Plenty of people fantasize about being a Jeopardy! contestant. They might get as high a percentage of questions right while guessing along at home as the folks on the hot seat, and be encouraged by their friends to try out. But the dread of having to come up with rapid-fire responses while on camera is enough to deter most.
Francois Barcomb had better preparation for the challenge than the average Jeopardy! wannabe, though, and he says he wasn’t fazed by the pressure when he went for the championship. He credits both his stint as a submarine officer in the Navy and his doctoral dissertation process at SUNY Albany for making him quick on his feet when it comes to answering questions — or, more accurately in this case, coming up with the question that goes with the answer. “After you’ve had the experience of defending a thesis, answering questions fast is not a foreign thing,” he says.
Barcomb, who lives with his wife Sujatha Sankaran and their daughter Maddie near the New Paltz border in Gardiner, became a hometown hero on May 17 when the final round of the 2019 Jeopardy! Teachers’ Tournament was broadcast on ABC. He won the $100,000 grand prize. He says the money will be sending Maddie to college.
A high-school physics teacher who works for the Hendrick Hudson school district in the town of Montrose in Westchester County, Barcomb grew up near Glens Falls. He earned his bachelor’s degree in physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and then did his Navy stint in the early 1990s. Then he pursued a Ph.D. at SUNY Albany, where he met his wife.
A family of competitive fans
His military service came during the Gulf War, but he didn’t see any action. “The desert doesn’t need a lot of submarines,” he notes. He got to use his science training as a nuclear propulsion officer, however. Were the responsibilities of that position anything like Scotty’s in Star Trek? “If that were me,” he says. “I’d be wearing a red shirt in the back.”
Being quick at answering trivia questions comes naturally to Barcomb, who grew up in a family of competitive Jeopardy! fans. “My mom and brothers and sister all loved Trivial Pursuit, which we started playing when I was about twelve. When Jeopardy! came back on in 1984, we watched it from the beginning.”
He continued watching the show whenever he could get access to TV broadcasts during his Navy years. A couple of his housemates were also avid fans and “really good” at getting the questions, he recalls. To this day he enjoys a bond with his sister, who now lives in Oneonta, over their shared passion for trivia: “We get together about once a week to be our own team.”
Barcomb credits a Jeopardy! champion with a long run on the show in the 1980s for inspiring him to pursue higher education. “I think it was in Season Two, there was a guy I really looked up to, named Chuck Forrest, who was a graduate student. He had a smirk. You could tell he knew it. It got me thinking that grad students were smart people, and that I needed to go to grad school.”
Being on Jeopardy! became a long-term goal, one that required tenacity on his part. “I had no idea how to get on something like that,” he says. “Once I got to Hendrick Hudson, I started taking the online test. I did that for about twelve years.” Twice within a three-year period he made the cut to be interviewed in New York City, but was eliminated, he thinks, because his on-screen presentation was “a little too calm.”
A modest champion
When he was called up again last September, “I tried to be a little different — to be goofy in my own way.” Some wry, low-key humorous responses made the regional interviewer laugh, and Barcomb was selected to join the pool of 15 semi-finalists for this year’s Teachers’ Tournament.
The TV show flew him and his competitors out to Culver City, California for two weeks of taping, one to determine the three finalists, and the second for deciding the champion. “I got to meet some nice people. Being able to hear how teaching is in other states made me appreciate New York State,” he says. Interestingly, both of the other finalists are also products of the New York education system: Second-place finisher Conor Quinn lives in Albany and teaches history in Troy, and third-place finisher Sara DelVillano, who now teaches music in Maryland, was born in Binghamton, according to Barcomb.
Being “able to bring up information to the forefront quickly” enabled Barcomb to dominate the Teachers’ Tournament, he says, but he needed gaming skills as well. Timing when to push the buzzer to answer a particular question is crucial. Contestants are locked out if they hit the button before host Alex Trebek finishes speaking. So part of Barcomb’s strategy was “to speed-read the clue,” focusing on the final written word, and to be poised to press the instant it was uttered rather than pondering the content first.
Even a champion doesn’t get every Jeopardy! question right. “The ones I got wrong — those are the ones I remember,” Barcomb says ruefully. His toughest categories were Ballet and Recent Best-Sellers, but even in a science-related category — Elements — he only got three of five correct. Still, by choosing the more difficult questions first (and with a little luck in frequently hitting the Daily Double), he was able to keep his winnings at a high enough level to best Quinn and DelVillano. “It went well overall,” he says modestly.
Keeping a low profile is what’s next, now that Barcomb has a famous face. This coming autumn, he’s first in line to represent America’s teachers when Jeopardy! holds its 2019 Tournament of Champions.
Not a bad outcome for a guy who ended up pursuing a doctorate in physics because he “got a C in Math I,” his first love, at RPI.