of former contestants.

She got to know a lot of people who’d been on the show before, including several who lived in Philly — and she knew from their experiences that the city had a lot of things that would interest her, like plenty of trivia opportunities and tons of cultural institutions.
In 2019, when she was looking to relocate, she decided to take the leap and move to Philly.

“I think the coolest thing is getting to meet all the former contestants,” Lake said. “It’s a pretty robust network, and it’s pretty cool to meet so many people that way who are into trivia.”
Celeste DiNucci: Winning the Tournament of Champions and scoring a free bagel

When Celeste DiNucci had to explain to the chair of the Penn’s English department why she was behind on her dissertation, she had a pretty unique reason: She was going to be competing in the Jeopardy Tournament of Champions.

“He said, ‘That was the best excuse I’ve ever heard,'” DiNucci told Billy Penn. “And it didn’t hurt that I won. So, yeah, came in handy.”
DiNucci, who first came for grad school and now works for the music org Ars Nova Workshop (which is opening a cafe in the former Boot & Saddle), has lived in Philly for 25 years, and was the first and only Philadelphian (so far) to win Jeopardy’s Tournament of Champions.

She originally decided to go on Jeopardy in 2006 to “redeem the family name,” since her older brother had been on the show in the 1980s and lost. And redeem she did: DiNucci won five games, $84,601, was invited back to the Tournament of Champions — and won that, too.

She remembered one moment in South Street Bagels, where she went to buy the Inquirer and Daily News showing her on the front page.
“I bought a couple of copies of the papers … and the guy looked at the papers, and he said, ‘Oh, yeah, that woman actually lives in Philadelphia. She just won like a lot of money or something,'” DiNucci said. “And I was like, ‘Well, yeah, that’s me.'” He offered her a free bagel.
Since being on the show, she’s found that lots of people want her on their Quizzo team.

Once, she went with a friend and ended up floundering on categories related to the Super Bowl ads (she hadn’t watched the game) and Adam Sandler movies (neither of them were fans).

“Johnny just… he got a lot of mileage out of that,” said the Jeopardy champ. “He was like, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, in last place…'”
Updated Nov. 1

Margie Wiener
wienermargie@gmail.com


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