Still at Peak — And Streaking — Jeopardy! How Will It End?
After 200 Episodes, A Look at This Incredible Season So Far
We are coming into the home stretch of the first complete season of Jeopardy since the passing of Alex Trebek. If you can say nothing else about the 38th Season — and there’s a lot to say — it’s that the contestants seem to be doing everything in their power to make your forget about all of the behind the scenes struggles that were going on last season, from the controversy involving guest hosts to producer Matt Richards’ controversial choice as permanent host, to his being ousted from both those positions less than a week after his choice. We may not know yet who ends up getting the job as Trebek’s permanent replacement (it’s looking more and more like Ken Jennings will earn the job over Mayim Bialik) but in a larger sense, it may be far less consequential than fans of the show believed.
Because as the season comes to an end, it has become clear (as if there was ever any doubt) that is the players and the champions that are vital to Jeopardy’s success far more than whoever hosted. Yes Alex Trebek was a legend unlike any one else in game show history, and no one could ever truly replace him but as anyone who has watched the show over the years and decades knows, it was always about the champions. And the show has demonstrated that more this year than maybe any other in its history.
And Season 38 has been all about the champions and their streaks. Starting with the continuation of Matt Amodio’s incredible run at the beginning of the season, an unprecedented five contestants have won 11 games or more so far this year. Some like Amy Schneider and Mattea Roach have won a lot more than that — Amy won 40 games, second only to Ken Jennings; Mattea won a not unimpressive 23 games, fifth on the all-time list. Some won numbers that would have been remarkable in any other year. Ryan Long’s 16 wins and $299,400 and Jonathan Fisher’s 11 wins and $246,100 would have been outstanding in any other season than this one. At this point it is almost odd to win ‘only’ five or more games, something that has been accomplished by Tyler Rhode (5 wins; just under $106,000); Andrew He (5 wins and $157,365). This week Eric Ahasic finished a streak that included six wins and over $160,601, five wins on runaways and did not get one of the fifteen Daily Doubles he hit incorrect. By the standards of Season 38, he is a minor player, almost not worth mentioned.
Indeed, at this point in Season 38 a one day winner is an aberration. Up to this point this year, there have been a grand total of nine players on Jeopardy who have only won a single game. I’ve seen entire seasons where it’s been rare to have that many players qualify for the Tournament of Champions. Indeed, at one point this year there were three consecutive female four game winners, who didn’t win their fifth game and therefore were not guaranteed a spot in the Tournament of Champions. In the show’s history, even when you won until you were beaten, there were often Tournaments of Champions were there would be as many four game winners as there were players who had won five games or more. At this point in the season, all three of those four game winners — Christine Whelchel, Margaret Shelton and Maureen O’Neill — have almost certainly lost their slots in next season’s Tournament of Champions to Jackie Kelly, who won four games and $115,100 Ryan Long and Eric Ahasic respectively. Just today Megan Wachspress became a four day champion herself with $51,601. If she wins Monday, she will officially qualify for the Tournament of Champions, but what will happen to Jackie who right now has more than twice her total? Only in a season like this would you dare to ask the question.
Another question that has been asked: why have there been so many long streaks this season? Does it have something to do with the shift in hosts? It can’t be denied that during the long period between Jennings’ first stint as host and the constant streams of ‘guest stars’ there were a lot fewer Jeopardy champions than usual — in fact there was just one winner of five games or more, Courtney Shah who won seven games and just under $120,000. Of course, Matt Amodio won his first eighteen games during the last month of the season, which included four different hosts. There was little sign of any changes during the first month of this season, where he had to deal with two more hosts (Richards and Bialik). And there have been just as many multi-game winners under Jennings as there have been under Bialik. It’s hard to argue that there’s been much of a difference.
Are players just getting better at winning for extended periods? That’s a question that actually has more merit. During the last few years of Trebek’s run, there were more players winning for longer periods. In Season 33, Seth Wilson won 12 games and Austin Rogers each won 12 games, then in Season 35 James Holzhauer had his incredible run and near the end of that season Jason Zuffranieri managed an impressive streak of nineteen wins. Perhaps a new breed of contestant was beginning to involve in the last decade that is more capable of staying longer and winning more money. Since that was ostensibly the purpose of eliminating the five game limit in the first place, it would seem petty to complain about that fact (as a few kill-joys are doing). And as we have seen in many of those Tournaments, winning many games doesn’t guarantee you go on to win the Tournament of Champions (Zuffranieri didn’t even make it to the finals of last year’s). So perhaps Jeopardy champions are not so much becoming better this past season but rather that what we are seeing is part of the continued evolution of the Jeopardy champion.
There are many more questions to ask about Jeopardy — who is most likely to become the permanent host? What does the trend of increasingly successful female champions mean for the show? Who among the super-champions should be considered the front runner for next year’s Tournament of Champions? I shall attempt when the season ends in six weeks to try and answer these questions. But for now, one thing is fundamentally clear. If there’s a better time to be watching Jeopardy, it is hard for me — someone who has watched the series for nearly thirty years — to imagine it. Alex Trebek would be so proud of the players who grace the stage now named for him.