IC native credits Jeopardy win to watching the show as a kid


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Fifteen years after racing his friend Dasal Ridgely to answer "Jeopardy" questions, Iowa City native Ernest Nino-Murcia found himself back in Ridgely's living room preparing for the real thing.

Nino-Murcia, 32, not only qualified to appear on the show, he won $11,599 and was named the show's champion on June 7.

He said it was those after-school "Jeopardy" sessions that first captured his interest.

But back then, Ridgely said, it never occurred to him that one of them would end up on the other side of the screen — although when he heard that Nino-Murcia was trying out, he wasn't surprised that he made it.

"[When we were younger], I would wait for Alex Trebek to finish reading the questions before I would start answering them, but he would read the questions himself and answer them before Trebek had even finished reading them," Ridgely said.

Nino-Murcia said it was strategies like that, rather than knowledge, which he brushed up on before his appearance on the show.

"I was only given about three weeks' notice before the taping," he said. "Rather than try to cram, I focused on watching the show to get a feel for the play [and] strategy. I hadn't watched 'Jeopardy' regularly for years because I don't have a TV … so I found myself back watching [and] playing at my friend Dasal's house like when we were kids."

But there's no predicting the questions that will come up the day of the show.

"I was shocked to get two questions about Iowa my second day — and to be going against someone who grew up in Des Moines," he said. "… My dream categories would probably deal with trivia about the show '30 Rock,' Weird Al songs, and obscure two-letter Scrabble words," he said.

Nino-Murcia left Iowa City to attend Brown University, then worked in the South as an Americorps volunteer and then in New York at a nonprofit before moving back to Iowa. He now lives in Des Moines, working as a court interpreter but maintains connections to Iowa City.

"Despite having lived for many years away from Iowa and not having gone to the University of Iowa, he remains a loyal, serious Hawkeye fan," said Matt Kearney, a longtime friend.

Kearney, who attended the taping, said Nino-Murcia hit his stride partway through the show during the acronyms portion and kept the momentum.

"The 'Final Jeopardy' was pretty exciting," Kearney said. "That's when we realized that he was far enough ahead that he'd probably win no matter what."

But for Nino-Murcia, the most excitement came not at the end but the beginning of the show.

"The best moments were right before my games started, when everyone was in position, and I was feeling all of the excitement build up inside me waiting for the music to start," Nino-Murcia said.

But for him, winning was just a bonus.

"I'd watched episodes where contestants go on and answer about four questions the whole time, so my basic goal was to not embarrass myself and be 'that guy,' " he said. "… I kept my cool pretty well for the main portion of the game, but the pressure of 'Final Jeopardy' threw me a bit. It's hard to think straight under the lights once the music starts playing."

His mother, Mercedes Nino-Murcia, attributed his success to a lifetime of avid reading — from books to papers to blogs — specifically citing his extensive knowledge of pop culture, sports and history.

"He's amazingly good at recalling facts," Kearney said. "… He's very committed to everything he does, so you knew when he started studying and trying to be on 'Jeopardy,' he's probably going to make it. He's very serious about everything he does. Even his food blog has specific standards."

Now, Nino-Murcia plans to put his prize money to practical use.

"Don't expect to see me 'making it rain' anywhere around town, although I do wish I'd made more so I could've tried to fund painting the water tower you can see from Kinnick¯" he said. "My priority is helping my family with loans from paying for my education."

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