FREMONT -- Nikhil Desai isn't allowed to say how he fared in the "Jeopardy! Teen Challenge" preliminary round, which airs Monday. But it's hard to imagine him doing worse than the last time he was in a nationally televised competition.
Desai, a 16-year-old Fremont resident and a junior at Bellarmine College Preparatory school in San Jose, was California's 2008 Geography Bee champion and was in the finals of the national competition, which was also hosted by "Jeopardy!" 's Alex Trebek.
But with television cameras rolling, Desai botched his first two questions and was one of the first two contestants eliminated. To add insult to injury, he stumbled over his stool on his way off the stage -- "a fitting and clumsy end," he said.
That experience weighed on Desai as he prepared for "Jeopardy!"
"Part of me was thinking I was going to mess up again," he said. "I never went into 'Jeopardy!' thinking I'm going to win this thing. I was thinking I don't want to get eliminated in the first round this time."
There's more than pride and dignity at stake for Desai in the teen tournament, which airs at 7 p.m. on KGO-TV Channel 7 beginning Thursday. The winner gets at least $75,000, with at least $50,000 for second place and $25,000 for third place.
If Desai wins his preliminary match Monday, or scores in the top nine of the 15-player field, he advances to the semifinals later next week, with a shot at the finals.
"Jeopardy!" always has been a big deal for Desai, who shares a birthday with Trebek.
He started watching the show when he was 5, and could hold his own by fourth grade, although he watches it much less now that his academic work has piled up.
He's on his school's robotics team, which recently built a robot that can kick soccer balls about 20 yards into a goal.
His team's robotics laboratory is at the NASA Ames Research Center, where Desai interned last summer with a team generating models of the moon's surface.
Desai, who takes enrichment math and science, returned home from school last Thursday with Lehninger's college-level "Principles of Biochemistry, Second Edition" tucked under his arm. "It's one of the classics," he said.
If Desai has a "Jeopardy!" Achilles heel, it's that he's not interested in many of the things high school juniors are supposed to care about.
"I know nothing about video games. I do not understand rap music at all. I cannot understand sports at all except cricket, and 'Jeopardy!' is never going to ask about cricket," he said.
One of the questions on Desai's test to get on the show asked him to name the girlfriend of a famous athlete. Desai had never heard of New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush, and he had no idea the answer was Kim Kardashian.
The teen challenge shows were taped over two days in early December at a Los Angeles studio.
Desai said the contestants, several of whom he had met before at national trivia competitions, hung out in the hotel lobby and talked about school.
"That was our one thing in common," he said. "We're nerds."
The contestants mostly knew all the answers, Desai said.
"Every question became some sort of buzzer race. Everyone was trying to perfect his buzzer style."
Trebek talked more to the audience than to the contestants. "He's not that personable to high school students," Desai said. "Our immaturity didn't go down that well with him."
Many of the contestants have kept in touch with each other through Facebook, he said. Quite a few are having big parties for their matches.
Desai, who said his friends weren't "Jeopardy!" fans, plans to watch Monday's show at home with his parents.
Being on the show was "quite simply amazing," he said. "It's a once-in-a lifetime experience."