Jeopardy Champions For The Fortieth Anniversary Tournament (Possibly)

Part 1 of What Will Be An Occasional Series

She was the greatest Jeopardy player in history…for about a year.

Two weeks ago in one of my series of articles about Jeopardy, I mentioned that given the history of the show it is a very strong likelihood that there will be a very advanced tournament to commemorate its fortieth season on the air. (You can find it in my post on July 21st). To avoid repeating myself, I will simply say that I believed this tournament should follow one of the more successful models and include forty-five past champions; forty who I thought had earned it, and five who I thought the fans should vote on.

The standards for participants in Jeopardy tournaments are hard to measure. In their most recent tournament for their 35th Anniversary, the All-Star Games, only eighteen players were invited to participate, none of whom had competed prior to 2000, and some of whom were very questionable choices. So trying to figure out who will participate in such tournaments is always difficult, if not impossible to guess. Nevertheless, since Jeopardy will inevitably do one, I thought it might be worth looking at some of the most likely contenders to participate in it.

To review, the standards I thought that should qualify each participant were:

1) Every Tournament of Champions winner from 2000 on

2) Every Jeopardy champions whose won ten or more games (Ken Jennings obviously excluded)

3) Jeopardy champions who don’t fit either criteria but have been competed in either Battle of the Decades: The 2000s or The Jeopardy All-Star Games

4) Several selected finalists from Tournaments of Champions who finished second.

Since Jeopardy is now on hiatus, I think it would be worth looking at some of the champions who deserve to return. Some of them are choices that will be familiar to the most casual fan; others are either more obscure or enough time has gone by that they may have been forgotten. To that end, I intend to do a series of articles, each covering ten champions who I believe have earned their place, my reasons for thinking so, and some personal information. I intend to start at my cutoff point of 2000.

ROBIN CARROLL

Why she’s earned it: Back it what may seem like the dark ages for Jeopardy prior to the turn of the century, when the dollar figures for the Jeopardy round peaked at $500, there was a period where Robin Carroll was the biggest money winner in Jeopardy history. It didn’t last long — little more than a year — but that has nothing to dim her luster.

In 2000, Robin Carroll became only the second woman to win a Tournament of Champions (back then, the grand prize was ‘only’ $100,000). A little more than a year later, she represented the United States in what would be the last in a fleeting Jeopardy tradition: The International Tournament. Featuring competitors from eight other countries and only occurring three times in the show’s history, Robin won the third and last, winning an additional $50,000. Her combined winnings of $214,100 were the highest in the show’s history. (There’s an asterisk attached, but it’s not worth going over here.)

Every few years since then Robin has participated in Jeopardy’s super-tournaments — the Million Dollar Masters, the Ultimate Tournament of Champions and the Battle of The Decades — with mixed results each time. She was eliminated in the quarterfinals of Masters, was granted a bye to the second round of the UTC but lost badly and managed to make it to the quarterfinals of the Battle of the Decades before being eliminated. But given her history, I was stunned when she wasn’t invited to take part in the All-Star Games. When you are mentioned on A&E’s Biography for your part in Jeopardy, I think it’s clear how important you were to the series at a critical time.

PAM MUELLER

Why she’s earned it: In terms of chronology Pam Mueller went back the furthest of all the player’s in the Jeopardy All-Star Games, having won the November 2000 College Championship. And with deference to Robin Carroll, it would have made far less sense if Pam had been excluded.

After that win, Pam has never won a single Tournament. But the recent I’ve considered one of the all-time greats for nearly two decades is that from what seems to be an absurdly early age, Pam has been the equal or the superior of some of the greatest champions in Jeopardy history. This goes back to the Ultimate Tournament of Champions where out of a field of 144 players, she managed to become the youngest of six semi-finalists to compete for $2,000,000. Her competition in her semi-final match were no small potatoes — Frank Spangenberg, who for more than a decade held the record for most money won in five consecutive games; and Jerome Vered, who for nearly as long held the record for most money won in single game. In two games, Pam was the equal to both of them, finally being defeated by Jerome. Her winnings of $102,201 was the fifth highest total sum in a field of 145.

When she appeared in the Battle of the Decades, she defeated two Tournament of Champions winners in her first round match, went into Final Jeopardy of her quarterfinal leading two more (she eventually became a semi-finalist by wildcard) and held dead even with two other Tournament of Champions winners before being eliminated in Final Jeopardy. (I’ll actually discuss several of them in future articles.) That’s an impressive track record for a Jeopardy player who wasn’t much over 30 at the time. And when she ended up being drafted for the Jeopardy All-Star Games in 2019, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that her team made into the finals against teams led by Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings.

In thirty years of watching Jeopardy, Pam Mueller is, in my opinion, one of the ten best players to ever play the game. If she doesn’t make it back in two years time, something is wrong with the process.

Then he took over.

BRAD RUTTER

Why he’s earned it: I don’t think I need to write much about Brad Rutter because at this point, there’s nothing left to say about him. For nearly two decades, he has been the biggest money winner in the history of Jeopardy, and his name and Ken Jennings were intertwined for more than fifteen years. But even though Brad won far more money than Ken, and Brad was (until the Jeopardy Greatest of All Time series) the one player Ken Jennings could not beat, well I think this anecdote from the Battle of The Decades that Brad told (prior to beating Ken yet again for another million dollars) sums up Brad’s fate.

“Declan (Whitlock, the son of Shane, a participant in Brad’s first round) was introduced to me by Shane who said: “This is Brad Rutter. He’s won more money than anybody on Jeopardy. Declan looked at me, and said: ‘Where’s Ken?’ (Huge Laughter and applause) The story of my life!”

Brad Rutter is, along with Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer, pretty much the face of game show success; it’s small wonder the three of them were initially tied together as the leads in the new ABC game show The Chase. He remains, by a small margin, the biggest money winner in Jeopardy history. We know he’ll be participating next time. The question is, now that Ken is gone and players like Matt Amodio and Amy Schneider are present, can he regain his crown?

MARK DAWSON

Why He’s earned it: Sometimes the pioneers don’t get the credit they deserve. In 2003, Mark Dawson became the first winner of a Tournament of Champions where the grand prize was a quarter of a million dollars. That was significant when it happened, but when Ken Jennings started his streak, it became far less so to the point where Mark seems almost a footnote in the show’s history, not so much known for being the first at something but for being the last. He was one of the last players who, after winning five games, he also won a new sports car. (Jeopardy gave away cars for five day champions from 1996 to 2001.) And the day after he won his last game, Alex Trebek shaved his mustache (something he pointed out when he returned for the Battle of the Decades in 2014).

This is hardly fair to Mark. It doesn’t help that he was one of the last five day champions to win just prior to the dollar figures being doubled in November of 2001, so his total of $52,199 looks less impressive than it was at the time. But he has a very good history in Tournament play, making it to the second round of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions and the quarterfinals of the Battle of the Decades. And the fact that he has several key links to the show’s past as well as his future makes me think that he has more than earned the right to come back.

RUSS SCHUMACHER

Why He’s earned it: I will be honest here: Russ Schumacher is slightly less qualified to be on this list than the first four players I’ve listed. Most of it is due to the fact that he only won four games, which is admittedly a low number for any Jeopardy player. Now many four game winners have gone on to win the Tournament of Champions, but the lion’s share of them did so prior to removal of the five-game limit at the start of Season 20. Nor did Russ have the best track records with his wins; two were runaways, but he only got one Final Jeopardy in his original five appearances correct, and he only managed to qualify for the semi-finals of the 2004 Tournament of Champions via high score in wild-card and that was after being utterly crushed in his quarterfinal match. There’s a lot of luck involved for every Jeopardy champion but almost every element of it had to go right for Russ to end up the Tournament of Champions winner that year (not the least of which was Ken Jennings’ winning streak still going on while it was taking place).

But Russ’ participation in other Tournaments, particularly the Battle of the Decades where he managed to win two very difficult games based on good wagering on very tough Final Jeopardy, both while playing some of the greatest players in history, demonstrates that there was far more than mere luck involved in his winning. Russ Schumacher was very lucky to be sure but a lot of the players he managed to defeat were among the very best too, and for that reason, he deserves to take part in whatever tournament comes next.

To Be Continued….

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.