He is a teacher at St. Mary Visitation School, Elm Grove, studied meteorology at Iowa State University, received his teaching certificate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and he’s a Jeopardy! champion.
Who is Michael Falk? Correct.
On April 3, Falk will appear on an episode of Jeopardy! featuring the 2006 champion, in a multi-level tournament of champions from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s called the Battle of the Decades, to celebrate the show’s 30th anniversary season.
Falk was notified last fall that he qualified to compete for a $1 million prize.
Beginning in February and continuing through April 15, champions from each decade are going head-to-head in a 1980s Week, 1990s Week and 2000s Week respectively, with winners and wildcards from these preliminary weeks advancing to compete in the finals of the Battle of the Decades in May.
For St. Mary Visitation School, that meant a celebration was in order. The school planned activities to celebrate Falk’s appearance on his favorite game show, including a send-off party before he left for California, where the show was taped on Jan. 22, and playing all-school Jeopardy games.
The excitement will continue for students and staff April 2 when the Jeopardy! Production crew films the academic Quiz Bowl team in action – a Jeopardy!-like activity for grades six through eight launched by Falk, and the only one in the area, that has qualified for national championships for two consecutive years.
The school is also holding a live viewing party of the episode starring Falk, for school families, when the show airs at 6 p.m. on April 3.
Falk, who lives in West Allis with his wife, Courtney, and 2-year-old son, Maxwell, is the only person at the school who knows the results of the show. And he isn’t spilling anything.
“He just says, ‘I had a really good time; it was a great experience,’” said Mary Tretow, principal at St. Mary Visitation. “We’re all looking forward to finding out how he did.”
First appearance on show in 2006
In March 2006, Falk played his first of many games on Jeopardy!, appearing eight times that year and winning nearly $60,000 in his initial three-day stint; soon after, he returned to participate with 14 other successful contestants in a two-week “Tournament of Champions,” winning $250,000.
As a lifelong “fanatic” of games and game shows in particular, being on the show was a dream come true.
“I went out to the podium for the show to start and put my hands on the sides and I was wondering why my podium was vibrating,” he said. Then he realized, “It’s me; I’m the (one) who’s shaking.”
Falk said the studio where the episode was being filmed seated fewer than 200 people but the thought of being beamed into the living rooms and kitchens of millions of Americans made him stress “in a good way.”
“That’s when the nerves start setting in,” he said.
He and his wife had been married for six months when he was selected to compete on the show, after passing the online test, interview and model game.
“When I saw the opportunity to play the game and hopefully win some money doing it, it was an easy decision,” he said. “Jeopardy! has always been a favorite, but I liked ‘Press Your Luck,’ when I was younger. I grew up on ‘The Price is Right’… I love playing games of that style. I love trivia and I’ve always competed in things like that.”
Falk won the first game because the leader missed a question; Falk, who was behind a little, correctly guessed and wagered enough for the win.
“I managed to win from behind, otherwise I would’ve been one and done on Jeopardy! and we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he said.
His total after the game was $17,401.
“I told Alex (Trebek) this was going to be a down payment on a house for us,” Falk said, who was living in an apartment on Blue Mound Road.
According to the rules of Jeopardy!, the winner stays until he or she is defeated, so Falk played a second game.
“I felt like the pressure was off a bit,” he said. “I wouldn’t have admitted this when I was going out there, but I really, really, deep in my heart, wanted to win one game so I can say I was a Jeopardy! champion.”
Falk won the second and third games, but “got absolutely stomped” in the fourth.
“I couldn’t find the timing on the buzzer; I was playing against a guy who was just in the zone,” he said. “That happens.”
After winning more than $60,000 over the course of a weekend, Falk was sworn to secrecy about the outcome until all of his episodes ran – the show tapes five episodes a day and airs them more than a month later.
“You just want to tell people, ya know?” he said.
Qualifies for Tournament of Champions
He found out a week later, before his shows aired, that he qualified for the Tournament of Champions, he said.
“This is virtually unheard of because the Tournament of Champions is almost all five-game winners usually, with a few four-game winners to fill out the field,” he said.
However, during his season there were players who won several more than five games and there weren’t enough of them to fill the tournament. So the show allowed for three-game winners to participate.
He still couldn’t tell people he was in the Tournament of Champions.
But he said he felt confident going into the tournament.
“I went in more confident to the tournament than I did to even normal games, which actually is foolish,” he said. “Because all the other people at the Tournament of Champions are all other three-game, four-game, five-game or more winners.”
One of the participants was David Madden, who won 19 games, the most for that season.
Falk didn’t win the first game, but his score was high enough to earn him a “wild card” and he was able to advance. In a close second game, he correctly answered the Final Jeopardy! question, winning by $1.
“That got me into the finals, which is a two-day (game),” he said. “The first day was pretty even and the second day I played the game of my life.”
Being Catholic helped
Througout his Jeopardy! journey, faith remained a constant for Falk, though he said he didn’t ask God for favors, as tempting as it was, during the intense moments.
“For me, prayer is an endless series of very quick conversations with God,” said Falk, a member of St. Therese Parish, Milwaukee. “Before I played (Jeopardy!), what I did, I really gave thanks for what I have.”
However, being Catholic helped him.
During the second game, a lot of questions surrounded Catholicism and the history of the Catholic Church – things Falk knew from growing up Catholic and attending Mary Queen of Heaven School, West Allis.
“Catholic history helped me out,” he said with a smile.
Falk said it helped him with a question regarding “The Da Vinci Code,” a book he’d never read and movie he’d never seen. “But I knew enough about the symbolism and about the Catholic history that I was able to tell what they were talking about,” he said.
He won the tournament and the $250,000 prize.
“In real time, this all happened in the course of about two hours,” he said.
From playing that first game to winning the Tournament of Champions, not even two months had gone by.
“And nobody knows!” he said.
It was difficult for him to keep the results to himself.
“I had to keep this a secret for about six weeks,” he said. “$250,000 is a life-changing amount of money … the fact that I knew that was coming and I couldn’t tell anyone was really difficult.”
Winning meant no house payment
He said in his biography on the Jeopardy! website that “the most positive effect of being a Jeopardy! champion was that I was able to buy a house for my family outright with no mortgage. With the money we save by not having to make a house payment every month, my wife was able to stop working after our son was born and be a full-time mom.”
As a teacher, Falk uses his Jeopardy! experience as a way of motivating his students to learn and to help him find new ways to teach and make learning fun.
“I have colleagues and a principal who will support me if I try to do weird things,” said Falk, who has been teaching at St. Mary Visitation since 2010. “One of the best parts about teaching is taking risks.”
His teaching resonates with the students.
“He’s just all about the kids all the time,” said Tretow. “He also has a love of math that I’ve never seen before and he gives that love of math to all his students.”
Tretow said Falk has used his knowledge of math to teach classes on cryptology – the study of codes – and how to make board games.
“He transforms you,” she said. “Even if you go into that class not really liking math … he makes sure everyone leaves with a love of math.”
The students have enjoyed having Falk as their teacher – and watching episodes of Jeopardy!, which he has on DVD.
“That’s one of the best Friday afternoon presents I can give them,” he said. “Let’s watch Mr. Falk on Jeopardy!”
As a Quiz Bowl team coach with two other teachers, Falk also practices what he preaches to the students and gives them a chance to experience Jeopardy! on a smaller scale.
“They see what I’m doing on Jeopardy! as sort of a logical extension of what they do,” he said. “Not only am I telling them, ‘Hey guys, look, it’s cool to know stuff,’ I’m kind of walking that walk with them.”
As a teacher, Falk said sometimes his teaching experiments work, and other times they bomb, but he tries to make learning fun.
“I really, really try my hardest to make sure learning is something that kids find fun for its own sake,” he said. “That it’s something worthwhile for its own sake just because it’s fun to know things.”