Dan Pawson, '06: A Not-So-Trivial Accomplishment

Appeared in Record issue: 
Spring 2008

Earlier this year, Dan Pawson, ’06, won nine times on the television show Jeopardy!. His earnings of $170,902 were the fourth-highest of any contestant in the history of the show, which first was televised in 1964.

“I was lucky,” he says. Then an amendment quickly comes to him as he surveys his life overall. “No, I am lucky.”

Lucky among other things, he says, to have attended the University of Chicago Law School. Accepted at another prestigious law school and wait-listed at Chicago, he had already agreed to attend that other school when Chicago offered him a spot. “As it turned out, the Law School was a perfect place for me,” he says. “I love politics and I intend to make a career in it. I consider myself a moderate Republican, and so my views were tested every day, from the right and from the left. I was constantly assessing and reassessing, asserting and defending, with very smart people, which has really helped me clarify my positions and my overall philosophy. All that and a great legal education, too, which was a nice throw-in.”

Fortunate thus far regarding that political career, too. Settling in Boston after graduation while his wife attends Harvard, he sent out resumes for jobs in Massachusetts politics. State Senator Bruce Tarr had lost his legislative director just days before Pawson’s resume landed on his desk, and he hired Pawson to fill the position, which Pawson describes as “pretty much my ideal job, which is pretty lucky for an unsolicited resume.”

A lucky fellow in his family life? You bet. He and his wife, Andrea Saenz, had their first child, Rebecca, within days after his final Jeopardy! appearance aired. Mother and daughter are doing fine, and, since the shows had been taped several months earlier, he knew for some time that he’d have a solid nest egg for his expanded family.

He even professes to some luck in his game show victories, explaining first that only a small fraction of those who pass the Jeopardy! qualifying tests are actually called to be on the show. Then, in his first appearance, he trailed his two competitors as they all faced the final clue: “In 1991, the New York Times said English was ‘too skimpy for so rich an imagination’; his language and meter were irresistible.” He didn’t know the correct answer—Dr. Seuss. “I thought I was sunk then,” he recalls. But the others didn’t get it right, either, and Pawson’s smart wagering won him the game.

To further bolster his case, he points to the fate of his Law School classmate, Murtaza Sutarwalla, who appeared as a Jeopardy! contestant two weeks after Pawson’s final appearance. Sutarwalla won his first game and had built up a large lead in his second one by the time the final clue was presented—$21,200 compared to his competitors’ $10,800 and $2,200. “Murtaza is brilliant, and he’s a trivia colossus,” Pawson says. “When I found out I was going to be on Jeopardy!, I went to Murtaza for tips on studying. But he just didn’t know that one thing, and so he lost. If he had made it past that one clue, he would've been a juggernaut.”*

Pawson and Sutarwalla were both active in the Law School’s annual trivia tournament. Sutarwalla was the organizer of the 2006 event and made it to the semifinals; Pawson’s team defeated all the other student competitors, but then lost to the faculty’s team. Of the faculty’s victory, Pawson remarks with a smile, “Rematch?”

* The clue was, “Among those who objected to this drama series that premiered in October 1959 were Frank Sinatra & J. Edgar Hoover.”

All of Pawson’s and Sutarwalla’s Jeopardy! appearances can be reviewed in detail here.