What Should Jeopardy Do When It Turns 40?

I Know There’ll Be A Big-Ass Tournament. Here’s How I’d Do It.

If he isn’t participated, I think he should watch from the sidelines. pennlive.com

As the first full season of Jeopardy without the presence of Alex Trebek comes to a close, it is very hard to argue that it has been one of the most spectacular seasons in the show’s history; especially considering all the controversy behind the scenes leading up to it and quite a bit after it began. Given the enormous success of so many extraordinary Jeopardy Champions this season — five have won eleven games of more — and the sizable boost in ratings over the previous year, Jeopardy has regained its place as the most popular game show on today.

Since it only seemed a possibility when this season began, I did not wish to discuss it. But given the immense success of Season 38, I think it might do well discuss a subject that is not that far off on the calendar — though I do know that some viewers may consider it premature.

First, a little background for those of you who have not read the lion’s share of my blogs or have come to Jeopardy relatively recently. Since the new version of the show debuted, every time there has been a significant anniversary, the show has held a special tournament to commemorate it. They held a 10th Anniversary Tournament in 1993, held the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005 to commemorate (more or less) their twentieth years on the air, held the Battle of the Decades in 2014 to commemorate their 30th Anniversary and the All-Star Games in 2019 to honor their 35th season on the air. (The odd tournament out is the Million Dollar Masters in 2002 which doesn’t quite coordinate with any direct anniversary.) It now seems relatively inevitable that Jeopardy will do a tournament to honor the show’s fortieth season, which will begin in September of 2023.

Some might argue it’s still too early to plan ahead. The reason I think it’s worth discussing now is based on my knowledge of how Jeopardy picks the lion’s share of its contestants for these tournaments. The Ultimate Tournament of Champions occurred not that long after both the end of Ken Jennings’ original run and the 2004 Tournament of Champions. I have little doubt the producers and executives started planning not much long after that. None of the participants in the Battle of The Decades had appeared on the series prior to the 2013 Tournament of Champions which ended more or less one year before that Tournament began. And the Jeopardy All-Star Games made its selections for its participant only after the 2017 Tournament of Champions took place in November of that year. Jeopardy has a habit of planning things well in advance. (This applies to other tournaments as well; Brad Rutter, the biggest money winner in Jeopardy history only qualified for the Million Dollar Masters because he had won the 2001 Tournament of Champions.)

So bearing that I mind, I think it is worth discussing what Jeopardy should and shouldn’t do it for its fortieth anniversary tournament: my ideas for how it should be run and my suggestions for who should participate. I don’t pretend to substitute my judgment for the producers; that would be callous of me. But at someone who has measured out his viewing life in Tournaments of Champions, I do think I have a certain level of qualification.

So let’s start with what wouldn’t work. To a typical Tournament of Champions like the Million Dollar Masters wouldn’t make sense: fifteen players could not make up full scope of Jeopardy’s greatness over forty years. The All-Star Tournament, which ended up featuring eighteen players playing on six teams, doesn’t sound like a valid concept either. After it happened, even Alex Trebek himself thought it would have been better to do a more traditional tournament. And considering that those eighteen players basically only covered players from 2000 to 2017, I’m not entire sure their selection process made much sense their either.

I don’t think going to the other extreme of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions would work much better. That tournament, as I may have indicated in an earlier article included 144 participants and took the better part of two months just to get through the first round. This involved the exclusion of many Jeopardy competitors who were as qualified as some of the other participants as well as byes for certain players who may not have been as qualified as those who didn’t. I won’t deny it was appointment TV for nearly four months, but it was also very messy. And that, of course, was nearly twenty years ago. I like to think I’m a clever person, but I can’t begin to conceive of doing a tournament like that now. Starting with the fact there have to be at least five hundred Jeopardy champions who have qualified for Tournaments of Champions, and you’d have to devote the entire season to be fair. I love Jeopardy Tournaments; I don’t love them that much.

So I think we should settle for a middle ground. To that end, I would suggest something resembling the Battle of the Decades. That involved fifteen champions from each decade in the show’s history — the 1980s, the 1990s and the 2000s — competed. There were five matches in round 1 to determine fifteen winners. Those fifteen winners played in what a traditional Jeopardy Tournament format — five quarterfinals that produced five winners and four high scores among non-winners, leading to three semi-finals, and a two-game total point affair to determine the winner. I’m assuming it would be one million dollars because with the exception of the UTC which had a two million dollar cash prize, all Jeopardy tournaments in this century have been played for a million dollars. (I grant you for some of the contenders, a million is pocket change but not for the lion’s share of the participants.)

My model would also involve forty five players. However, we have to take in consideration that many of the champions who played in the first fifteen years of the show’s history are getting much older — and in several cases have already died. To be clear, I have seen many tournament matches involving much older players whipping far younger ones. And indeed, I wouldn’t object to a Seniors Tournament around this time, where many of the winners from the 1980s and 1990s could face off. Jeopardy even had a Seniors Tournament for the first decade in its history, so it’s not that they have to start from scratch there either. (It’s been nearly a quarter of a century since it was discontinued and I still have some bitterness about it.)

However, in the interest of fairness, I believe that the forty five players who participate in this tournament should consist of:

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.

Ideally we would come up with forty players from this initial group (which would have a certain symmetry given the anniversary) .The remaining five would be selected by the fans from a ballot of ten.

(Many of the names on these participants would no doubt be familiar. However, rather than list them all here, I intend to do a series of articles explaining their accomplishments and why they should be here over the summer hiatus. I have some ideas who I would choose if I had my way for the field of ten but I’ll save that for later.)

Once chosen, there would be a series of drawings to determine who played in the first round. After the first round was over, there would be fifteen winners and play would follow the model I listed above.

I think at this point it should go without saying that Mayim Bialik would host this tournament and not Ken Jennings. Having watched Jennings host over the past year, particularly as players like Amy Schneider or Mattea Roach have made runs at his record, it’s clear he can be completely impartial about long streaks. I’m not entirely certain what kind of attitude he would take if so many of these participants — many of whom he’s played against and defeated in the past — would be on the lectern in front of him. I may be overreacting, but given all the behind the scenes controversies with the show past year, I think Caesar’s wife must be above reproach.

This is, of course, merely the roughest of drafts for this concept and I can see why some people would have objections, mostly because there would still be a disproportionate male to female ratio in this tournament. This problem has plagued Jeopardy tournaments for decades and there still isn’t an easy solution. Looking at my first draft, the ratio of male to female is two to one. I may have some suggestions as to other qualified participants, but I’ll save that for later.

And indeed, this whole concept could be thrown out of whack when the Tournament of Champions happens next fall. Anyone with even the most casual knowledge of these tournaments knows very well there is no guarantee that any of the five winners who won at least eleven games will end up winning this tournament. Given how these tournaments work, at least two aren’t even going to be competing in the finals.

For all these reasons, I think the work should begin sooner rather than later. No Jeopardy super tournament has ever completely satisfied the fanbase, and I know this model won’t either. But honestly, I think it is a compromise that, compared to so many other tournaments, would make the fewest people unhappy. Then again, Jeopardy may surprise me yet again. It has a habit of doing so — just not always pleasantly.

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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.