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Minnesota 'Jeopardy!' hero Sam Kavanaugh thinks like a mongoose, rocks his mustache

Intellectual mongoose Sam Kavanaugh

Intellectual mongoose Sam Kavanaugh Jeopardy!

Minnesota, meet your new trivia hero.

Sam Kavanaugh, a Minneapolis resident who grew up in Carlton, Minnesota, went to Carleton College, and wrote his thesis on Zombie Pub Crawl, is a five-day Jeopardy! winner. Though he was beat last night, his streak puts him in the running for the Tournament of Champions. His winnings total over $156,000.

A lifelong Jeopardy! fan, Kavanaugh didn’t get to the top by being smarter than everyone else. “I don’t think I’m a particularly knowledgeable player compared to the other players,” Kavanaugh admits. “Everyone has all passed the same test. Everyone knows 80 percent of what’s up there.”

Instead, Kavanaugh came up with an unusual strategy: Imagine your competitors as wild animals. For example, Ryan Bilger, the reigning champion he defeated in his first episode, was a snake.

“[Bilger was] like a cobra or a python, and he was going to squeeze me to death [by knowing every answer],” he says.

“I’m going to have to be like a mongoose then,” he says. “I’m going to have to bounce around, move around the board, try to go for the throat whenever I get the chance, like the Daily Double.”

He followed through on that strategy in episode one, finding all three Daily Doubles and earning $16,000 on his three bids. In fact, he found 10 of the 15 Daily Doubles in his week of winning, and answered nine of them correctly.

Another tip: Don’t get hung up on the money. Go big when it’s time to make bids. “It’s not real money unless you win,” he says.

While his animal strategy is unique, others rely on more typical tactics. JJ Harris, who challenged him all the way into Final Jeopardy! on Tuesday, employed intimidation tactics. “She was smack-talking me in the back,” he says. “She’s like Kevin Garnett.”

He’s also brought some swagger of his own, making faces at the camera when his name is announced and winking, which he promised his aunt he would do. “Johnny Gilbert is doing the announcement and it feels like you have to stare into a camera for 30 seconds,” he says. “It’s like making eye contact with someone for that long; I just start doing weird stuff.”

Plenty of people online have hated it, thinking he’s arrogant. “That’s the internet for you,” he says.

The internet does seem to like his mustache, however. He was traveling in Australia when he got the call to be on the show. “I was outside a lot,” he says. “If I had shaved it off there would’ve been a really weird tan line.”

Since he won five days in a row, he's in the running for the annual Tournament of Champions. The 2019 roster was already full by the time he filmed his episodes, so he’ll have to wait a year to know if he makes it to the 2020 event.