It’s A Small Achievement, But Nevertheless Historic.
At the beginning of last night’s Jeopardy Mayim Bialik commented that the month of March was ending as it had begun with a female four-day champion –in this case, Jackie Kelly — attempting to qualify for the Tournament of Champions with her fifth win. (I’ll get to the results in a moment.) She also mentioned that in this month, there had been four female champions who each had won four games — Christine Whelchel, who won $73,602; Margaret Shelton who won $79,700 and Maureen O’Neil, who won $58,200. Jackie was by far the most successful, winning $115,100 in just four days.
Jackie’s run, sadly, ended last night when she was unable to come up with a correct response for Final Jeopardy and she was defeated by Evan Roberts. None of this, however, should take away from a feat that I’m certain almost nobody except even the most devoted fans of Jeopardy — and probably not even most of them — were aware of. March was the first month in Jeopardy’s 38 year history where four women all qualified for the Tournament of Champions. (There’s an asterisk to that, which I will get to in a minute.) It’s also the first time in the entire history that three consecutive female champions who had each one at least four games succeeded each other.
As long as I have been watching Jeopardy, there has been an underlying question as to why the male to female champion ratio has always been so disparate. Alex Trebek and Merv Griffin constantly had to come up with answers as to why, until 1994, all the Tournament of Champions winners had been male. Things have been improved since the turn of the century, but minutely: in the entire history of the Tournament of Champions, only three women — Rachael Schwartz in 1994; Robin Carroll in 2000, and Celeste DiNucci in 2007 — have ever won the Tournament of Champions. That’s actually kind of remarkable because in the entire history of the tournament of Champions, only twice have as many two female champions gotten to the finals: 1993 and last year. And in neither case did that result in one of the women winning: it went to Tom Nosek in 1993 and Sam Kavanaugh in 2021.
And to be clear, those two years were outliers. I’ve been watching Jeopardy for nearly thirty years and it was only in 1993 that there was anything resembling gender parity among the players who qualified for the Tournament of Champions: eight male contestants and seven female ones. In almost every Tournament of Champions I have watched ever since, it is often an outlier when there is even one female contestant that makes it to the finals. You can pretty much this to a standard for basically any of the other tournaments that Jeopardy has held since they returned to the airwaves in 1984: College Tournaments, Teachers Tournaments and Professor Tournaments: you can count the number of female winners in each pretty much on one hand. Hell, the only time I’ve even seen a final with three female contestants is in the Teen Tournaments and that’s only happened three times. That level of female dominance doesn’t get them very far, though; since 2000, Jeopardy would change it rules so that Teen Tournament winners don’t participate in the Tournament of Champions. (I have issues with that, but I’ll save that complaint for a different article.)
Given the scandals that surrounded Mike Richards’ departure as executive producer last year, it is easy to assume that their might be some sexism existing behind the scenes. That argument falls apart when you consider that these problems have been going on with Jeopardy since the series debuted. And no, I know damn well that men are not smarter than women, I’ve seen far too many brilliant female champions over the years give male champions a trouncing to fall into that bias.
The simplest explanation is probably the most likely one. It’s very hard for anybody to win five or more games on Jeopardy. And the fact that there have always been a disproportionate number of male competitors to female ones (for reasons that basically apply to every other aspect of life in America) has simply meant that there were more opportunities for male players than there were female ones.
Over the past decade, I have sensed a slow but gradual turn in the tide. The ratio of male to female contestants still slightly favors the former, but more and more women have been making their mark on Jeopardy. In 2014 Julia Collins would set the second place mark for most wins by any contestant to Ken Jennings with 20 wins. (As we have all seen, that record was shattered by Amy Schneider just this year.) In all but one of the last seven Tournament of Champions, there has been at least one female finalist and while no woman has won any of them, the last two years second place has gone to a female contestant: Emma Boettcher, who had already earned a place in Jeopardy history by defeating James Holzhauer (she came in second to him that year) and Jennifer Quail, who was one of three female champions who had won eight games the previous year. These may seem like minor accomplishment, but considering that seven of the first eight Tournaments of Champions combined had only one female finalist, it’s hard not to look at this as anything but progress.
And female contestants will make themselves known in November’s Tournament of Champions. Along with the four women who I listed above and Amy Schneider, the upcoming Tournament will feature Courtney Shah, who last year managed to win seven games and just under $120,000. At the current moment, the ratio of male to female champions qualified for the Tournament is 9 to 6, which reduced to 3:2. I realize that doesn’t quite seem like parity, but as someone who has been watching Tournaments of Champions for over thirty years, it’s a good year when there’s one female champion for every two males.
Now all of this comes with a codifier. The rules of Jeopardy state that automatic qualification for the Tournament of Champions only comes if you win five games. In my experience there have been countless years where there have been as many players who have won less than five games than there are who have won more, and it is conceivable there has been a rule change in the interim. That said if another player should win five games or more, the rules would dictate that the low scorer among the four day winners — in this Maureen O’Neill — would be dropped from being allowed to participate. And as we all know, it is only April. For all we know, three or four male contestants could win a lot of games in the next few months.
I think there have been some rules changes for qualifications the past few years, more relating to when a champion wins their games. So it is conceivable that Jeopardy, after Jackie’s win last night, will consider the roster for November’s Tournament locked and every subsequent winner will qualify for the next Tournament of Champions. This is one of those areas about the series that I’m unfamiliar with.
None of this should change the fact that it looks more and more like Season 38 of Jeopardy is going to be the Year of the Woman. Amy Schneider has set records on Jeopardy that are remarkable, more female champions are winning that pretty much at any time in the show’s history, and Mayim Bialik continues to impress every time she walks onstage. (Will she take the job permanently? I keep hoping.) And with nearly ten million viewers an episode, it is clear that the passing of Alex Trebek and all the backstage scandals no longer cast a shadow over the show. And tonight’s show ended with Nell Klugman thoroughly trouncing Evan. Who knows? Maybe she’ll be the next contestant to take a run at Ken Jennings. After all, ‘’This…is…Jeopardy!”