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A 'Jeopardy!' champion explains what makes Alex Trebek so special

Steven Grade is a five-time Jeopardy! champion, a semi-finalist in the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions, and a true lover of knowledge. He is one of the contestants involved in turning this year’s Tournament of Champions episode into a fundraiser and tribute to Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek. In early 2019, the beloved cultural figure revealed that he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and has maintained a steady and inspiring grace as he continues to host the show.

On an episode this week, contestant Dhruv Gaur answered his final question with the comment: "What is we love you Alex," causing the 79-year-old host to choke up a little before, as per the rules of the beloved game, docking Gaur for providing the incorrect answer.

Grade says the gesture was unexpected, though the tight knit group of contestants have been talking about celebrating the show's iconic host, and raising money for cancer research, for some time. Speaking with Mic, Grade shared what it took to organize their fundraiser, as well as what inspires the passion so many people devote to Jeopardy!.

Why is Jeopardy! is such an important part of American culture, and what do you think the appeal of the show has been to so many viewers for so long?

I think that a lot of the credit goes to the writers for being able to make a show that is simultaneously so accessible that anybody can sit down at home and get some of the answers right. Even get some of the answers right that the contestants don't. But on the other hand, there's enough challenge that you do get the impression that these are a special group of people appearing on the show.

I think a huge part of it is Alex Trebek. He's become an icon for a reason. And even if you've never watched Jeopardy!, you know who Alex Trebek is. You may have never seen an episode but you'll still say “I'll take 800 Alex.” Everybody in the room will get it. He's got this air about him. This authority. This gravitas that gives you the impression that this is the guy. This is what knowledge looks like. It doesn't matter if he is asking a question about Wuthering Heights, or if he's singing lyrics from "My Humps" by the Black Eyed Peas.

How did you react to the news of Alex Trebek’s cancer diagnosis?

It hit me pretty hard. He actually announced his diagnosis about a week before my episode started airing. So the knowledge that I had been out there as this was going on was staggering because he seemed like he was in the peak of health when we were out there. I admire him for powering through it with the positive outlook that he had, and not missing a day.

Alex Trebek and Steven Grade. Photo courtesy of Steven Grade.

How did you all organize the Tournament of Champions fundraiser for pancreatic cancer research?

In addition to Alex's diagnosis, Larry Martin who was the 2018 Jeopardy! Teachers Tournament champion — which means he would have been in this tournament of champions currently airing — passed away from pancreatic cancer back in January. So Gilbert Collins, one of the contestants got all of us together. We got a group text going and said, Hey, I would like to bring purple ribbons. I've talked to the show. They've talked to Larry's family. They are they're okay with us honoring him and with Alex that way. We were all of course on board with that. We all wore our ribbons, we all had Alex on our minds. But Dhruv went above and beyond with his Final Jeopardy! answer the other night. None of us knew that he was going to do that. He wasn't just saying that for us. He was saying that for everybody who watches Jeopardy!, for everybody who's seen Alex, for everybody who appreciates what he does and has enjoyed having him on their TVs for so long.

It's the last bastion of the mono-culture almost.

What’s the ideal outcome for the next two days of the fundraiser?

Even if 10% of the people that see this message play along, that's still going to be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I mean, that's, that's the kind of impact and I never thought that I'd be able to make, being on a TV show.

Did organizing this fundraiser bring all the contestants closer together?

I don’t know if this existed before my time on the show. But the Jeopardy! community is a very tight-knit one to begin with, whether it's contestants interacting with fans or amongst themselves. It's the last bastion of the mono-culture almost. It's kind of a self-selecting group. If you're the type of person to try out for Jeopardy!, you probably love reading, and you probably love science fiction and fantasy. It was like the best summer camp that I never went to. I've been in touch with people from the first run since we taped it back in February. And you know, not an hour goes by where one of us isn't messaging in our group chat.

Given how high the emotions were running what with Alex's diagnosis and Larry not being there, and the ribbons and everything that was going on, we really formed a bond. It's been forged in the most powerful fire I can possibly imagine. And even after those few days out there in Culver City where I had never met any of the people before and was only going to be around them for a few days, I left there thinking of them as some of my closest friends for the rest of my life. I don't want to speak for them, but I'm confident that we all feel the same way.