No double jeopardy for triple winner Three-time Secaucus ‘Jeopardy!’ champion enjoys success

Sitting in a downtown Secaucus restaurant, Tricia McKinney may have to get used to the kind of greeting she got last Tuesday afternoon.

“Was that you I saw on ‘Jeopardy!’ the other night?” asked a random Secaucus resident. “You just were great!”

Great McKinney was indeed. She reigned supreme as champion of the highly popular TV game show for three straight days, flying back from Hollywood to the Hackensack with close to $51,000 in winnings.

Fresh from her victory, McKinney recounted her road from mere fandom to trivia triumph.

Podcast preparation

McKinney, an upstate New York native, moved to Secaucus four years ago to be close to her TV newswriter job at MSNBC. She noted her job as one reason why she did well on the show.

“In the business that I’m in, if I screw up something that I’m supposed to know, then I’m going to look like an idiot,” she said. “I don’t want to look like an idiot.”

A self-described “geek-slash-nerd” who always wanted to be on the show, McKinney made sure that she would not suffer that fate. While many prospective contestants attempt to absorb almanacs, her solution was a bit more high-tech.

“I crammed a lot by listening to podcasts,” she said. “One of my favorites was ’12 Byzantine Rulers.’ I listened to a lot of other history, sports, music, medicine and general trivia podcasts while I walked my dog. But I think if someone were to ask me for advice on how to prepare, you kind of need a lot of junk in your head at your command. Trivia sticks.”

After taking advantage of the recent inclusion of the prospective contestant test on the show’s website, McKinney later had to go to New York to take the same test in person as a way to verify her trivia smarts. She then waited over seven months to hear back from the show.

As it so happened, McKinney got an idea where she stood in terms of the contestant process while on the job.

“We did a segment once with Ken Jennings on MSNBC,” she said, referring to the 2004 Jeopardy champion who won an unprecedented 74 straight times on the show, garnering over $2.5 million along the way. “I got in his ear and asked him how long it took for him to hear back. He said it took him eight months, so I knew that I was OK.”

She got the call to come to Los Angeles to be on the show shortly thereafter.

Trebek and victory

McKinney actually taped the episodes that were broadcast on April 16-19 in late January. One major focal point for many who love Jeopardy is the host, Alex Trebek. McKinney was apprehensive before she met him.

“I was so worried that I wouldn’t like him,” she said. “I was really scared that he would be a jerk. But he was really great. As a contestant, you don’t get to interact with him so much outside of the game because of all the quiz show scandals in the past. But he interacted with the audience a lot when he really didn’t have to. He seemed very personable and interested with talking to people during the breaks. He gave a lot of extra energy to the audience.”

McKinney felt even more energy when she became “Jeopardy!” champion.

“I was great to win,” she said. “People said I looked very calm, but I was in shock the whole time. I decided that I was going to enjoy it, no matter what. It was really fun. It’s just a fun game to play.”

Johnson, not Jackson; then the aftermath

The new pride of Secaucus kept having fun until the trivia gods stopped smiling on her.

The end came with a final Jeopardy question about which 19th century U.S. President issued the most vetoes. The answer was not McKinney’s reply, which was Andrew Jackson. The answer was Abraham Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson.

McKinney took the end of her term as Jeopardy champion in stride, noting her mistake was not a slip of the tongue.

“I was off by one syllable,” she said. “But it’s just a coincidence that I got the other three syllables right. It was a bad guess. I just didn’t know.”

Backstage after the show, McKinney was finally able to relax after her sudden exposure to the national spotlight.

“I was so tired, and they don’t let you look at your significant other,” she said, referring to her husband Vern. “When it was finally over, Vern came back to see me, and I just started to cry. People thought that I was sad that I had lost the game, but I wasn’t sad at all. I was so happy that I could talk to him. I had just won three games on Jeopardy. I couldn’t be happier.”

McKinney and her husband hope to use their new infusion of cash to help buy a home for themselves and their daughter Cassie. They would like to stay in Secaucus.

As for advice for any other “Jeopardy!” hopefuls out there, McKinney suggests getting your own buzzer technique down (she used her index finger, not her thumb), reading the book Prisoner of Trebekistan by five-time Jeopardy champion Bob Harris, and “don’t guess” if you can help it. But McKinney’s basic credo is this: who dares, wins.

“I say, try,” she said. “Even going through the process is so much fun. It’s something that I always wanted to do, and I got to do it.”

Mark J. Bonamo can be reached at


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