A Thought About This Past Week on Jeopardy!
How Much Does A Winning Streak Matter
Over the current Jeopardy season and the past few weeks in particular, I’ve been mulling over the standards Jeopardy has had for qualifications for its Tournaments of Champions. In all my years of watching the series, I’ve never had a real reason to consider them unfair. I’m not sure I do now. But the last week in particular, I wonder.
For those of you who aren’t aware of Jeopardy’s standards for the Tournament of Champions: Since this inception of the series, five wins guaranteed you a slot in the following year’s tournament. I can’t say this with certainty because the record isn’t complete, but I’m relatively sure that in all the years of Jeopardy, there has never been a single tournament where all fifteen competitors had won five games. In order to work around this, Jeopardy would allow winners of other Tournaments (College and Teachers now; back then Teen and the long defunct Seniors Tournament) to compete. However, to make sure all fifteen slots were filled, they almost inevitably had to include players who won four games or even three games with a high total.
This has continued well after Jeopardy abolished the five game limit back in 2003. There have been quite a few tournaments where the number of competitors who won fewer than five games well outnumbered the ones who won five or more. Indeed to date, seven Tournaments of Champions have been won by players who have won fewer than five games (I include Tom Cubbage, who won the College Championship in 1989 and Colby Burnett who won the Teachers Tournament in November of 2012. In all special tournaments, four wins are all that is required to win a tournament and with wildcards, you sometimes don’t even need the first one.)
My feelings about this have been mixed over time. On the one hand, Jeopardy tournaments have demonstrated with consistency that winning the most games or the most money in a season doesn’t mean that you will win the Tournament of Champions or even make it to the finals. Jeopardy has always been as much about luck as it is skill. On the other, I’ve never exactly believed in the myth of the underdog when it comes to the Jeopardy. Is a ten-game winner twice as good as a five game winner? Of course not. But it seems like it should be. I’ve had mixed feelings about this when it has come to other tournaments (I never quite agreed that certain of my favorite players who’d ‘only’ won four games didn’t qualify for the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005 where the minimum requirement was five wins) but I could live with it.
This past week, my feelings have begun to shift. Yesterday evening Megan Wachspress lost after having won six consecutive games. Her final total was $60,603. Of the nine players who have qualified for the Tournament of Champions so far this season (excluding the winners of the Professors Tournament and College Championship), Megan’s total is by far the lowest. That’s not necessarily a disqualifier of Megan as a great player; when your competition includes players like Matt Amodio and Amy Schneider, it’s hard for anyone to look good by comparison.
The problem with Megan comes when you consider the fate of four other female champions this season, all of whom had runs in March:
Christine Whelchel: $73,602
Margaret Shelton: $79,700
Maureen O’Neill: $58,200
Jackie Kelly: $115,100
Three of them won more money than Megan, and Maureen’s total was almost identical. But because all four of them ‘only’ won four games and because by this point in the Jeopardy season, all fifteen slots are filled by players who have won five games or more or a Tournament, none of them are eligible to play in November’s Tournament of Champions.
Now, to be clear, the odds were always fifty-fifty for any of them to necessarily hold on to their spot: the totals they won may be impressive in four games, but I have seen players win as much money in as few as three. And in a few cases, some of them eliminated each other: when Jackie won her fourth game, her total pushed out the lowest scoring won of these four women, who at the time was Maureen.
Nor am I saying that it would be fair for these players to necessarily have a position in the next tournament ahead of some of the others: Mattea Roach and Ryan Long eliminated at least two of them with their impressive streaks. But somehow it just doesn’t seem right that Megan, who won little more than half of Jackie’s total in two more games, has eliminated Jackie from contention. I realize this is how Jeopardy must function; otherwise participation in this tournament would be meaningless.
Is there a middle ground here? Interestingly, there might be. In years past, winners who have been unavailable to compete in the tournament they are eligible for have been invited back for a tournament the following year. Most of the time, the precedent for this has involved winners of College Championships. The most famous example I can think of is Vinita Kailasanath, who won the 2001 College Championship and was unavailable to compete in the 2003 Tournament of Champions. She was invited back to compete in the 2004 Tournament in which she was a semi-finalist. (She’s enjoyed some success in future Tournaments, playing well in both the Ultimate Tournament of Champions and The Battle of The Decades in 2014.) Furthermore, if a winning streak continues beyond the length of a season, champions are brought back for a subsequent tournament. Jason Zuffranieri won 19 games between Season 35 and 36. When his streak ended, because the requisite number of winners for the 2019 Tournament was filled, he was invited back for last year’s Tournament of Champions. And in almost every special tournament in the past twenty years — from the Million Dollar Masters in 2002 to the Jeopardy All-Star Games in 2019, alternate players have always been around in case a player should be ineligible to compete. Perhaps something similar could be done in this case.
Is this a trend we should consider making permanent? The jury’s out at the moment, at least in my case. But in a year where extended winning streaks are fast becoming the norm, perhaps there should be special circumstances extended for players who would have made the cut in any other year. I don’t think its fair for so many champions who would have qualified easily in years past should have their future on the show placed in…well, you know.