Who is Daryn Firicano?

This Woburnite made his way onto one of America’s best known game shows....

This Woburnite made his way onto one of America’s best known game shows....

Decades before her son would cash in on his genius by becoming a professional poker player and two-time champion on television's, "Jeopardy!" quiz show, Woburn resident Peggy Firicano for a few brief seconds doubted the unquestionable intelligence of her child.

Flagged down by her son Daryn's kindergarten teacher after just his second day of classes at the Goodyear Elementary School, the mother-of-two remembers that panicked moment quite well.

Prior to the encounter, she had worried whether her just shy of five-year-old son, who had barely met the district's age criteria for starting school, would be able to keep up with his older peers.

"His kindergarten teacher just kind of hollered at me to come over after the second day of school, and I just thought to myself, 'Oh, no,'" explained Firicano, who laughingly recalled that all sorts of distressing thoughts had raced through her mind as she walked over.

"Then She just looked at me with this [wowed expression] and said, 'Did you know your son can read? He was actually reading words, when other kids didn't even know any letters," boasted the Holton Street resident. "Really, he never gave me an ounce of trouble. He was just the ideal son."

This summer, after trying for nearly a decade to become a contestant on the syndicated television show, the academically-gifted Firicano put on quite the showcase for his hometown family and friends after appearing on "Jeopardy" and being crowned a two-day champion.

During his three appearances alongside celebrity host Alex Trebec, the Las Vegas, Nevada transplant unseated a two-day reigning champion and raked in roughly $22,000 in prize money during his subsequent run as the game show's top whiz.

Though he filmed the trivia contests during a three-week long period last August, the former WMHS science teacher's television appearances were just broadcast between Oct. 18 and Oct. 21.

During the broadcasts, some of Firicano's former WMHS co-workers, such as English teacher Matthew Gangi, urged the community to cheer on local contestant, who had first drawn Woburn's attention after becoming a successful professional gambler in the World Series of Poker circuit.

"First he locked horns with [World Series of Poker champion Phil] Hellmuth. Now he takes on Trebec. Tune in to Jeopardy tomorrow night to watch Woburn's Daryn Firicano flex his mental muscle yet again!" Gangi implored locals through a recent social media post.

Though the Woburn High Class of 1998 graduate retired from his poker career back in 2008, he managed to rake in some $377,763 in winnings before returning to his hometown to teach at the high school for two years.

In one of his best performances, Firicano, who relied upon his natural knack for working out mathematical odds during his gambling career, made it the final table and finished third in World Series of Poker event in 2006. Hellmuth ultimately took the top cash prize in that contest, but the East Woburnite still faired quite well with his own $187,000 stake for a third place finish.

Dreaming big

Reached at his Las Vegas residence, where the 38-year-old works as a medical device specialist, the Woburn High alumnus explained that he had long dreamed about meeting Trebec as a contestant on the award-winning trivia show.

"I love trivia, and I've always been interested in learning random new facts. Anything I learn, I just remember it, so it's perfect for me," said Firicano of the television show.

In fact, in the decade before he was invited to fly-out to California for an audition, the UMass Amherst graduate had repeatedly tried to qualify for the television show by filling out a 50-question test on Jeopardy's website.

Taking the test last February, the longtime Woburn resident, who in 2014 moved out to Las Vegas with his new wife, was losing hope that his name would be selected. But in July, he was contacted by show officials for a second round of vetting, which involved several interviews, the administration of two other questionnaires, and participation in a mock "Jeopardy" game.

Sent back home with no promises — participants are told they will have to wait as long as 18-months to find out if they'll be selected — Firicano fortunately learned within weeks of his official game contestant candidacy.

"They just want to make sure you're not some crazy weirdo," said the game show champion of that meet-and-greet process. "But after that, they say, 'We'll let you know.' You could end up waiting for 18-months, but for me it just happened so quick."

"I took the online test in February, and they called me for the audition in May. Then they called me back in July," he explained.

According to Firicano, though confident in his academic prowess and trivia know-how, his professional gambling career that began straight out of college had taught him that when it comes to competition, strategic gameplay is every bit as important as talent.

And in unusual twist of fate, the future "Jeopardy" contestant knew just who to turn to: Former show champion James Holzhauer, who earned the nickname "Jeopardy James" after amassing some $2.5 million in prize winnings during a 34-day winning streak earlier this spring.

Besides living in Las Vegas, Firicano had regularly bumped shoulders with Holzhauer during the Woburn resident's six-year stint as a professional poker player.

"I emailed James, and he gave me some great advice and study materials. There's this whole other layer to the game that people really don't think about," he explained. "[For example, I tried to] look for the Daily Doubles. They tend to appear in certain spots on the board, and I knew about them. So you want to control the board and get to those."

"He also gave me some strategies about the buzzer. You can't push on it [until Trebec reads the] last word of a question. If you're too early, you get locked out for a quarter second. But if you're too late, someone gets it first. So you need this razor sharp timing."

In the weeks before his official appearance on the game show, the Woburn resident also relied upon a group of friends to help him hone his skills by engaging in some mock trivia contests via Skype. The medical device company technician and salesman, who played in roughly 75 such mock contests in the weeks before his first "Jeopardy" appearance, also studied a handful of trivia guides to shore-up his knowledge in weak subject areas.

Firicano also practiced a strategy that involved jumping around on the game board, a method aimed at keeping his competitors from getting too comfortable with any one subject area.

"Before [all that practice], I knew I had a chance to win. But I figured my odds of winning were something like 40 percent, because people who go on Jeopardy, they just know trivia," he explained. "But after all that practice, my confidence went up amazingly."

"For those first couple of games, I never crushed on the buzzer [too early]," said Firicano, who was the first to click the wand about 35 percent of the time during his three-day run. "It all goes by in the blink of an eye."

During his first game, Firicano, who just had his first son with his wife, Melissa, had managed to rack up $17,200 lead during a frenzied pace in the second round. By the time the game's final round came around, the second-best contestant's score was just $8,000 — which meant the local favorite could not be beaten unless he willingly wagered more than $1.200 on the final question.

Though the second game was much closer, the longtime Woburnite had the lead heading into the final round and managed to hold off a challenge through a smart wager on what proved to be an incorrect answer.

"The experience was just amazing. I'd say if anyone has ever thought of trying out for 'Jeopardy', do it. Maybe you've been answering a couple of questions at home and you're impressing yourself. Take the online test. Just have to go for it," he said.

(1) comment

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