Bolstered by experience, education expert pursues game show glory

May 21, 2020

USC Rossier professor Morgan Polikoff was primed for this moment

By Ross Brenneman

Morgan Polikoff (left) challenges trivia gurus on Game Show Network’s “Master Minds.” (Image courtesy of Melissa Carr/Game Show Network)

For Morgan Polikoff, the path started the way it often does for people who love game shows: watching the classics and deciding why not me?

An associate professor of education at the USC Rossier School of Education by day, Polikoff is now cementing himself as a regular on the game show circuit. With consecutive appearances this month on the Game Show Network competition Master Minds—in which competitors go head to head against recurring trivia greats (“Master Minds”) like Ken Jennings—Polikoff has now been on three different game shows, and triumphed on all of them.

Polikoff has long been a game show fan, growing up on The Price Is Right and Jeopardy! In high school, the trivia devotee participated in Quiz Bowl as his main extracurricular activity. Although he tried to parlay that interest into an appearance on the semi-regular Jeopardy! Teen Tournament, it was not to be, nor when he tried again in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania.

But after moving to Los Angeles, fate turned his way, and in 2011 he finally got his shot—and a win.

“I was primed to be on game shows,” he says, “and getting on Jeopardy! was a lifelong dream.”

According to Detroit Free Press, the online Jeopardy! audition tests now often pass 80,000 test-takers, with only 3-4 percent moving on to the next round. But as Polikoff points out, finally landing one show often leads to opportunities on others. In 2017, he appeared on Divided—a game show in which a group of contestants solve trivia questions collectively and have to coordinate with each other on how to divide up the winnings. Then came this month’s Master Minds, where those who are successful enough in consecutive episodes can themselves become designated a Master Mind.

Training for the moment

Polikoff, who researches standards-based reform and curricula, says that his career in academe has been important to his success on game shows.

“One of the underrated skills you can gain in academia has to do with presenting yourself and your work to others,” Polikoff says, pointing to the array of lectures, press interviews, internal presentations and phone calls that come with being a professor. “I attend meetings where I have to be confident, articulate and direct. Those skills very much pay off when it comes to auditioning in front of a show’s casting team.”

Most of the people who audition for game shows have the requisite trivia knowledge to succeed, Polikoff says. “But you’d be stunned at how many of them cannot present themselves clearly and directly, cannot engage in banter with the hosts or crew,” or who can’t follow the cardinal rule of filming with a live studio audience: Be more enthusiastic.

While his interests range across the spectrum—Polikoff says he watches old episodes of Match Game over breakfast—his favorite game show is Pyramid. “I love, love, love word games, and I think I’m better at them than I am at pure trivia,” a passion he shares with his husband Joel.

Polikoff says that among the many excellent perks of living in Los Angeles comes easy access to game show auditions, and even though filming can be a grind—there’s a lot of waiting, followed by a rush into the studio—he says he can’t wait to do it again.

“I will keep trying out as long as they’ll let me.”


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