Potential Jeopardy Champions for the Fortieth Anniversary Tournament
Part 2 In A Continuing Series
With the next group, we officially enter the era of Ken Jennings with this group of five possibilities, which starts making my job a whole lot more difficult. Obviously Jennings’ himself will not be taking part in any future tournaments (except as host) but it does give us a new set of problems.
There are arguments for players such as Sean Ryan, the first champion to win six games, or Tom Walsh, the first champion to win seven, numbers that were significant even five or six earlier but in the past three or four years seems positively miniscule. Both men participated in the 2004 Tournament of Champions; Ryan was eliminated in the first round; Walsh finished second to Russ Schumacher. Both were also given byes into the second round of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions, and both men lost, though not without distinction.
I would argue there should be some recognition for pioneers in this field, but neither man has been invited back to any future tournaments, and with the passage of time their trailblazing accomplishments look insignificant with each passing year. So reluctantly, I find myself dismissed them both and moving on to the next five.
Why he’s earned it: Chris Miller may not seem like an obvious choice compared to Walsh or Ryan. Indeed, his major accomplishment in his initial run was being the only player to win exactly five games in all of 2004. He won a fairly impressive amount, to be sure — over $123,000 in his initial run, almost the same amount as Ryan did in six games — but even in the Tournament he played in during 2004, that wasn’t that impressive. Six other players won $100,000 or more. Indeed, Chris only managed to make into semi-finals wild card and even then it was more due to so many other quarterfinalists not having impressive scores for wildcards.
The reason I am pushing for Chris is because of his superb play in the Ultimate Tournament of Champions the following year. Just like Pam Mueller in the first set of possibilities, Chris managed to make it all the way to the semi-finals. If anything, he faced a bigger set of obstacles that Pam did to get to the finals — one of his fellow champions was Brad Rutter himself. It says a lot about the kind of player Chris was that he was tied with him for second place in the first semi-final match and was right on top of him at the end of the Jeopardy round in Game 2 before Brad came to life and started mowing down all competitors. He finished with $93,844, the seventh highest total of in the field.
Unlike Pam Mueller, however, Chris has never been asked back for another tournament. He wasn’t invited back to participate in the Battle of the Decades, not even to be voted on as a fan favorite nor for the All-Star Games, which I think is unfair. His period of greatness on Jeopardy may have little more than a year, but it was a hell of a year, and I think he deserves to return.
Why he’s earned it: It’s one of the great quirks in game show history that for the longest period of time, the player who had the second highest total of wins in Jeopardy history had his run a little less than a year after Ken Jennings had his. (Given the amount of historic runs recently, it seems much less so. Nevertheless, in July of 2005 David Madden began a streak that took over the end of Season 21 and the beginning of Season 22 that would take up nineteen total victories and just over $430,000. Even after Julia Collins passed Madden for second place, his cash winnings for his original run would rank second all time until James Holzhauer shot past it. (Four other players have passed it as well by now; all of them will obviously be on this list.)
Like so many great Jeopardy champions, Madden didn’t have success in his Tournament of Champions; indeed, he didn’t even make it as far as the finals of the 2006 Tournament, losing his semi-final match in what would be a runaway. (I’ll be getting to the details of that in the next entry.) When the Battle of the Decades took place in 2014, I eagerly anticipated his appearance only to learn that because of a legal obligation, he didn’t think he could participate. Alex was right when he said he was missed.
He made up for lost time in the All-Star Games when he was part of Team Brad and helped skyrocket the team to a million-dollar payout (split three ways). Barring another unforeseen complication, it is a given that he shall return in less than two years time.
Why He’s earned it: The makeup of the 2006 Tournament of Champions was one of the oddest of all time. David Madden and Tom Kavanaugh, who won eight games, were among the few participants who’d won at least five games. While other Jeopardy tournaments occasionally needed champions who’d won three games to fill out the set, the 2006 Tournament had by far the highest number — there were five of them. One such player was Michael Falk, who’d won just under $60,000 in three games less than a month before the Tournament began in May.
By the finals of the Tournament, all of the favorites had fallen aside for Michael, Bill MacDonald, and Vik Vaz, whose ten combined wins was little more than half David’s total (Bill had blown David out of the water in their semi-final match, for the record, while Michael had been pretty badly beaten by him when they faced off in a quarterfinal match.) And by the end of Game 1 of the finals, Michael was in a distant second, trailing Vik by more than $13,000. Only because of a huge second game did Michael turn things around and end up winning the Tournament and a quarter of a million — to date, he is still the only three-game winner to do so.
I will confess; if it were not for the standards I set when I began the conditions for this hypothetical tournament, I wouldn’t think of considering Michael Falk. His totals are absurdly low by any reasonable standards for a Jeopardy champion, and he didn’t exactly cover himself with glory in the Battle of the Decades. (Though to be fair, when you’re playing against Ken Jennings, you’re often lucky to get out in one piece.) But fair is fair, and he did win the Tournament of Champions. So that is enough to let him in.
The 2007 Tournament of Champions also had a fairly odd group of competitors. It is the only Tournament after the five-game limit was lifted in 2003 where no participant won more than five games. That’s not to say none of the players were worthy — eight of the participants won $100,000 or more — and in an odd way, it makes Celeste’s accomplishments all the more impressive.
There was a fair amount of luck in Celeste’s tournament run. She qualified for the semi-final via wild card. To date, she is the only player in Tournament history to qualifies for the finals of a Tournament of Champions because of a tie-breaker round after she finished in a tie after Final Jeopardy (that in itself was odd, but I won’t go into that here). She was leading at the end of Game 1 of the finals, but trailed badly in game 2, and even fifteen years later, I’m still pretty sure she only managed to win the Tournament because the player ahead of her at the end of Game 2 made a miscalculation in wagering in Final Jeopardy. But despite all of this, it does not make me inclined to dismiss Celeste’s accomplishments; on the contrary, I actually think that makes her run to a quarter of a million dollars one of the more impressive Tournament runs in Jeopardy history.
She didn’t get past the first round in her Battle of the Decades appearance in 2014, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Both she and Colby Burnett did a lot of major calculations about wagers in Final Jeopardy that honestly should have worked in favor of Celeste instead of Colby. (Even he knew how lucky he was to win.) I was disappointed she wasn’t included in the All-Star Games, but less shocked then some of the other people were excluded. None of the doubts I have for the previous entry apply here.
Why she’s earned it: The past year, those of you who followed the records set by Amy Schneider may have heard a bit about Larissa Kelly. After Amy won her sixteenth game, she officially surpassed Larissa for the most money won overall by a female contestant. Larissa was suitably gracious, which was fitting for a woman who had set some benchmarks of her own.
Larissa was the first female contestant to win more than five games — she won six in May of 2008. In those six games, she won $222,597 — which at the time, was the third highest sum won by any player in their original run. When Stephanie Jass became the first woman to win seven games, she was still trailing Larissa by over $80,000; indeed Julia Collins had to win 11 games to surpass her. That’s an impressive figure.
And it actually gets better. Julia managed to finish second in the 2009 Tournament of Champions, which added $100,000 to her total. When she participated in the Battle of the Decades, she spent most of her game blowing her opponents out of the water and indeed, it took a big wager on a Daily Double on the penultimate clue by Russ Schumacher in Double Jeopardy to prevent her from running away of it, and a savvy wager in Final Jeopardy to allow him to defeat her. She had revenge in the All-Star Games, first when she was invited back and Russ wasn’t, and ultimately when she was drafted by Brad Rutter to play for his team and guaranteed first their spot in the finals and then their eventual victory in the Games. Like David and Brad, she earned her share of the million dollars they won.
It is inevitable Larissa will be asked back to participate in any future tournament. It is particularly significant that she will now be brought back to challenge a new set of female super-champions such as Amy and Mattea Roach, along with a few others that I will be listing later on. I look forward to her matches in particular.
Some time next week, I shall get back to the next group.