At 39, Jeopardy’s Doing Just Fine
Assessing the Current Season So Far
Well, we’re more or less a third of the way through the 39th Season of Jeopardy, and if it has been inferior to Season 38 at this same time last year, it is only because at that point, six players had already qualified for the Tournament of Champions, and at this point in Season 39, there are only three players who have gotten this far. (The show, of course, has a very good excuse why which I’ll get to below.) That is, to be sure, a very minor flaw in what is already proving to be an excellent season.
To be clear, only three players have managed to win the required five games to qualify for the next tournament of champions, which Ken Jennings has hinted may end up happening some time next season. (That remains to be seen as we usually need far more players to have qualified.) One, Luigi De Guzman began the season in fine fashion winning five games and $140,700. Then we spent much of October and up until the start of this month watching yet another great super-champion of the likes of Amy Schneider and Matt Amodio dominate the game as Cris Panullo managed to become fourth player in little more than calendar year to win more than 21 games. With nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in earnings, he is currently fifth on the all-time leader board of money won, trailing Schneider, Amodio, James Holzhauer, and of course Ken Jennings, who was suitably impressed by what he witnessed.
This last week another player added himself to the list of Tournament of Champions in the presence of Ray LaLonde, a quiet, mannered player who, like Mattea Roach, hails from Toronto. He is not nearly as dominant in his six wins, which have netted him over $160,000 to this point — only two of his wins have been runaways and he does not dominate the Daily Doubles the way that Schneider, Amodio or Panullo have. What he does have is a matter of either getting to a big lead early in the Jeopardy round, and if he was trailing at one point, managing to come back very quickly. He is very self-effacing — at this point he knows just how fortunate he has been in his run — and it remains to be seen just how far he will end up going. (I’m writing this article before his seventh appearance.) On an editorial note, I find myself admiring him more than some of the other super-champions mainly because of his modesty and his charm. He may not go as far as some of the big winners, but he’s a good addition to the canon of great Jeopardy champions already.
Of course, the main reason that we haven’t had as many players who have qualified for next year’s Tournament of Champions is that we’ve spent more than a third of the current season getting ready for this year’s one. And that has itself provided some great drama. This October marked the first ever Second Chance Tournament, where eighteen players who had been denied victory on Jeopardy were invited to compete for a slot in the upcoming Tournament of Champions. I’m still not certain whether this is something that deserves to be repeated in recent years, but I can’t deny that it provided more than its share of drama and engaging play. Both final matches were thrilling to watch and Jessica Stephens and Rowan Ward more than earned their spots among the Tournament of Champions.
This was followed by a much more elaborate Tournament of Champions then those of us who have spent decades watching the show as eighteen quarterfinalists battled it out in six matches to earn spots to face off against Mattea Roach, Matt Amodio and Amy Schneider, who had all been granted byes to the semifinals. Then came an unprecedented exhibition match, which was entertaining if nothing else. Then in the semi-finals, fans of the show were once again shown that nothing in a Tournament of Champions is certain as Matt Amodio was run off the road by Sam Buttrey and Mattea Roach was decimated by Andrew He. Only Schneider had no problem getting to the finals.
Once again, those used to the traditional two-day total point affair were thrown a major curve as the format changed to a best-of-seven method where the first player to win three games would win the grand prize. I had major doubts about this approach going into the finals but having witnessed in action, I have changed my mind again. All six matches were among the most thrilling in Jeopardy history, with no runaways in a single game and all three players competitive until the last Final Jeopardy was revealed. There were fictious controversies and possible real ones, fun and utter excitement. And when it ended, the best player managed a hard-fought and much deserved victory with Amy Schneider becoming a quarter of a million dollars richer and currently putting herself fourth all time on the money won board behind Holzhauer, Jennings and Brad Rutter. In addition, the world was thrilled by the risk-it-all play of Andrew He (who had famously been defeated by Schneider when the latter began her streak) and Professors Tournament Winner Sam Buttrey, who almost certainly won the hearts of millions of Jeopardy fans with his brilliant play and incredible humor both in the interview segments and how he played the game. Not since the days of Austin Rogers has a player won the hearts and minds of the world the same way. I hope to see all three players on the Alex Trebek Stage some point down the line.
In addition to the three players who have already punched their ticket to the Tournament (a fourth, David Sibley who managed to win four games before being beaten by Cris Panullo, may very well end up there as well), there have been call-backs to the world of Jeopardy. Early this season, a player who’d competed on the show in the era of Art Fleming came back nearly half a century later and managed to win nearly $30,000 — considerably more than her first appearance. Before Ryan defeated him, we made the acquaintance of Sean McShane, whose cousin Dan had won four games in 2012 and made it to the semi-finals of the 2013 Tournament of Champions. In a sense, Sean was not as good as his cousin, winning just three games, but he did win more than $80,000 which is significantly more than Dan’s $62,000. (The next McShane family reunion will be…interesting.) And Jennings continues to fit more and more into his role as host, demonstrating his knowledge of the show’s past and an increasingly wry sense of self-deprecating humor. Earlier this month, when a clue that referred to H & R Block came up and a contestant responded correctly, Ken replied: “I did not know that.” (Ken’s original streak came to an end when he couldn’t come up with that company’s name in Final Jeopardy.)
It remains to be seen when Mayim Bialik will take over her shift running the regular game: I believe it will happen at some point in the new year. She has spent the fall hosting the prime-time Celebrity Tournaments, the one Jeopardy tournaments I have not been watching for reasons I made painfully clear in an article earlier this year. (Based on the reviews from TV Guide and the scores of the games, I feel justified in ignoring them.) But her next major duty will occur in February of 2023 when Jeopardy will hold its first Teen Reunion Tournament in a quarter of a century. Focusing on twenty-seven former players who are now either in or have recently graduated from college, the winner of this tournament will win, in addition to $100,000, something no Teen Tournament winner of any kind has gotten in more than twenty years — a spot in the next Tournament of Champions. As someone who fondly remembers the play of some former greats as Eric Newhouse and Matt Zielinski (trust me, you’ll want to look them up) in both Tournament of Champions and beyond, I fully endorse this blast from the past. I also hope that both the College Championship and the newly designed Professors Tournament are on the docket some time in 2023, considering how many thrills there were in each, and how much pleasure both of the eventual winners brought to the Tournament of Champions.
Season 39 of Jeopardy is firing on all cylinders just as much as Season 38 did — with the added benefit of a live audience for the first time since the pandemic ended. You have to imagine the studio audience is having just as much fun as the average viewer is, and it’s just as much as a sign that Jeopardy has shaken off the controversies that followed after the passing of the legendary Alex Trebek and shown that the game itself has the power to transcend one of the most iconic figures of all time. Trebek himself could not be prouder, and fans like me couldn’t be happier.