Cristina Somolinos felt lucky enough to get on “Jeopardy!” and luckier yet to know that anyone in Bordentown took notice.
“I knew I made it when the staff at the Bordentown Library said they heard I was going to be on,” Somolinos said. “That was the pinnacle of success for me.”
Somolinos, a frequent patron of the library, is a Brown University graduate who started working as a forensic scientist while earning her master’s in library and information science from Rutgers University.
“I just love inhaling data and trying to learn about stuff and figure out why things are connected,” Somolinos said. “That’s just me.”
Somolinos put her wealth of knowledge on display in a dream come true when “Jeopardy!” aired her episode on July 22—host Alex Trebek’s 79th birthday.
“I knew how I did and I had to keep that a secret basically until the airing happened, and I still had a watch party and I invited people,” Somolinos said. “I was like, ‘I’m really happy I made it that far. It’s really a bizarre thing that’s never going to happen again so let’s invite people over.’ It was good and bad. It was the night where basically a good chunk of Bordentown lost power so a good chunk of people didn’t get to see it.”
Somolinos placed second behind defending champion Jason Zuffranieri, a math teacher from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and ahead of James Pelayo, a tax professional from Torrance, California.
“People were really supportive anytime I answered a question, but I was lucky to get a word in edgewise,” Somolinos said. “I was going up against obviously a returning champion but also the other contestant was someone who’d been at a previous taping because they often have stand-by people/contestants who are locals. So what they do is if they don’t use you on a taping day for one week then they’ll call you for the next taping day so you are guaranteed a spot. I was against somebody who had another day of practice with the buzzer and they were both super smart people. Everyone on ‘Jeopardy!’ is super smart, you’re just lucky to be there. I was looking to get a word in edgewise.
“I’m glad I didn’t embarrass myself by getting something obvious wrong or by blanking out entirely and then the other thing too is there’s so many questions that when you’re watching at home, you’re like, ‘I got that one, I got that one,’ but the extra level is buzzing in just right and that was something that I just did not obviously have the reflexes for.”
Somolinos was thrilled to fulfill a dream. She grew up in New York watching the legendary game show with her brother at an elderly neighbor’s house. She continued to watch it during her years at Brown and into the start of her forensic career.
After passing an online screening, Somolinos made it through the additional selection process in Philadelphia and was given the choice of appearing in the game show’s final week of taping last season or waiting until sometime this next season. She didn’t wait, then couldn’t slow down the day of taping in April enough to soak everything in.
“It’s really been such a blur,” Somolinos said. “It was a cool experience but is also very disorienting because they really make the show happen so quickly and also because it was the last day of taping of the season and there was a lot of other things going on. Everyone’s there to say goodbye at the end of the season and a lot of the former ‘Jeopardy!’ players came together and gave Alex Trebeck a memory book and so there was a whole bunch of very important people in the audience watching our taping. So no pressure. There’s only all these former ‘Jeopardy!’ champions there so that was cool. It made it really special. But I think it would have been special if it was any other day. It was just nice to be able to say that I got there and my parents are proud to hear that I even made it that far, so it was cool.”
Somolinos had three weeks’ notice before flying to the taping of her episode in California. She tried to study up for it without overstressing.
“There’s only so much you can do to prepare,” she said. “I was just reading a box of old Trivial Pursuit questions in my car, and I was reading cultural literacy and a miscellaneous fact book just for fun. I felt like I learned some stuff from it, but I also didn’t go crazy. I didn’t have any illusions about being a champion and staying for a streak, and in consolation to myself, I’m glad I lost to a really good guy, and he had a pretty long streak and did great. It made me feel good to sit in through the rest of the tapings and see this guy did great. He had great instincts, he was very smart, and he was also just a nice person, so that all adds up to a very nice experience.”
Somolinos also had to think about how she wanted to present herself. She tried to take things special to her—a necklace from her mother, her grandmother’s ring, a lapel pin from Brown. Nothing could prepare her for the whirlwind taping that is often overlooked by viewers of the show.
“It’s all very disorienting to be in a TV studio, see how much bigger it is than it looks on TV, just the pressure of being prepared, having your paperwork done, having your make-up done—which is also a weird experience—trying to smile into a camera,” Somolinos said. “This is all a new experience. Knowing the knowledge is such a small part of it, but I think the pressures for me were kind of not there because I said this is a bucket list thing for me, this is amazing that I even got this far. It worked out good for my family schedule. I could sneak away for that one Saturday for the taping. And my kids were really excited about it so that was cool, too. I had to stop one of my daughters from telling too many people—you’re not inviting everybody from your class.”
Her elementary-aged daughters were excited to have their mom on the game show. Somolinos may just inspire the next generation of “Jeopardy!” contestants.
“I think they are just motivated to see what they learn and how they can apply it,” Somolinos said. “I think we’ve definitely learned that sometimes things crop up when you least expect it. I just wanted to let them know it’s really just about what your talents are and see if you can find a good niche for them. That’s been true for my career and that’s been true for this particular venture into primetime TV.”
Watching the final product with others three months later on TV had a surreal feeling to it. It also reminded her of how special the day was.
“It honestly was a blur seeing the show on TV so many months after it was taped,” Somolinos said. “I forgot I had that question. I forgot this happened. There were certain things I definitely had seared into my mind like there was an entire category that I prepared a study guide for myself and then never studied it and I’m so mad at myself for that.”
Somolinos built up her base of knowledge over a lifetime of learning. She had a thirst for learning early in life that helped to create an opportunity to get on “Jeopardy!”
“I think a lot of it is, I came from a family where education was very important,” Somolinos said. “Also my parents are immigrants so as it often happens to the children of immigrants, you’re very, very alert to cultural literacy and getting things right and not being wrong and being singled out as like the outsider. I think that’s a big chunk of it. Both of my parents are multi-talented polymathic people. Also I worked in forensic science for years which is really interdisciplinary so you really want to be able to learn a little bit about everything. I think there’s a little bit of that. Other than that, I love visiting the library, I love reading stuff, and I learn a lot of stuff through my kids so I keep fresh with that. And I watch a lot of ‘Jeopardy!’”
The background helped Somolinos get to the point where she was able to watch herself on “Jeopardy!” in the unforgettable chance of a lifetime.
“I was definitely terrified enough of being on TV that it’s probably not going to happen ever again,” Somolinos said. “That was my 15 minutes of fame.”