Civil engineering grad appreciates wild week after living "Jeopardy!" dream

Civil engineering grad appreciates wild week after living "Jeopardy!" dream

Calendar Icon Nov 05, 2015      Person Bust Icon By Karl Vogel     RSS Feed RSS

Austin Yates (right), a civil engineering graduate, has his picture taken with "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek after Yates appeared on an episode that was recorded in late August.
Austin Yates (right), a civil engineering graduate, has his picture taken with "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek after Yates appeared on an episode that was recorded in late August.
Austin Yates always figured the hardest part of being on "Jeopardy!" would be knowing the answers or learning to work the buzzers.

When the University of Nebraska-Lincoln civil engineering alumnus lived out his lifelong dream of being a contestant on the game show this past August, he had no idea that fade had him booked for a wild ride.

"It's always been a dream of mine to be on 'Jeopardy!' Ever since I was a kid and had a Sega Genesis game with the horrible interface and 16-bit sound, I've loved playing along," Yates said. "I was bummed out when I didn't win, but that was the beginning of a weird week."

After passing the online test and an audition at a Kansas City cattle call, a show producer called to invite Yates to be a contestant. Yates didn't hesitate to accept and arranged time off from his job as a traffic engineer at an Omaha firm.

Along with his wife, mother and grandmother, Yates traveled to Los Angeles on a Monday in late August. After finishing as the runner-up in the second of five episodes that were taped on Wednesday, Yates returned to work on Friday.

Around 3 p.m., Yates learned he was being laid off.

"It couldn't have felt worse, having that week end that way," Yates said. "On top of not betting enough on Final Jeopardy, now I needed to find a job."

Immediately, Yates said, he began thinking of what went wrong three days earlier, after the category "Historic Legislation" was announced for the last round. How would things have changed if he had only wagered more of his earnings on the final question?

Standing in the middle of the three contestants, Yates had $10,600 heading into the final round. But to his right was returning champion Dylan, studying to become a Methodist minister, who led with $13,500 and, to his left, beauty queen-turned-hedge-fund manager Barbara wasn't far behind with $7,800.

"The game was way faster in person than I thought it would be," Yates said. "You can take as much time as you want to calculate your bet. They have scratch paper, but I just eyeballed it."

Knowing that only the game's winner would pocket all of the money he or she had accumulated, Yates wanted to cover the most likely possibilities for Final Jeopardy and at least take home the $2,000 for finishing in second place.

Yates wrote down a wager of $8,000 and waited for host Alex Trebek to read the final question. Yates knew the answer and scribbled it down quickly.

Barbara got the answer correct and doubled her money, raising her total to $15,600.

Yates also answered correctly, raising his total to $18,600. He had to hope that Dylan either answered incorrectly or hadn't wagered enough to beat him.

Dylan wagered $5,700 and wrote down the correct answer, earning a total of $19,200 to edge out Yates by $600.

In the intervening months since the taping, Yates isn't upset about not having wagered all that he had earned. But through a big smile and a chuckle, he admits the thought still bugs him from time to time.

"There's no reason to not bet it all, except that there is," Yates said. "It's $1,000, the difference between second and third place. If I had bet it all, I would have become the champion. I should have bet it all, you know, leave everything on the table, but I know that if I had that Murphy's Law would have been working against me."

If he had wagered more and won, Yates wonders if things would have turned out better for him in the long run.

The day he was laid off, Yates learned that a former colleague was leaving her position with the Nebraska Department of Roads and that her job was open.

Yates immediately applied and was hired as an Intelligent Transportation Systems Engineer in the Operations Division. Now, he manages a group responsible for the 511 systems and traffic incident management, including the installation and maintenance of cameras and sensors for roadway information and weather.

"If I had won on 'Jeopardy!,' I would have probably taken another day off from work and wouldn't have been able to apply for this job," Yates said.

"I got to scratch a big item off my bucket list, I earned enough money to cover my travel expenses, and I wasn't without a job for more than a few days. Everything worked out really well in the end."