In 2017, Ryan Fenster was having a tough year. He'd been accepted into grad school, but the funding had fallen through. Then, after weeks of feeling weak and ill, the doctor told him that he had Type I diabetes.
And then, Jeopardy! called.
Fenster had applied to be a contestant, at the urging of his grandparents. They'd watched him play the game as a viewer, where he'd answer questions correctly in a rapid fire. He'd applied online and made it through an in-person screening earlier that year. But he hadn't expected to be called so soon. And he didn't expect how life-changing that call would turn out to be.
Fenster went down to California to tape the show in November 2017. He showed up on set for the day's taping and immediately had his name drawn out of the hat. He won the first game, and brought home about $20,000. It was a shock.
"As they're walking me back to the green room," Fenster said, "they say 'Congratulations, champ, you did it!' And then I just had like this brief flash where I went stunned and I said 'I just paid for grad school.'"
Fenster got his own dressing room — really just a coat closet where he could change — and went back out for the "next day's" taping. Jeopardy! films multiple episodes per day, and encourages contestants to bring changes of clothing in case they win.
After that, Fenster says, his plan was just to play the game and have fun. It worked. Fenster went on a winning streak. "I was just so much in the zone, he said, "I felt like I wasn't answering the questions."
He won on "Tuesday." He won on "Wednesday." He won on "Thursday." And then came the "Friday" taping.
During that game, Fenster got a $1,200 Double Jeopardy! clue wrong. He answered "The Great Schism" instead of just "schism." Though he continued to play, he couldn't win enough money to win the game.
Fenster came home with $90,000 in winnings and realization that he could now attend grad school, pay for his health care, and more.
In January 2018, his four winning episodes ran on TV, and that was it. He thought. But then Jeopardy! called again.
The situation is rare for the show, but occasionally contestants are invited back under special circumstances. And Ryan fit the bill. He got a question "wrong," which later research proved could have been interpreted as right. And he lost enough money on the question that, if they'd ruled differently, he could have won the game.
Fenster went back, again, and won another $60,000. He says he's nothing but grateful — for the opportunity to play the game, to have won so many times, and especially to have come back. But he's especially grateful that the winnings allowed him to move forward with his life. Things that had once been on hold, like his plan to go to grad school, were now moving forward. And things that were uncertain, such as whether he could afford the expensive diet he required to treat his diabetes, were now a known quantity. He has everything he needs.
He does not, however, have a Porsche. Fenster still drives his '97 Honda Civic. His rationale is frugal and practical. "It gets me to where I need to go, and it's cheap on gas."
He does allow himself a few small indulgences. Fenster says there were times in his life when he scrimped and saved so that he could plan for his future. But these days? "I never say no to a burger."