This Champion Made Monday’s Tournament of Champions Quarterfinal A Runaway…and An Upset

David B Morris
8 min readFeb 28, 2024

How Last Night Was Yet Another Example of Why Predicting Jeopardy Tournaments Is A Sucker’s Bet

I know. We’re all as surprised as you are.

In my more than thirty years of watching Jeopardy, I have watched nearly as many Tournaments of Champions. And one of the things you learn after enough time has passed is that how any of these champions did in their original appearance will have nothing to do with how well they’d do in the Tournament.

During the era when the limit was five wins and the dollar figures ran from $100 to $500 in the Jeopardy round, it was somewhat easier to expect the unexpected. That didn’t make it any more shocking when it happened. One of my earliest memories of a major upset in a Tournament of Champions came in the semi-finals of the 1994 Tournament when Steve Chernicoff and John Cuthbertson, who’d each won over $82,000 in five games were defeated by College Champion Jeff Stewart in Final Jeopardy. That tournament was eventually won by Rachael Schwartz, the first female to win a Tournament of champions. Of the three female players who qualified, she had by far won the least amount of money, so I’m pretty sure that anyone who thought a woman would win the TOC that year, Rachael would have been third on the list.

There were similar upsets over the next several years, albeit none quite as striking. The one that had the greatest context was in 2001 when Doug Lach, who’d won $85,400 in five games — one of the highest five game totals to that point — was absolutely demolished in his quarterfinal appearance by a 23 year old recent college graduate named Brad Rutter, whose $55,102 in five games was one of the lowest totals of any of the participants in that year’s Tournament. Anyone who told you, even after he won the TOC in 2001, that they thought he was going to win more money in Jeopardy history back then, would have been lying through his teeth. I certainly didn’t think so.

When the dollar figures were doubled and the five game limit lifted, if anything, it became harder to predict how was going to win a Tournament of Champions. This was made clear in the first Tournament of Champions in the post Ken Jennings era when David Madden won 19 games and just under half a million dollars, both of which would be the second to Jennings for more than a decade. I remember thinking that the 2006 Tournament of Champions was an exercise and that David Madden would waltz to the $250,000 grand prize. Instead, he didn’t even make it to the finals where he was beaten — flattened is really more accurate — by Bill MacDonald, who’d won four games and $75,399 the past November.

Over the last ten years, even as we have seen the slow but steady rise in the number of super-champions, we have seen this play out time and again. Arthur Chu, who won eleven games and Julia Collins, who had managed to win 20 in the spring and summer of 2014, respectively, did both make it to the finals of the 2014 Tournament of Champions. Both, however, ended up losing to Ben Ingram who back in 2013 had ‘only’ won eight games and ‘merely’ $176, 413.

The following September Matt Jackson began to put together a run that reminded many of Jennings when he won 13 games and $411,612. He got to the finals that year — and was absolutely destroyed by Alex Jacob, who’d only won six games and just under $150,000 (albeit in a similarly destructive fashion.)

Two years later, the 2017 Tournament of Champions featured a pair of 12 game winners Seth Wilson who’d won $265,000 and the more dynamic Austin Rogers who’d won $411,000. Admittedly the field of competition that year had some of the most impressive champions in a very long time, and few could argue that Buzzy Cohen, who ended up the ultimate winner, was not a similarly impressive player.

In the first Tournament of Champions in the post Alex Trebek era in 2021, many thought that Jason Zuffranieri, who had managed to win 19 games and more than $500,000 in the midst of what would be the last two full seasons of Trebek, would waltz to the finals. He only qualified for the semi-finals via a wild card and in his semi-final match was defeated by Jennifer Quail, who’d won eight games and just over $228,000.

So you’d think by this point in my history of watching Tournaments of Champions I would be prepared for these kinds of upsets. The thing is, no matter how many times it happens, no matter how much you know about Jeopardy, you still go in to every tournament with a narrative that the biggest winners are going to dominate. Like all of you who watched in 2022, I was certain we were going to see Matt Amodio, Amy Schneider and Mattea Roach face off in the finals. The idea that any of them would lose in their semi-final match — and in the case of Mattea be flattened by an opponent — was unthinkable. Yet that is what happened to Matt in the case of Sam Buttrey and Mattea in the case of Andrew He. (Though considering how last year’s Masters Tournament played out, both of them got revenge on the players who’d beaten them.)

Similarly I was sure that last night Cris Panullo — who in the fall of 2022 had won 21 games and just under $750,000 — was going to dance all over his two fellow champions Ben Goldstein and Jared Watson. I might have been willing to give shorter odds had he been facing Ray LaLonde or Stephen Webb, but a five game player who hadn’t cracked the $50,000 mark or a three game winner who I had dismissed just last week? Not a chance. It was in the bag. I had every reason to keep thinking this in the first half of the Jeopardy round as Cris built up an early lead. I kept thinking until Jared managed to get to the Daily Double near the end of the round. At the time Jared had half Cris’ total so he bet everything he had in a $400 clue in ALL THINGS DISNEY:

“At Walt Disney World in 1975, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper and Jim Irwin attended the grand opening of this ride.” Jared knew it was Space Mountain and the game was tied. It was still tied at the end of the round: Jared and Cris had $8800 apiece. A temporary condition, I thought.

I was right on that. Absolutely wrong as to how it would play out. Cris couldn’t even manage to ring in until the twelfth clue of Double Jeopardy. By that point Jared had found both Daily Doubles. The first was in WORLD CITIES:

“Fittingly, this capital is the Yukon headquarters of the Royal Canadian Mountain Police.” Jared somehow knew it was Whitehorse and gained $6000. Two clues later he found the other in ALLOYS: “This 7-letter word for an alloy used in dentistry is also used to mean any combination of 2 or more substances.” He knew it was an amalgam and gained another $5000. By that point Jared had $27,000 and there was no possibility that Cris could close the gap even had he been at peak condition.

For the record after his return, he wasn’t. He managed to give 22 correct responses to Jared’s 21. But Cris also gave a whopping five incorrect answers where as Jared didn’t make a single mistake. In all the games watching him, I don’t remember him making this many errors, even in the game he eventually lost. The end result was that by the end of Double Jeopardy Cris Panullo had been flattened in a way I’d never seen. He had just $14,000 to Jared’s $32,000.

And as a further sign of how much he had lapsed, he also got Final Jeopardy wrong. The category was ART HISTORY: “The Royal Academy of Arts has this man’s ‘La Fornarina’ & in the 1800s the RAA’s love of him made some artists retreat to an earlier style.” Cris thought it was Botticelli, which was wrong. Jared knew the correct response: “Who is Raphael?” (the pre-Raphaelites)

What happened, I imagine millions of Jeopardy fans are asking? Was it simply a level of fatigue due to having been absent from the show for more than a year? Jared did win his 3 games comparatively recently (the summer of 2023) but Ben’s five wins game two weeks after and he played horribly in comparison to Cris.

The answer is…there is no answer. Cris has merely fallen victim to the same rule of every Tournament of Champions since they began; that trying to handicap them based on their previous performance is a fool’s errand. It played out to a similar extent in the previous tournament even before we got to the semi-finals. Not only did Jonathan Fisher, who had managed to win eleven games (and had defeated Matt Amodio to begin his streak) end up losing in Final Jeopardy to none other than Andrew He, but in the previous quarterfinal match Ryan Long, who had managed to win 16 games that year could never truly get started against Megan Wachspress or Maureen O’Neill. He ended up getting into the red early in the Jeopardy round, was in third by the end of it, and never managed to get going. He was essentially out of it by the end of Double Jeopardy.

The fact of the matter is that even the best Jeopardy champions will one day have a mediocre day or run into a player who is significantly better than them. Frequently that will happen in the Tournament of Champions when the best of the best are all assembled. No one manages to qualify for a Tournament of Champions because they are a terrible player. (Well, you know that I think the Second Chance Tournament may be damaging that concept but the recent play of Juveria Zaheer is causing me to rethink even that.) Is it difficult to believe that Cris, who as he told us was an alternate for the first Masters Tournament, would end up meeting his demise this early in the Tournament of Champions? Perhaps, but no less unbelievable than what has happened to David Madden and Jason Zuffranieri in earlier Tournaments and Mattea Roach and Matt Amodio in the one just past.

Like with all sporting events, every Jeopardy champions knows that somewhere out there is a player who will end their streak. Even Brad Rutter, who for eighteen years was the only undefeated player in Jeopardy history, had moments in his career where there were players (some of whom I’ve even listed above) nearly unseated him before he finally met his demise at the hands of both Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer. That is equally true in the Tournament of Champions as was proven just last night and will no doubt be proven a few times more even before we get to the semi-finals. I’ll give a full report on that when the first round ends next Wednesday but we should be prepared for the fact that we can’t be prepared for things to go as planned.

--

--

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.