All Things Consider, I Had Fun at this High School Reunion
Jeopardy’s Most Recent Tournament Gets An A For Effort — And Achievement
I don’t know how high my initial expectations truly were for Jeopardy’s High School Reunion Tournament, which ended yesterday. It has been a while since I had watched a Teen Tournament from start to finish (when you get to a certain age, it doesn’t seem quite fair trying to answer questions against players much younger than you) and since the last time Teen Winners were allowed to compete in a major Tournament was the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005 (to be fair, quite a few well outperformed expectations), I didn’t think it mattered. However, since the winner of this tournament was guaranteed a spot in the upcoming Tournament of Champions — something that has not happened since 2000 — I felt there was a reason to, at the very least, vet a potential participant.
So I watched this tournament which comprised of 27 former competitors from the 2018 and 2019 Teen Tournaments (the last Jeopardy had before the pandemic) all of whom were now in or had recently graduated college. (These tournaments comprised a total of 30 competitors, but three were unavailable. Mayim Bialik acknowledged as much in the final match, as well as assured the viewers that they would be invited back in a future tournament.) I accepted the clues and competition to be at the level of the College Championships which can be exciting, and have also produced their share of the greatest Jeopardy players of all time. I did not expect to have nearly as much fun as the contestants were, pretty much from the first quarterfinal match to last night’s final.
Because to be clear in addition to all their other virtues, these matches were almost all thrilling, exciting and entertaining. To be clear, sometimes that entertainment could be misinterpreted as arrogance. One such time came in the second quarterfinal match when the winner of the 2019 Teen Tournament Avi Gupta, who spent much of the Jeopardy round in the red, came storming back in Double Jeopardy. After responding correctly on a Daily Double where he wagered everything, he told us all: “Not going to get me rid of that easily.” Some online viewers considered it cockiness; I considered it a sign he was there to play. And it worked for him because he came back to win that match.
Other times players were more than willing to play with expectations. Rohan Kapileshwari, confronted with a Daily Double in POETRY said: “I’m going to wager a whopping $5. “ Then we heard it, he turned in disgust because he knew the correct answered and admitted he’d wagered more. Others were willing to play with figures: Caleb Richmond not only bet big in his Daily Doubles, but all of his wagers also involved $18 in the last two digits. Jackson Jones, with a huge lead in Double Jeopardy started his response on a Daily Double by going: “You know, I’ve always wanted to say this.” And as the audience reacted, he then wagered $200.” He got it right by the way. And it was also clear that their love of the show had not dissipated over the last few years: finding a Daily Double in his semi-final match, Caleb Richmond said: “To paraphrase the infamous Sam Buttrey, ‘I would like to wager all of the dollars that I am legally allowed to.”
There was laughter and cheering throughout the game, and a lot of thrilling competition and by the time the semis were over, the field had narrowed to three: Jackson (who’d been a semi-finalist in the 2019 Teen Tournament) Maya Wright (who had finished third in the 2018 Teen Tournament) and Justin Bolsen, who’d been a semi-finalist in 2019. (For the record, Justin had been eliminated from his semi-final after losing everything on a Daily Double near the end of Double Jeopardy, while Jackson had lost in a tie-breaker to the eventual winner of the 2019 Teen Tournament Avi Gupta. Interestingly, Jackson had already defeated his old rival Avi, in his semi-final victory.)
Like all other tournaments before them, this was a two day total point affair. In Game 1, Justin got off to a fast start in the Jeopardy round and maintained a lead for all of it. By the end of it Justin led with $900 to Jackson’s $4800 while Maya, who’d struggled quite a bit had just $2000.
Maya rebounded quickly in the early stages of Double Jeopardy when she found the Daily Double on the third clue of the round and doubled her score. Unfortunately for her, that was as close as she would get to her two opponents in Double Jeopardy that day. Jackson found the other Daily Double three clues later and cemented his lead. Justin and Jackson would get most of the clues correct and Maya would struggle throughout. Double Jeopardy ended with Justin in the lead with $18,401, Jackson at $14,000 and Maya at $4400.
Final Jeopardy was a very odd category: GEOGRAPHIC NAME’S THE SAME. “The busiest passenger port in the U.K, it shares it name with a capital of one of the original 13 states.” Jackson was the only player who knew the correct response: “What is Dover?” (The capital of Delaware was named for the closest U.K. port to the European Mainland.) Jackson add $10,000 to his score. At the end of Game 1, he had the advantage with $24,000 to Justin’s $13,570 and Maya’s $3370 (the wagers in Final Jeopardy throughout this tournament were odd when it came to the last two digits.)
In the early stages of the Jeopardy round of Game 2, it looked Jackson was about to shoot out to an early lead when he found the Daily Double on the fourth clue of the round, but it went against him and he lost everything. He rebuilt and had $3400 by the first break to Justin’s $2400 and Maya’s $1400. But when play resumed, both Justin and Jason responded incorrectly to a $1000 clue and a $600 clue in LET’S GET DIRTY and Maya managed to catch up (though she also got the $600 in that category wrong). When the round ended, it was much closer than the day before with $1200 separating Jackson in first from Maya in third.
In the early stages of Double Jeopardy, Justin and Jason continued to build their leads. Maya was not able to ring in at all until the eleventh clue of the round. Fortunately for her, she found the first Daily Double on the next clue in TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER. Knowing the odds were against, she bet $3000: “As her son Clotar II was an infant when he became king in 584 A.D, his mom Fredgund se4rved as this type of queen until he came of age.” Maya knew it was the queen regent, and added $3000 to her total. When she then got the $2000 and $1600 clues in YOU, ROBOT correct, she had a lead for the first time in the finals.
Jackson, who had been going up and down throughout Double Jeopardy, managed to find the second Daily Double in the category INSIDE BALLET AND OPERA. This category historically causes a lot of trouble for players on Jeopardy, younger ones in particular. But with $7200, Jackson had little choice and bet only $3200:
“This 8-letter piece of music comes before an opera and contains themes from the entire piece.”
Sadly, Jackson could not come up with ‘overture’ and dropped to $4000. Maya maintained her lead the rest of the round and when Double Jeopardy ended, it was a whole new ballgame. Maya had $14,200, Justin $11,000 and Jackson $5600.
The tournament came down to Game 2’s Final Jeopardy. The category was LANDMARKS. “After its completion in the late 19th century, it was called a ‘truly tragic street lamp’ and a ‘high and skinny pyramid of iron ladders.” All three players knew the correct response: “What is the Eiffel Tower?” It came down to wagering. Justin bet everything but $2 which gave him $11,198 for Game 2 and a two day total of $35,198. Justin bet $10,991, that gave him $21,991 and a two day total of $35,561. Maya wagered $7040, which gave her $21,240 and a two day total for $24,610. (Maya’s only chance of victory was if both Jackson and Justin had been incorrect and wagered too much; she had bet enough so that if they both bet everything she would have still had a margin to defeat them.) By the barest of margins, Justin Bolsen had won $100,000 and a spot in the next Tournament of Champions, both of which he completely deserved.
The High School Reunion Tournament had been everything a great Jeopardy Tournament should be thrilling, enjoyable with categories that reflected the participants (there were quite a few reference to REUNIONS on the show) as well as some that hadn’t been tried yet (there was a category referring to PANGRAMS, which are phrases that include every letter of the alphabet and the contestants had to name the word that had a ‘Q’ in it). It was as much fun for the players as it was for the audience and it clearly seemed that Bialik was enjoying this as much as everybody else. Some have degraded Bialik’s exuberance during the Tournament; I personally thought it was fitting giving the spirit de corps that everyone seemed to be having. I’m sorry Bialik is departing the series for a hiatus started today; this tournament reminded me how good she is at this.
I hope that there are future Reunion tournaments like this, perhaps going back a bit further than just the last few years. I also hope that the Teen Tournament itself is reinstituted after a nearly four year absence, and that the winners are invited back to compete in a Tournament of Champions. This tournament has reminded me just how much fun they can be, and I’d gladly start watching them again to remind me of players