Everyone is rightly lauding Leonard Cooper, the winner of the Jeopardy Teen Tournament, as America's coolest high schooler. When Final Jeopardy came around, Leonard didn't know the answer. So he wrote something much better. He wrote,
Who is some guy in Normandy? But I just won $75,000!
Leonard did indeed win the $75,000 grand prize, based on his two-day total. But in the fawning over his answer and Alex Trebek's reaction is an uncomfortable fact: When he wrote that down, Leonard couldn't have known he was going to win. He almost didn't! Had one of the other contestants gotten the question right, Leonard would have had major egg on his face.
The Jeopardy Teen Tournament is a two-night event, with scores being combined from both games for a final total. At the end of the first episode, which aired Monday, Leonard had $3000. The leader, Nilai Sarda, had $19,000.
On Tuesday's episode, Leonard entered Final Jeopardy with $37,000, Nilai with $14,400.
As it turns out, Nilai wagered $7,000, and Leonard nothing. Had Nilai gotten the answer correct, he would have had $19,000 (Day 1) and $21,400 (Day 2), for a total of $40,400. That's $400 more than Leonard ended up with ($3,000 and $37,000 for a total of $40,000). Had Nilai bet more, he could have won by thousands.
When Leonard wrote down his wonderful answer, he had no idea Nilai was going to get it wrong. Nilai blanked, but Leonard was a hair's breadth from finishing second—smartass answer or no.
Chalk it up to a brain fart on the math. Just a couple questions earlier, Leonard had won $18,000 on a daily double, making him the prohibitive favorite. He was probably doing mental cartwheels, and misfired when adding up what he'd need to wager on Final Jeopardy to stay ahead. I've been on Jeopardy. It's hard to do math in the brief time they give you, when tens of thousands of dollars are dancing in your head.
It worked out well for Leonard, and it's almost better knowing he wasn't assured a win when he made his grand pronouncement. Think of it as a guarantee, up there with Joe Namath and Mark Messier. It takes more balls to demand your $75,000 before you've actually won it.