Are We In The Golden Age of Jeopardy?
An Answer That I, As A Scholar of Jeopardy, Shall Attempt to Give
Last week I saw an ad for a podcast come up on Apple that asked in its headline if we were in the Golden Age of Jeopardy. As someone who has been watching the show for more than three decades by now and who has studied it rigorously for the past decade, I have considered the question myself quite as Season 38 has unfolded. Now that the halfway point of the current season has been reached, I think a serious look at the issue should be considered.
First let’s look at the obvious. Even the most biased of Alex Trebek partisans has to admit this is a damn good time to be the watching the show. In the space of less than four months, two of the greatest champions in the history of Jeopardy — hell, in all of game show history — have been on the series. Matt Amodio and Amy Schneider each completed a run that is practically unparalleled in the show’s history and seems unthinkable that they would happen within a month of each other. When two players win roughly 1.5 million dollars and a ridiculous number of runaway games in those incredible streaks its hard to think of a time when you’ve witnessed such great play. Throw in the fact that in the interim Jonathan Fisher managed to win eleven games and just under $300,000 — a total that in almost any other season would be enough to lead the pack — and it’s hard to think that there ever was a period of such sustained extraordinary game play.
To answer an all too obvious question, no, there are no real parallels to this in the entire history of Jeopardy. So we can’t use this as a contour for whether this is the true Golden Age. If we widen the parameters, however, there are some interesting comparisons that I think fans of the show would recognize.
First we have to acknowledge that, as great as dozens of champions were in the pre-Ken Jennings era, it is unlikely, if not impossible to compare any of that season at that level. With apologies to some of the all time greats — I/m thinking primarily of Chuck Forrest, Frank Spangenberg and Jerome Vered — we really can’t make such comparisons comparing five time champions against each other with so many of the players in the post double dollar figures and unlimited winning streaks era. Having seen many of them perform, I realize this does almost all of them a huge disservice and I am reluctant to just dismiss them, but since we are trying to compare eras rather than champions, I believe I must do so.
So, are there periods in the post Jennings era that could be favorably compared? I think there are a few seasons that do merit comparison:
Season 21: This season was dominated by the back half of Ken Jennings original winning streak and would end with what for nearly a decade would be the beginning of the player who won the second most games, David Madden (he won 19). The season also featured the Ultimate Tournament of Champions, the most elaborate (to date) tournament in the series history, featuring 144 players competing over a nearly four month period to face off against Ken Jennings for a $2 million prize. It would end in late May with Brad Rutter eventually defeating Jennings and Jerome Vered. The season also included the 2004 Tournament of Champions, a hard fought battle eventually won by Russ Schumacher.
Season 30: At the center of the season was the Battle of The Decades, a tournament that featured fifteen players from each ten year period in the series history (labeled as the 1980s, the 1990s and the 2000s) competing to win a $1 million cash prize. The tournament featured every single Tournament of Champions winner save for two (one had passed away, one was unavailable) and several other players who had achieved series milestones. In my opinion, it is the best super tournament the series has done in his thirty year history. Several superb champions also played over the course of the season, including Julia Collins, whose twenty wins and $428,100 were high-water marks for a female contestant until Amy Schneider came along and Arthur Chu, who despite being arguably the most controversial contestant in Jeopardy history for his post show behavior nevertheless managed to win eleven games and nearly $300,000 in his initial appearance.
Season 35: Until recently this was pretty close to the gold standard, and part of the reason TV Guide actually put the show on the top ten shows of 2019. It is remembered most for James Holzhauer’s incredible run of 32 wins in which he won just over $2,460,000, coming within a hair of overturning Ken Jennings all time record for money won, as well as the revelation of Alex Trebek being diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer that would kill him a little less than two years after his announcement of it. But there was a lot else to make the season memorable. The Jeopardy All-Star Game, an anniversary tournament that featured eighteen players competing as members of a team, featured some of the all time great Jeopardy players, including Austin Rogers and Buzzy Cohen two of the most recent of the all time greats. There were also a number of superb champions throughout the season, and indeed the season ended with the arrival of another Jeopardy champion who must be ranked among the greatest of all time: Jason Zuffranieri who would eventually win nineteen games and over half a million dollars, both among the top ten in Jeopardy records.
So considering all this how does the current season, not even halfway done, rank in comparison when we consider it to be the Golden Age of Jeopardy? This is a very tough needle to thread, but as a historian of the show I will do my best to answer it. First, let’s consider the pros and cons of each season:
Season 21: Pros: If you love Ken Jennings this was the season for you. Adding up the thirty six wins he had to start the seasons and his appearance in the Final of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions, Jennings was in a little less than 20% of the games. Watching him breaking the $2 million mark and set records in games won and money won that, despite the best efforts of so many, have never been threatened was remarkable. And the first appearance against Brad Rutter, who he would spend the next fifteen years dueling with for the position of Greatest of all time, is a crossroads in game show history.
The Ultimate Tournament itself was the most ambitious tournament the show has done to date and featured some truly remarkable play as well as some incredible upsets in the history of Jeopardy, as many Tournament of Champions winners would never make it past the first or second round. This led to the rise of some truly memorable players included Jerome Vered (who would eventually face off against Brad and Ken in the finals) and Pam Mueller, whose incredible play against champions decades older than her ranks her among the greatest of all time. And for those of us who miss the days of the Seniors Tournament, many of these matches would be satisfying to those of us who believe that players in their fifties and sixties are as good as the much younger ones. Add to this the beginning of David Madden’s remarkable run to cap the season and this had some of the most remarkable play as well as some of the toughest Final Jeopardy clues of all time.
Con: As much as I loved the Ultimate Tournament of Champions (I taped it when it was on the air in 2005 and rewatch it religiously every year) I must admit it was a very unwieldy affair. Selections for the participants were somewhat arbitrary (you had to have won five games and a certain amount of money in your original run), it had a way too big male to female ratio (there were four male competitors for every woman) and the selections for nine seeded players to get byes to the second round had odd qualifications and, considering that most of those seeded players ended up getting defeated in Round 2, didn’t seem to be much of an advantage. Granted there were a lot of excellent games in the first two rounds and it did show some of the greatest players to their advantage, but I’m not sure whether a tournament that took up nearly a third of the season and actually ending in something of an anticlimax was worth the time. (To their credit, the show learned from this and made modification in tournaments to come.)
Season 30: Pros: The thirtieth season centered on the Battle of the Decades and would feature fourteen players from each decade — the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s, plus a fan favorite from a selection of five players that the fans would vote for online. Unlike the Ultimate Tournament of Champions, this tournament was a much more organized affair and was parceled out rather than lumped together. Round 1 for the 1980s took place in February, the 1990s in March, and the 2000s in April, with the two week championship being played out in a regular Jeopardy format for almost every other Tournament of Champions in May.
In my opinion the Battle of the Decades is the best super tournament Jeopardy has ever had. Featuring all but one of the living Tournament of Champions winners (Bob Blake, who won the 1990 Tournament was touring and could not participate) as well as several players who made several ambitious marks in their original run (eight of the players from the 1980s and 1990s had, among other accomplishments, participated in the Million Dollar Masters in 2002). Even some of the contenders I considered questionable at the time are, in retrospect, some of the finest ever assembled. (David Madden, for the record, was invited to this tournament, but because of ethical considerations thought he shouldn’t compete.) Of the forty five players, there were only two whose presence I thought was questionable and one of those was a fan choice that I didn’t agree with, so that may be a personal prejudice on my part.
The quality of play in this tournament was superb from beginning to end. In the initial fifteen qualifying games, only two were runaways and one of those only became one on the last correct response. Thirteen of the winners were Tournament of Champions winners, one was Ken Jennings, and the last Pam Mueller continued her streak of being one of the best players in Jeopardy history. I wasn’t entirely happy without they arranged the quarterfinals as they seemed to favor the younger players more than the old, but most of those matches were exciting as well. And the two game final — which in addition to featuring Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, also featured Roger Craig who had broken Ken Jennings one day record of $75,000 in his original run — was thrilling, heartbreaking and though Brad ended up winning, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion until Final Jeopardy on Game 2.
The regular seasons also featured several good champions — it started out with a seven game run by Jared Hall who won nearly $181,000 and as I said featured superb play by Arthur Chu and Julia Collins, both who deserve extra credit for being able to manage so many wins while dealing with extended hiatuses because of the Battle of the Decades.
Con: The fact that Arthur Chu, who may be considered the most unpopular player in entire history of Jeopardy, had his run here may color ones opinion of this season. Still that’s a minor caveat in the season that, in addition to the Battle of the Decades featured nine players who would qualify for the Tournament of Champions.
Season 35: There are a lot of reasons to favor Season 35, but the biggest arguments in its favor are, as I said, the All-Star Tournament and James Holzhauer’s original run. The All-Star did feature some of the greatest players of that era, had moments of genuine drama and excitement and ended on a thrilling moment. James Holzhauer’s run is one of the most towering achievements in game show history and the game in which he was dethroned by Emma Boettcher was one of the greatest in Jeopardy history — there was only one incorrect response and one clue left uncovered And Season 35 ended with three champions having runs within succession of each other — Ryan Bilger, who won four games and just over $100,000, Sam Kavanaugh (who ended up winning the 2021 Tournament of Champions) who won $156,202 and Jason Zuffranieri who closed it out beginning his nineteen game run which would eventually land him in third place in money won in their original run. Any other year, those three players would be considered among the greatest.
Cons: I had doubts about the All-Star Tournament from its inception. It wasn’t just the idea of team play (an unwieldy concept which I later learned even Alex Trebek had doubts about). It was the fact that the eighteen players only represented the previous twenty years of the show and indeed the lion’s share were from the past decade, with only a handful from the Battle of the Decades being chosen to compete. Granted I had no problem with almost all of those players — most of them had either won the Tournament of Champions or set remarkable streaks in their initial run — and I certainly had no problem with Austin Rogers, Buzzy Cohen and Julia Collins being ranked in the same breath with Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter and even Colby Burnett. But I had serious doubts about the qualifications of three of the players who were selected to compete (though to be fair, in the actual Tournament all three more than acquitted themselves when it came to game play.)
As for the actual play, once you got used to the set up most of the games were fairly exciting (and indeed Brad Rutter, who had been undefeated in his entire Jeopardy career came as close as he ever had to losing a game in the first match.) Still for all the buildup and thrills as well as really tough clues, the fact remains it pretty much ended the same way as the Ultimate Tournament had — Brad (well, his team) trouncing the opposition in the final. I loved the Tournament; I just think they could have used a better format.
As for James Holzhauer, well, much of the time watching him I felt the same kind of fatigue that so many people felt this year when Matt Amodio and Amy Schneider were in the middle of their runs. It was historic to watch it, but not a lot of fun, especially if you were playing along at home. Still you can’t exactly deny that he is one of the greatest of all time — the show did as much the very next year.
Bearing all that in mind, how does the current season rank up? We’ve already had two of the greatest players of all time, along with an eleven game winner and we’ve also had two other players qualify for the Tournament of Champions before the season is halfway over. The main argument that doesn’t make me automatically qualify is the fact that we haven’t had any special anniversary Tournaments and it is unlikely the Tournament of Champions, almost always the high point of any Jeopardy season, will be played this season. That said, we have had some new and interesting tournaments in the interim
There was the Professors Tournament, a variation on annual Teachers Tournament that focused on college professors. I must admit that the game play was more competitive than I’d expected and a lot of the Final Jeopardy questions far more difficult then I’m used to for many of these tournaments. The winner Sam Buttrey was impressive in his performance and more than earned the title.
I had my doubts the National College Championship which just finished airing yesterday. I’ve enjoyed the College Tournaments Jeopardy has had for as long as I’ve been watching the show and wasn’t entirely convinced that the changes to the format — 36 players instead of fifteen, eventually coming down to four semi-final matches to come up with three winners — seemed more designed for prime-time TV than real competition. However, having watched the entire tournament I confess I have changed my mind. While I found a lot of the quarterfinal matches disappointing in their quality, I thought many of the winners impressive and the semi-final matches themselves were beyond thrilling. (One of them was so tightly played we had the rarity of an actual tiebreaker to determine the ultimate winner.) The finals were slightly anticlimactic, but that is the case of so many tournaments. The question remains will the winner ending up going to compete in this year’s Tournament of Champions? I’m actually not sure. I look forward to finding out.
And considering the controversy that this year started with, there’s an argument that this season it is a great triumph for the show. Within a matter of days true fans have been able to put behind all of controversy over arguments with the hosting and producing and focus on two players who now go on the short list for the greatest of all time. It has been delightful watching Matt and Amy play and comparing their runs to the other greats. It’s also been interesting watching Jennings himself be impressed by Amy’s run when he came into to resume hosting the show. Both he and Bialik have done a superb job and while there’s no clear idea who will get full-time duties, both have more than shown themselves worthy of the job.
Final thought: is this the true Golden Age of Jeopardy? I may need to wait until the end of the season to know for sure. Right now, I’m still leaning towards the 30th Season as the show’s personal GOAT. Is this a great time to be watching Jeopardy? Absolutely. The best time will no doubt be when the current ranks of the great come to face each other sometime in the near future. Then we’ll revisit the question — or should I say the answer.