If You’ve Never Watched The Show Before… Well, Read This Article Anyway.
A couple of months ago in this blog I tried to answer whether or not this is the era of Peak Jeopardy. I still have seasons I have fonder memories of, but in terms of the level of champions that have appeared on the series in just one year, we are officially in unprecedented times in the series entire thirty-eight year history.
Last night, after Mattea Roach officially breathed the hallowed air of 19 games won, Jeopardy reached a record that it has never had in the nearly two decades since champions were allowed to win until they were beaten. This is the first time in Jeopardy’s history that four champions have won eleven or more games in a single season — Matt Amodio, Amy Schneider, Mattea Roach and Jonathan Fisher, whose eleven wins and more than a quarter of a million dollars won would have been enough to lead all comers in almost any season but this one. In the history of the series it has been a long time since this many great players appeared on Jeopardy in close succession — the nearest parallel in 2016 when several of Jeopardy’s all time greats appeared within a few months of each other. I speak of names such as Buzzy Cohen, who win that year’s Tournament of Champions, Austin Rogers, who went viral while almost incidentally winning over $400,000 in twelve days, Alan Lin, who would fill out the 2017 Tournament of Champions finals that year and Seth Wilson who won twelve games and over $260,000 but couldn’t get past the quarterfinals in that years Tournament. Not one of them has won nearly as much money as the three nineteen game winners this year.
Ken Jennings has every right to be impressed with the great play of Mattea Roach — he of all people has every right to appreciate a great winning streak. That being said, it is clear that as great Mattea is and as entertaining as she to watch play, she is not nearly at the level of Matt Amodio or Amy Schneider. Most of her games have not been nearly as one sided as Matt’s or Amy’s (though admittedly she has been in a single-player Final Jeopardy, something neither of them ever managed to accomplish in their runs) and she is lagging far behind them in terms of money won. At this point in Matt’s run, he’d won well over $640,000 while Amy had won nearly three quarters of a million dollars. Mattea’s winnings of $460,184 at this point quite understandably would look like chump change in comparison. Part of this is because of how Mattea approaches the game — she tends to start at the top of the categories and work her way down and she has never bet very big on most of the Daily Doubles she has found (something she admonishes herself on every time she gets one right). As a result, she hasn’t had nearly as many of the utter romps that Matt and Amy have had, the ones she has had runaways won have been modest ones at best (she’s been in the position of having one player have exactly half her total on two occasions so far, leaving almost no wiggle room.) and she’s had more than her share of incorrect Final Jeopardy responses, which has led to games she has been lucky to win. (Indeed, it is because of the modesty of a player who could have defeated her had she wagered enough in Final Jeopardy that her winning streak didn’t end after nine games. Which still would have been impressive, for the record.)
However, only in comparison to those same players does Mattea’s performance look unimpressive. Compared to three previous contestants to make it to nineteen wins, Mattea compares very well. For perspective, let’s look at the three players who managed to get to this number and then had their streak ended then or just after: David Madden, who won nineteen games in 2005 between Seasons 21 and 22 (the second place total behind Ken Jennings for nearly a decade) Julia Collins, who won 20 games in 2014 (second until James Holzhauer broke it in 2019) and Jason Zuffranieri, who won 19 games in 2019, across Season 35 and 36:
Mattea Roach: $460,184
David Madden: $430,400
Julia Collins: $410,000
Jason Zuffranieri: $532. 496
When Julia Collins’ streak ended two days later, she had won $428,100, so her record for a female contestant in a regular season run has been surpassed for the second time this year. I think Julia’s gracious enough to handle it.
Julia’s approach to the game was the closest to Mattea’s: she went category by category and wagered small on Daily Doubles. David would search the board for the Daily Doubles in both the Jeopardy and Double Jeopardy round and would build insurmountable (but not enormous leads) Jason’s play was closer to Julia’s in going through clues, but he would wager more on Daily Doubles.
Because Mattea will participate in the 2022 Tournament of Champions and, like Matt and Amy, almost certainly be asked back to play in future tournaments, it is worth noting that the three players I’ve compared Mattea to have had decidedly mixed success in their respective Tournaments of Champions. Neither David nor Jason was able to make it into the Finals at all. Julia did make it into the Finals of her Tournament but ended up finishing third to Ben Ingram. (Like most Jeopardy champions, Julia doesn’t hold grudges; the two have since become very close friends.) Both Julia and David appeared in the Jeopardy All-Star Games in 2019, which for those of you who didn’t read an earlier entry was a tournament where the players competed as part of a team. Julia was named captain of her own team (and chose Ben to play alongside) but do mostly to her own poor play, her team was the first eliminated. David was chosen to play on Brad Rutter’s team; still the winningest player in Jeopardy and thanks in large part to his play, Team Brad was able to share in a prize of one million dollars.
Earlier this year I wrote a longer article in which I considered whether this season should be considered the Year of the Woman for the show. Given the play of Mattea Roach and Amy Schneider, along with the fact that four other women have now qualified for this year’s Tournament of Champions, I think it is fairly safe to say this is a very accurate description as well. Granted, since three of the women who are currently eligible have only won four games, there is still a very valid possibility that a male contestant could win more than four games and therefore knock one of them out of contention. Mattea herself did so when she won her fifth game and eliminated Maureen O’Neill, whose score of $58,200 was the lowest of the four female champions who each won four games in March. ’Jackie Kelly, who won $115,100 likely has a safe place. It remains to be seen whether Christine Whelchel’s score of $73,602 or Margaret Shelton’s $79,700 will hold up. In most seasons they would be sufficient, but as this article has indicated, this is not most seasons, and there are nearly three months to go before the end of Season 38.
I must add almost in passing how great a job both Ken Jennings and Mayim Bialik have been doing as hosts this season. Bialik seems to have a good handle on the history of the show (she handled the succession of female champions particularly well) and Jennings seems to be having an absolute ball hosting during Mattea’s run. He seems to delight in coming up ways to salute her: he gave a tribute to Canada two weeks ago, listed great things about the number sixteen when Mattea had won sixteen games, and seemed impressed that she has achieved such remarkable accomplishment at just the age of 23. (By coincidence, Brad Rutter won his first million dollar tournament when he was only 24. Could similar great things be ahead for Mattea?)
This is a great time to be watching Jeopardy, and based on the fact that it seems to be averaging ten million viewers an episode, a lot of people are now. Whoever ends up hosting Jeopardy will have a lot to do to be worthy of Alex Trebek. But the champions now playing on the studio named for him have been more than been worthy of him and Jeopardy. I look forward to seeing what happens in May.