Given his longstanding love for games, trivia and fantasy at a young age, Joe Rengstorf was bound to compete on Jeopardy one day. He did just that, competing in the 2019 Teachers Tournament and making it to the semifinals, walking away with $10,000.
Rengstorf grew up on Bainbridge Island, then moved to Suquamish and ended up attending Central Kitsap High School out of district because his mom was a teacher there.
“I was a super early reader and was just obsessed with it,” he said. “I read everything including books of trivia.”
He also cited his passion for the fantasy and science fiction genres and stated Roald Dahl and J.R.R. Tolkien were some of his favorite authors growing up. It wasn’t until high school that Rengstorf began watching Jeopardy, as a way to prepare for his high school’s Knowledge Bowl.
“We had pretty strict rules on TV so it didn’t go against my TV time to watch Jeopardy,” he said with a laugh.
During high school, Rengstorf competed in the 1999 Washington State Knowledge Bowl, where his team finished second in state. Rensgtorf attended the University of Washington, where he double-majored in comparative religion and comparative cinema studies.
“I took eight different 101 classes,” he said of his college days. “I had very few responsibilities in college; I didn’t have to have a job.”
After doing so well in the Knowledge Bowl in high school, Rengstorf decided to pursue his first tryout for Jeopardy in 2000 as a freshman in college but he didn’t make the cut. Rengstorf later went to Scotland to work as a barista at Starbucks and filtered through a couple more coffee-oriented jobs before settling down and getting married.
“My wife was like ‘hey do you want to try and be a teacher in Thailand’ and I said yeah let’s try it.”
So, Rengstorf ventured to Thailand to teach English as a second language. After his teaching duties abroad ended, he applied for graduate school in San Diego. After he and his wife decided to have children, they moved back up to Poulsbo to be closer to family.
“Our kid is about to turn three and we are about to have our second at the end of June.”
Rengstorf is now entering his fourth year as a Special Education teacher at Ridgetop Middle School, a role where he says he can finally flourish and be himself.
“I was bored and couldn’t motivate myself to work all day because it’s doing the same thing over and over again all day,” he said about his past occupations. “I was not mentally engaged, I was always day dreaming. With teaching, I have to be 100 percent present; it’s like being a stand-up comic where you’re reading your audience and adapting.”
The similarities that he shared with fellow teachers and the camaraderie he developed with them are some of the main reasons why Rengstorf says he’s content with his job.
“The days would fly by, I felt like there was a purpose,” he said. “One of the reasons I love being a teacher is because I love hanging out with other teachers. They are my favorite group of coworkers I’ve ever had. They are all like me in many ways.”
This past year, he took the online Jeopardy test and did well enough to qualify for a live audition in Portland which he attended last Summer. Rengstorf drove down, stayed with a friend and did well enough to qualify for the 2019 Teachers Tournament.
“I never studied for the online test,” he said. “The online test and the in-person test were both luckily things that I knew. I am always consuming information, whether it’s reading articles or listening to podcasts. It’s a compulsion that me and a lot of the other Jeopardy contestants share.”
As Rengstorf prepared for his trip down to Culver City for the taping of the show, his family decided to join him in support of his venture.
“We were in the same lot where they filmed Wizard of Oz, our hotel was where the Munchkins stayed,” he said. “We all got to hang out with the fellow contestants and their families. It was a bunch of teachers on Jeopardy so we already had a lot in common.”
Meeting and talking with Alex Trebek, the host of Jeopardy, was also a huge highlight, according to Rengstorf. Trebek is currently filming the show while battling stage four pancreatic cancer.
“He comes out to take a group picture with us and we’re all kind of on edge and excited,” Rengstorf said. “I am impressed how amazingly courteous and professional he was. He’s a legend.”
As far as the competition itself went, the Poulsbo resident was simply focused on “doing his best and not embarrassing himself.” He lived up to his words, as he breezed through the first competition to qualify for the semifinals.
“I was timing the buzzer based off the cadence of Alex’s (Trebek) voice,” he said. “I was surprised how many times I got the buzzer in first. I hit every daily double by pure buzzer dominance. It was kind of a relaxing game.”
The semifinals was a whole different story, as the competition was better and more was at stake.
“In the semis, I was just getting owned on the buzzer. I just felt like I couldn’t recapture that mojo from the day before,” Rengstorf said. “I got really frustrated and I started to buzz in even when I didn’t know it. I missed way more answers.”
Despite the disappointment of not advancing to the final, Rengstorf was still proud of the way he competed on a game show that he had always dreamed of playing.
“It’s an incredibly unique and proud moment of my life. I couldn’t imagine a world where I had to turn it down,” he said. “Unless you get invited back for the Tournament of Champions, you get one shot at Jeopardy. It was a truly incredible experience that I will remember forever.”
Tyler Shuey is a reporter for Kitsap News Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org