Does Jeopardy Have A Problem With Minority Contestants?
The Answer Is… Complicated
In this past week, Yogesh Raut, a blogger and podcaster who has just recently won three games and over $96,000 on Jeopardy, has been the subject of some controversy. He made many comments about his appearance on the show, some of which pertained to his blog. To be clear, many of them smack of sexism and homophobia and his berating of the writing who exposed the sexual history of Matt Richards as ‘adonyne’ is bizarre and his berating the entire idea that some how the show he was a a part of was a waste of time and not the mantle of quizzing really makes you wonder why he tried out for the show in the first place. Don’t get me started on his rant on Amy Schneider. But even a broken clock is right twice a day. And among them was the fact that Jeopardy has never had a great history and has in fact been prejudiced towards allowing people of color to appear on the show.
In a way, I’ve been waiting for this shoe to drop for a very long time. A year and a half ago, at the height of the controversy surrounding Mike Richards (which I guess Yogesh would consider ‘overblown’) I wrote a very detailed article in which I put forth very bluntly that Jeopardy has never had a very good history when it comes to its biggest winners. In that article, I spent most of my time dealing with the show’s very problematic history in regards to female champions over its entire run. With Raut’s recent commentary, I feel it is time to address the problem the show has with non-white contestants. I’m not necessarily saying that they’re true, but as someone who has watched the series for more than thirty years, I know its very easy to take the perception that its true. And the more you look at the history of Jeopardy champions, that perception becomes impossible to avoid.
I’ve referred in this blog on multiple occasions to the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005, what would amount to a nearly four-month long affair featuring 144 former champions battling it out to face off against Ken Jennings for $2 million. I don’t deny that the lion’s share of the players I saw were not among the greatest to play the game. But I can’t deny that anyone who wanted to argue that Jeopardy was a show where only white men ended up winning would have had ample evidence to back up that statement. I spent of much my article about Jeopardy’s women issues by illustrating that in this tournament, male competitors outnumbered female ones by a ratio of four to one. What I left out of that discussion was that when it came to minority competitors, the numbers were much, much worse.
Among the 145 competitors in this tournament, only eleven of them were players of color. (This statistic, while bad enough on its own, is actually far worse than it sounds, as I’ll explain momentarily.) There was only one African-American player who had won five games in regular competition: Michael Rankins whose original appearance on Jeopardy had been in 1988. There were only three other players who had qualified as undefeated five-time champions: Al Lin, who had won five games in 1993 and Babu Srinivasan, who’d won five games in 2001, and Lan Djang, who’d also won five games in 2001. (Djang, I should add, was from Toronto.)
As to the seven other competitors of color, all of them were there because they had previously won Teen or College Tournaments. Bernard Holloway, who’d won the Teen Tournament in 2002, was the only African-American among them; the remainder were of Indian or Asian descent. And with the exception of Sahir Islam, who had won the Teen Tournament in 1997, the remainder had all won their tournaments within the previous five years.
This actually leads to a codicil that may or may not have any meaning. After the 2000 Tournament of Champions, winners of Teen Tournaments were no longer given invitations to participate in such Tournaments. This decision has always baffled me. Many, if not most, of the previous winners had done superbly in the Tournament of Champions they had been a part of. Several other Teen Tournament winners in the Ultimate Tournament of Champions would demonstrate a level of skill worthy of the greats, with two Matt Zielinski and April McManus making it all the way to the quarter-finals. So why were only Teen Tournament winners removed and College and Teachers Tournament winners allowed to proceed? I don’t have an answer even now. All I know is that there have been a greater percentage of female and minority winners in this tournament than any other Tournament in the show’s history. Am I seeing something that isn’t there? I just don’t know.
What I do know is that I think Jeopardy has far too often been concerned with optics when you wouldn’t think it should be. Three years prior to the Ultimate Tournament of Champions, the show had its first million dollar tournament in New York City: the Million Dollar Masters Invitational. Even at the time, I questioned the champions that the show was inviting to participate, though it was more for quality of the players rather than racial or sexual makeup. And one of the players I consider the most questionable was Claudia Perry, who’d won four games and had been a semi-finalist in the 1998 Tournament of Champions.
To be clear, Perry was then and still is a superb player: her performance in the Million Dollar Masters more than demonstrated it. It does not change the fact that even among female champions, Claudia would not have been among the ones meeting the show’s not admittedly wide net. There had been other female players who’d won more money who didn’t get invited to this tournament. There had been others who have had a better history in tournaments to this point. Why was Claudia invited? The cynical part of me then thought it was because she was an African-American woman. It wasn’t until years after the fact that I realized that my cynicism might very well be grounded in history. (For the record, because she’d only won four games, Claudia didn’t meet the qualifications to participate in the Ultimate Tournament of Champions so she did not participate. Ironically, her absence from this tournament while her inclusion in the previous one is one that I thought was one of the most egregious of the producers on purely gender-related grounds.)
Now, in the interest of balance, I have to tell you that in the nearly twenty years since the conclusion of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions, Jeopardy’s track record with minority contestants has improved, at least when it come those players who qualify for the Tournament of Champions. Starting with Vik Vaz, who ended up winning second place in the 2006 Tournament of Champions, there have been, with only one exception, at least one person of color in every Tournament of Champions that have occurred since then. In 2010, Vijay Balse became the first player to be the first person of color to win a Tournament of Champions (he was born in Bombay and eventually moved to New Jersey) Two years later, Colby Burnett became the first African-American to win a Tournament of Champions and has become one of the most successful players in the show’s history. This increase of minority players does not necessarily mean they are free of controversy (Arthur Chu, who won eleven games and nearly $300,000 in 2014, has become one of the most divisive figures on the Internet) but it does show progress, however incremental it might seem from the outside.
Furthermore, in recent Tournaments, players from other races are becoming more and more popular among fans of the show. The performances of Leonard Cooper in the 2013 Teen Tournament, Monica Thieu in the 2013 College Championship and Lilly Chin in the 2017 College Championship has won them fandoms across the Internet, and in the case of Cooper and Thieu, the chance to participate in the All-Star Tournament years later. (Chin was invited as an alternate.) In recent years, super-champions are also beginning to emerge among the non-white competitors, most notably Ryan Long who managed to win sixteen games and just under $300,000 in Season 38. Andrew He’s standout performance in the 2022 Tournament of Champions, where he defeated Amy Schneider twice in six games, has earned him the right to participate in the newly formed Masters Tournament which will air later this year.
Now I won’t dare pretend the problems that Raut raised in his podcast don’t exist or that these recent improvements by minority places mean the arguments he has raised are unwarranted. Hell, I’m still not convinced that one of the larger issues of the show — the lack of female champions — is anywhere close to being resolved in a favorable fashion. This season alone makes this argument very clear: we’re nearly a hundred games in and we have yet to have any females who have qualified for the Tournament of Champions. Hell, we don’t even have a female contestant whose won more than twice. (In fairness, Season 39 hasn’t been a typical season, but still.) These are issues that have to be addressed by Jeopardy. I give credit to them to treating Yogesh’s quotes with genuine respect. I’d want to expunge his episode from the show’s history if I were them. But I am convinced that the producers are at least trying a little harder in recent years to deal with some of the issues Raut raised in his blog. I’m not saying it’s anywhere near enough, but I think the problems are not as horrible as they were when I started watching the show nearly thirty years ago. That has to count for something.