Summary List Placement
Zach Newkirk was on his babymoon in Florida when he received the invitation to audition for “Jeopardy!”
Newkirk got the email in April 2019, when he and his wife, who was pregnant at the time, were sitting at Uncle Chicken’s — a roadside shack serving wings with 14 different sauces and buttered lobster rolls. He’d taken the test on a whim earlier that spring while clerking for a federal judge, who would yell out questions listed on his “Jeopardy!” calendar, the kind you tore a page off every day.
Newkirk, more often than not, would be first to answer correctly.
“I thought, what are the odds? Probably one in a billion,” said Newkirk over the phone before adding, in a lawyerly fashion, “It’s actually more like one in 100,000.”
Two weeks later, he drove to Savannah, Georgia to play a few sample questions in front of the camera, and landed a spot on stage.
Newkirk, a voting rights attorney at Perkins Coie, has since skyrocketed to trivia fame, snapping up six consecutive wins on “Jeopardy!” at the end of January.
From his middle school’s Geography Bees to the national stage
Newkirk’s childhood in Gainesville, Florida, was punctuated by the voice of Alex Trebek — which he described as “authoritative, stern, but kind” — and “Think!”, the show’s playful theme song, its tempo kept to speed by the ominous ticking of a clock.
He would sit in front of the TV with his dad, and they’d both shout out answers at the screen. Though his dad started off getting most of the questions right, over time, it was the younger Newkirk who began to one-up his opponent.
Surprisingly, Newkirk doesn’t read encyclopedias for fun, nor does he religiously study facts of the day. Instead, the attorney ascribes his mental bank of trivia to “a slow accumulation” of knowledge over the years.
When he was in sixth grade, for instance, Newkirk participated in his middle school’s Geography Bees, where he stood on stage and answered questions like “Riyadh is to Saudi Arabia as Kigali is to?” (The answer, in “Jeopardy!” fashion, would’ve been, “What is Rwanda?”)
Even after he scored a spot on the show after passing his audition, many years later, Newkirk would study relatively lightly, tooling around on a website called J! Archive, which lists “410,503 clues and counting” at the time of this story’s publication. His wife, who’s also an attorney, regularly quizzes him, too.
“At the end of day, it was sort of winging it,” Newkirk said with a sheepish laugh.
Lawyers in Jeopardy
Growing up in the swing state of Florida, Newkirk became interested in voting rights law as he watched the national landscape take on an increasingly partisan valence. He cites the 2000 election, which resulted in the monumental Bush v. Gore case over a recount dispute, as an “eye-opening experience,” even for an 11-year-old.
At Perkins Coie, Newkirk recently represented veterans of the civil rights movement and current civil rights leaders in Black Lives Matter DC v. Trump, a lawsuit lodged against the then-president, William Barr, and law enforcement officers who were involved in the attack against protesters in Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020.
His colleagues at Perkins, who sent good-luck messages and held a virtual watch party for his return to the show in January, have been “super supportive,” said Newkirk.
Newkirk added that his training as an attorney — especially the LSAT, the standardized test that is a prerequisite of law school applications — has also, unexpectedly, come into play on “Jeopardy!”
“The LSAT involves a lot of dense reading in a short amount of time, so you have to quickly spot the issue. It’s a similar concept in ‘Jeopardy!’, where you only have a couple of seconds to read the question as Alex [Trebek] or Ken Jennings is also reading the question,” he said.
Brian Chang, the seven-time winner that Newkirk defeated in January, is also a lawyer, at Eimer Stahl in Chicago. Though the two haven’t explicitly discussed how the practice of law may have boosted their trivia prospects, Newkirk said they have a lot in common, from their jobs at Big Law firms, clerkships with judges, and a shared penchant for wearing quarter-zips.
When it comes to his career ambitions as an attorney, Newkirk said he wants to continue “working to make voting as easy and accessible” for all voters.
‘Don’t ever count yourself out’
When the pandemic struck the country in full force in March, “Jeopardy!” went into a forced hiatus. It resumed taping in September, with additional safety precautions in place on set. Contestants’ podiums are separated six feet apart and Covid tests are mandatory, as are masks and frequent spritzes of hand sanitizer.
After a three-month pause in appearances due to the pandemic, Newkirk returned to the stage in December. For him, there was another major change: Trebek, the legendary “Jeopardy!” host for 36 years, had died on November 8 after battling pancreatic cancer. Ken Jennings, who holds the record for the longest winning streak on the show with 74 consecutive wins, helmed the stage, instead.
Although he eventually lost his seventh game, which aired on February 1, Newkirk will be among the 15 top contestants facing each other in the show’s tournament of champions later this year.
Despite the loss — “What is synergy?” instead of the correct answer, “What is entropy?” was the fatal blow — Newkirk has experience recovering lost ground.
The attorney went into his first ever game in June 2020 with the goal of just winning one round, but quickly had to readjust his mission “to not embarrassing myself” when he was down by $1,200. After a fortunate daily double early on in the game, he quickly took the lead, ultimately wiping out his contestants at $9,400.
Newkirk said this first game was his favorite moment thus far. In fact, he uploaded a photo from that game as his Twitter’s header photo.
“I have that there to show, don’t ever count yourself out,” he said.
SEE ALSO: The late Alex Trebek hosted more than 8,200 ‘Jeopardy!’ episodes, with his last slated to air on Christmas Day. Here’s a look at his life and legacy, from his start as a Canadian sports announcer to Emmy-winning millionaire.