Kristian Zoerhoff

Kristian  Zoerhoff
  • BS Electrical Engineering 1997

The last time Kristian Zoerhoff ’97 had entertained a crowd was as a deejay for WMTU. Sitting alone in a darkened booth playing music for invisible listeners didn’t quite prepare him for the dazzling lights and the flock of TV cameras on the Jeopardy! set.

"And then there’s that pesky audience," he remembers. "I was absurdly nervous."

Now a computer engineer for IBM, Zoerhoff has been a Jeopardy! fan since he was a kid sitting cross-legged in his living room shouting out answers to Alex Trebek’s clues. He auditioned for the college tournament when he was an electrical engineering major at Michigan Tech but didn't make it past the first round of try-outs.

Zoerhoff put Jeopardy! on the back burner for fifteen years. He and wife Kirsten (Dieringer) ’97 ’99 settled down just outside Chicago, in the small town of Gilberts, with their young daughter.

Then in February 2009 Zoerhoff decided to give it another shot and took the show’s online test. This time, he earned an audition, and in January he flew out to Los Angeles for a day to face the lights, the cameras, and the audience. Five shows—a week’s worth—are taped in a single day, a potential marathon for winning players. It wasn’t until the games aired in March that Zoerhoff could reveal that he’d made it onto three shows and won $36,900.

If it weren’t for the classical music and literature categories, he might still be pressing buzzers in California. Zoerhoff aced the science and Bugs Bunny questions and, surprisingly, a category that required contestants to complete palindromes. "As an engineer, you have to think forward and backward, and that turned out to be pretty handy," he says.

As fans know, Jeopardy! isn’t just about being smart. "Timing has a ton to do with it, because if you ring in early you are locked out for a quarter of a second, which is death," says Zoerhoff. "A lot is based on your reflex time. Once you get one or two in a row, you get on a roll, and your brain starts firing at just the right time."

Being a contestant was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill, says Zoerhoff. But since he returned home, Zoerhoff has had another chance to play. When his coworkers found out he’d been on Jeopardy!—and won—they asked him to match wits with a machine.

IBM is building a massively parallel computer called the DeepQA system. Named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, scientists hope it will be able to understand complex questions and answer with the precision and speed of the brainiest Jeopardy! contestants.

Thus it was that Zoerhoff went head to head with one of the world’s smartest computers. Which begs the question: Does DeepQA know who created the voice of that wascally wabbit?

Sorry, says Zoerhoff, that’s a secret. We’ll just have to wait until Watson faces Trebek to find out if the world’s smartest computer draws a Blanc.


Michigan Tech Magazine, Fall 2010, Vol. 47 #2