The Real Problem With Jeopardy

Part 2: Looking Way, Way Back

Nope, he’s not the problem either. deseret.com

As those of us who have spent decades watching Jeopardy are well aware, every five years or so, usually in conjunction with a milestone in the series history, they will host was amounts to a super-tournament bringing back champions from many years and in many cases, decades past. There have been seven such tournaments in the past thirty years. I intend to focus on three in particular that have had a $1 million or greater payday to illustrate where I believe a problem may lie with the show’s history:

The 2002 Million Dollar Masters Invitational: Fifteen former champions were asked back to compete at Radio City Music Hall for a $1 million cash prize.

The 2005 Ultimate Tournament of Champions: Held shortly after Ken Jennings completed his exceptional run on Jeopardy, 144 former champions, including winners of the Teen and College Tournaments were asked back to compete in what amounted to a March Madness style tournament that eventually would end with two finalists competing against Ken for $2 million.

The 2014 Battle of the Decades: To commemorate the series thirty years on the air, fifteen players each from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s were asked back to compete in a series of matches to eventually compete for $1 million.

Now, I’m not going to deal with the results of these tournaments: Brad Rutter ended up winning all three. What I’d like to focus on instead is the male-female ratio for each tournament, the problems that were apparent in certain aspects with it, and why I think there might have been some fundamental flaw that might be critical to Jeopardy’s tournament match-up in the first place.

The Million Dollar Masters had as close to gender parity as any of the tournaments they’ve held in the series entire history. Ironically, at the time, I actually thought the show was being too loose with who they invited back for that tournament as there were at least three women whose presence I considered questionable. (This was not, for the record, limited by gender, there were at least two men whose presence I considered questionable as well.) Since then, having done a fair amount of research on the contestants at the time, I have to admit all fifteen choices were good ones. I also realize that had the series done the obvious thing and invited all the previous Tournament of Champions winners, the gender disparity would have been impossible to ignore.

The Ultimate Tournament of Champions probably did more to lay bare just how many previous winners were men than any other tournament. Not counting Ken Jennings, the ratio of male competitors to female ones was roughly four to one. Because the tournament was played out over a period of nearly four months, this was not something that may have been apparent to even the viewers like me who watched every game. It only starts to become glaringly obvious in hindsight. Indeed, at one point I actually considered writing an article about five female champions who hadn’t been included in this tournament even though they were still alive. I was unaware until much later that there were certain levels of qualifications that the producers had set prior to the tournament as to who competed. (I’ll get to them a little later in this article, as they are relevant to my larger point.) I do understand the reasoning (if they’d invited every single champion the tournament would’ve basically taken up an entire year) but there did seem to be a certain arbitrariness as to who got chosen.

In my opinion, the Battle of the Decades may have come to have a more or less reasonable level of balance. The ratio of male to female was exactly two to one and more specifically the people who were selected to represent each decade were pretty close to the ones that most fans, myself included, would have wanted to see. With the exception of the first Tournament of Champion winner (who had passed away just a few months after his episode had aired in 1985) and Bob Blake, the 1990 winner who was out of the country declined, every Tournament of Champion winner was. And considering the array of vast talent that was available in the 1980s and 1990s, I’d have to say that most of the other winners invited were among the very best. It gets a lot harder to determine that after 2004 (when the five-day limit was lifted and champions could play until they were defeated) but all things considered most of the choices were good ones. (Indeed, the most obvious absentee David Madden, who’d won nineteen games and over $400,000 in regular season winnings, chose not to participate because he believed the company he was working for put him in an ethical conflict with the show.)

Where I think Jeopardy fell down a little was how they decided the fifteenth competitor for each decade. They gave a listing of five ‘fan favorites’ for each decade and invited fans to vote on which ones they wanted to see in the tournament. Having done homework on all fifteen (especially the ones for the 1980s and 1990s) I’m not entire sure why some of them were chosen in the first place. One of them was a four day champion who’d won barely $23,000 in 1998 and didn’t make it past the first round of the Tournament of Champions. The one I find most galling is Andrew Westney, who’d won the 1991 Teen Tournament (and not particularly impressively) been eliminated in the quarterfinals of that yours Tournament of Champions and had gotten eliminated in the first round of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions. There were more qualified players from the 1980s then him, but the majority of fans apparently didn’t agree with me, as he ended up being voted the fan favorite for that decade.

Even here, I can’t exactly make a federal case out of this. The show’s producers had a lot of good champions to sort through just to come down to those five. I can’t say that either they or the fans were wrong in any of their selections, even Andrew Westney, who was competitive all the way through his match.

Why then, have I gone in all this details, if I don’t seem to have any problem with how Jeopardy made their selections for these tournaments? I have one reason, and her name is Elise Beraru.

I don’t expect even long time fans of the series to know who she is. I’ve been watching the series for more than thirty years, thought I knew every aspect of Jeopardy and I didn’t know who she was until I starting working on a separate subject. And that very fact indicates a major problem.

Elise Beraru was Jeopardy’s first five time winner. Not female five time winner. The show’s first five-time winner. She appeared from October 1st to October 5TH 1984, less than a month after the show debuted. She won $47,350 — not a huge amount of money by the standards of today or even later in the 1990s — but she won all five of her games in romps. There are very few players of any era that managed to accomplish that. She lost quickly in the show’s very first Tournament of Champions in 1985 (she was eliminated in the first ever quarterfinal match, in fact) and would only make one more appearance on the show afterward — on Super Jeopardy!, the series first (and until recently, only) prime time tournament. She lost the only match she appeared in. She has never appeared in any tournament since.

And it is that fact that her achievements are basically unknown that bothers me, particularly because Jeopardy is a show that acknowledges its great players annually. If you’re going to invite the greatest of all time back for tournaments like the ones I’ve mentioned, doesn’t it make sense to invite back the very first five-time winner?

What makes this flaw more obvious are some of the choices for each of the Tournaments I’ve mentioned. In the Million Dollar Masters, one of the champions asked back was Kate Waits, who won four games and just under $50,000 in 1987. She was a semi-finalist in the 1988 Tournament of Champions and was eliminated in the first round of Super Jeopardy. Her qualifications are practically identical to Elise…but Elise was first, and she won more games. Why was Elise asked back instead of Kate?

The Ultimate Tournament of Champions was a bit more complicated. In addition to being a five time champion, there was a monetary cap on your regular play winnings. The minimum a five-time champion one was $48,401. Elise just missed that total. There’s a certain arbitrariness to that total as it not only eliminated Elise but a huge number of Jeopardy’s winners from the series early days, going as far forward as 1999.

What makes this even more unfair, in my opinion, is that there were nine seeded players who automatically advanced to Round 2 of that tournament. Most of them were more than valid choices, but quite a few were questionable. Where it clearly becomes suspect is the fact that Sean Ryan, Jeopardy’s first six-game winner and Tom Walsh, the show’s first seven game winner, were given seeds, but somehow they couldn’t find room for the shows first five-game winner. If ever there was a case for a player to be considered worthy, it was Elise.

And all these pale to her exclusion from The Battle of the Decades: The 1980s. There were a couple of questionable choices, but in my opinion the most illogical was Richard Cordray. Cordray won five games and just over $40,000 in April of 1987 and was a semi-finalist in the 1987 Tournament of Champions. He didn’t appear in a single Tournament for the next quarter-century. Why then was he asked back for the Battle of The Decades? In 2012, President Obama named him to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The decision to name him was literally political. (Cordray didn’t accept any money for participating because he was a federal employee. Having watching him perform in his Round 1 game, he played less like a five-day champion and more like a Celebrity Jeopardy participant.) This may be one of the clearest examples of bias: given a chance to choose someone important to Jeopardy who was a woman, and someone who was more important for achievements outside of it but was a man, the show chose the latter.

Now much as I’d like to say a case like Elise Beraru is a symbol of a sort of sexism within Jeopardy’s acknowledgement of its history, the truth is there are even more egregious exclusion from the show’s past for both men and women. And some of them are even more extreme. I’ll get them to in this article’s conclusion.

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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.