Forest Grove native competes in Battle of the Decades on Jeopardy!

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF JEOPARDY! PRODUCTIONS, INC. - Ryan Fritz Holznagel (left), a Jeopardy! champion in 1994, has been invited back to Los Angeles to compete against three decades worth of winners, wholl be grilled by host Alex Trebek (right). What once was a chance to win $100,000 with his wit and wisdom has turned into a million-dollar opportunity for Ryan “Fritz” Holznagel.

The Forest Grove native, who was a national “Jeopardy!” champion in 1995, is competing in the trivia game show’s “Battle of the Decades” tournament this spring.

It’s been two decades since Holznagel, 53, won the show four times, propelling him to the “Tournament of Champions” the following year. He won — and used part of the money to take a two-month backpacking trip across Europe.

“I went up the steps of the Eiffel Tower on my 35th birthday,” said Holznagel, now a resident of Somerville, Mass., a suburb of Boston. “It’s a good reference point to know that winning ‘Jeopardy!’ sent me to Europe.”

A 1979 graduate of Forest Grove High School with a history degree from Willamette University, Holznagel parlayed his acting experiences at FGHS and Theatre in the Grove — and his ability to learn and retain information — into a job with Will Vinton Productions in Portland, where for a time he rode the wave of the California Raisins’ popularity.

In 1992 he wrote a script for a CBS program, “A Claymation Easter Celebration,” and won an Emmy award for best animated special of the year. That’s where his career trajectory took a fateful and fortuitous turn.

“The next obvious step would have been to move to Los Angeles and become a screenwriter,” said Holznagel, “but that’s not what I wanted to do.” Instead, at 33, he started writing questions for learning games on a then-new medium called CD-ROM.

“If you were a kid in the ‘90s who played the computer game ‘Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?’ and you answered questions about Kansas and Missouri, you probably read my stuff,” said Holznagel.

Along came Google

After the Internet exploded onto the technology scene, Holznagel worked as a writer and editor for Lycos, one of the early search engines. Then along came a company called Google, and he jumped on board in 2004.

“I wrote website and marketing copy — mostly for ‘frequently asked questions’ (FAQ) links,” Holznagel said. “Basically, Google was the new encyclopedia, which appealed to me a lot.”

With his head for factoids and his competitive drive, Holznagel was the perfect candidate for “Jeopardy!” But it took him four times to pass the test to get on the quiz show, whose popularity has spanned 50 years.

He tried out twice in Portland and twice in LA — answering a battery of 50 trivia questions and demonstrating his ability to engage an audience — before making the cut as a contestant. It was a heady time.

“Just being on the ‘Jeopardy!’ set is like going to the high altar of trivia geekdom,” said Holznagel. “But they’re really frank with you that the show is for the enjoyment of the people at home.”

Alex Trebek, a “Jeopardy!” fixture who came on as host in 1984 after the NBC creation took a brief hiatus, has been at the microphone ever since, feeding contestants the answers and hoping they come up with the questions.

Holznagel gravitated toward American history and the Academy Awards as categories of choice. While science and math aren’t his strong suits, “U.S. Presidents has always been very good to me,” he quipped.

Part of the genius of “Jeopardy!” is that “the game is designed in a way that people at home can measure themselves against the contestants on the show,” Holznagel said. “It draws them in.”

‘Strong and sharp’

Last August the former champion got a call from NBC executives inviting him to return for a special tournament celebrating 45 big winners from three decades: the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. The segment featuring 1980s players aired in late January.

Hoznagel flew to LA on Jan. 21 to tape his game, which will be televised the evening of Tuesday, March 4.

“It was really great to be back there at the studio,” said Holznagel, who was sworn to secrecy about his contest’s outcome. Returning to California to once again deploy his dual skills of knowledge and memory was “intense but thrilling,” he added.

“I’m 53 now, and I wondered if I still had it,” he said. “I was pleased to find I felt strong and sharp.”

Holznagel — as well as his wife, Julie Corwin, and his parents, Bob and Ruth Holznagel, who still live in Forest Grove — is waiting with everyone else to find out what will happen come May, when the momentous last round of the special “Jeopardy!” feature is played.

If he's the winner of the March 4 game, Holznagel will move forward as part of a 15-contestant competition, then -- with luck -- to the final three. "You can look at it as a one-in-45 chance to win a million dollars,” he said.

Should he be lucky enough to ring the buzzer and ask the winning question — becoming $1 million richer in an instant — Holznagel said he’ll owe his “Jeopardy!” success to two things: his education and his breakfast.

“I got a remarkable education in Forest Grove schools,” beginning at Harvey Clarke Elementary and moving on to Neil Armstrong Middle School and Forest Grove High, he said. “And my folks were teachers, so there was always this energy about learning.”

The first time he appeared on “Jeopardy!,” Holznagel ate ham and eggs before heading to the set, a habit he hasn’t abandoned.

“When you’re on ‘Jeopardy!’ you burn through a lot of energy. It’s real easy to use all that up and then crash,” he said. “That’s my lucky breakfast.”

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