A Look Back At Jeopardy’s 2021 Tournament of Champions
With all the chaos that Jeopardy has been going through since Alex Trebek passed away last November, Jeopardy has needed a reason to prove that it could still be relevant to its fan base. The Tournament of Champions is usually the highpoint of the Jeopardy season and no doubt many wondered if the tournament could still work without Trebek. In my opinion, the answer was a resounding yes.
It helped immensely that the guest host was a former Tournament winner: Buzzy Cohen, whose triumphs I brought forth in an earlier article. Some fans may have been polarized by his performance behind the podium but standing at the lectern, he was everything Jeopardy needed. For starters, he had the right measure of enthusiasm and gravitas that the series has needed and several of the guest hosts have been lacking. For another, his experience gave the exact tone that was needed to host the show and interview his fellow champions, who were closer to his peers. He knew the right questions to ask, he knew the right measure of seriousness to bring to the game. When he referred to the contestants as ‘Champions’, it didn’t seem awkward at all. It seemed as though like were addressing like.
All of this would have been lacking if the fifteen champions — dating from as far back as July of 2019 had not been up the challenge. From beginning to end, they pretty much were. And like so many past tournaments, this one demonstrated that nothing can be taken for granted. Going into it, one might have thought that Jason Zuffraneri, who won 19 games and just over half a million dollars in Season 35 and 36, would’ve been the odds-on favorite. But as is often the case, he struggled in his quarterfinal match, was only able to qualify by a wild-card for the semis and ended up losing his semi-final game. Indeed, there were many surprise victories throughout the tournament and several exciting games.
When the smoke cleared, the three finalists would be Veronica Vichit-Vadakan, a Portland librarian (knowing books gives you an edge on Jeopardy) Sam Kavanaugh, a substitute teacher from Minnesota (teachers have always been among the biggest successes on this show) and Jennifer Quail, a wine-tasting consultant from Michigan, who’d won eight games and just over $230,000. (In her semi-final match, she had defeated Jason.)
In Game 1 of the two-day final, Veronica would get off to a fast start, which would eventually be supplemented by Sam responding correctly on a Daily Double in SHAKESPEARE CHARACTER FOOTBALL TEAM. (A very outside linebacker, this guy plays on an island; the son of a witch & a devil, he’s a beast out there. “Who is Caliban?” Only on Jeopardy.) Sam kept that lead and only increased it in Double Jeopardy despite a major effort by Jennifer. By the end of Double Jeopardy, he had $24,000 to Jennifer’s $11,000 and Veronica’s $8200.
Final Jeopardy was an odd category: MUSIC AND GEOGRAPHY: “In a British folk tune, the title lass Maggie May is sentenced to go way down south to this penal colony that rhymes with her name.” Both Sam and Jennifer knew the correct response: “What is Botany Bay?” Sam, however, bet big wagering $14000. He went into Game 2 with $38,000, $23000 more than his nearest opponent.
It was going to take a major effort for either Veronica or Jennifer to win the tournament after game 1, but neither was willing to throw in the sponge. Jennifer in particular fought hard, staying close to Sam for most of the Jeopardy round. She managed to leap into a big lead early on after a Daily Double went her way. However a little later, Sam found the other Daily Double in MATH CHAMPS and wagered the $7800 he had. ”Also known as Leonardo of Pisa, he knew a lot of numbers not just 1,1, 2,3,5,8” Sam knew this referred to Fibonacci, and jumped into a big lead. Jennifer stayed close to the end but by the time Double Jeopardy was over, Sam had locked up the Tournament.
No one ever goes through the motions in a Tournament final and we saw very quickly how fortunate Sam was because of his Daily Double early on. The Final Jeopardy category was EUROPEAN BORDERS and as you’d expect, it was very tough. “It’s still there, but none of the countries that bordered this country at the beginning of 1990 exist anymore. “ Only Jennifer knew the correct answer: “What is Poland?” (Czechoslovakia, The USSR, and East Germany no longer exist. Sam thought it was Hungary. (So did I, for the record.) But Sam had enough and ended up winning the grand prize of $250,000. There were tears in his eyes as the applause rang out. Jennifer won $100,000 for finishing second, and Veronica took home $50,000.
It is events like these that remind us fans of Jeopardy the reason we watch the show in the first place: Alex was a big reason to be sure, but it’s about the clues, the intellectual back and forth and the champions themselves. The producers did their part to remind us of that with the brilliant opening montage which showed footage of some of the greatest Jeopardy players in history — from Chuck Forrest to Brad Rutter and James Holzhauer, and yes, Buzzy Cohen himself — in their moments of triumph. This, as well as the exceptional work of Buzzy, that reminds us of why we stick with Jeopardy and why we’ll watch it. Bravo.