Think pieces about Jeopardy have to begin with a cute opener that echoes the way the revered game show phrases its clues. Here’s mine.
Answer: It’s a cranky rant about television and popular culture.
Question: What the hell is Tom going on about now?
It is also a requirement for former top players—I was in the 1994 Tournament of Champions and the 2005 Ultimate Tournament of Champions, and was once listed in the Jeopardy Hall of Fame—to affirm that we love the show. Some of us have loved it since childhood. On sick days from school, my mother would come home from her lunch hour and play along with me back when Art Fleming was the daytime host. Consider this my assurance that the show has had a place in my heart for over a half century.
But Jeopardy has lost the spirit that made it an American institution. I am not the first to notice that the show, like other formerly amateur pursuits in America, has become professionalized and mostly closed to the casual player. It is no longer a show that celebrates the smarts of the average citizen; it is now a showcase for people who prep and practice, who enter the studio determined not to shine for a day or even a week but to beat the game itself.
This, combined with the abolition back in 2003 of the long-standing rule that you must retire after five wins, has created long streaks where a few players over time crush the daylights out of the sacrificial lambs who have no real chance of beating the reigning champ without either a dash of luck or an unforced error.
Before I explain why I think this is bad, let me tell you how the game works, so that you can get a better idea of why these long streaks are possible and why they violate the spirit of the game, and then I’ll suggest why the audience shouldn’t necessarily be cheering them on.
First, get it out of your head that Jeopardy players are freaky geniuses, or that the big winners are somehow more brilliant than the losers. (There is, apparently, a pandemic-related problem with contestant quality control lately, but I’ll come back to that.)
In my experience, both as a player and a viewer, most contestants are excellent. That’s because the show uses a combination of a very tough written test to measure your smarts and an in-person simulation to make sure that you’re not, in game-show parlance, a “Bambi” who will stare like a deer in the road once the studio lights go on. Yes, there are some prodigies; I personally was a fan of Matt Amodio, whose breadth of knowledge was amazing.
Mostly, however, Jeopardy players have one unique ability in common: We have brains like lint rollers. We hear a factoid, and for some reason we remember it.
Here’s an example from one of my games. The clue was from the category “Anthropology” and it was something about the Leakey family discovering “this human ancestor whose name means ‘handy man.’” I don’t really know anything about anthropology, but I know I learned in a sixth-grade social-studies class the little factoid that “handy man” is Homo habilis. You probably did too. The difference between me and you is that I remembered it and I was able to recall it faster in a TV studio than you can.
And while good Jeopardy players don’t have to be brilliant, they do have to get the hang of parsing the game’s weird riddles. The writers lard up the clues with irrelevant facts, but usually the answer is staring you in the face. I still chuckle when the game throws out something like “Large pyramidal objects in this modern Egyptian capital city were meant as burial chambers for emperors of the many dynasties that included rulers such as Neferneferuaten.”
The difference between decent Jeopardy players and everyone else is that the players know, after straining out all that extraneous information, that all they’re really being asked is: “What’s the capital of Egypt? Duh.”
This leads to an even more important point. If knowledge isn’t the edge, what makes the difference? The thing that makes champions so hard to beat is not brainpower; it’s the buzzer.
Mastering that little clicker is everything. You can’t see it at home, but the board has lights that go on just off-screen that let you know when the host is done speaking. (This is why you never hear anyone ring in over the host: You can’t.)
When the light goes on, your buzzer goes hot, and each player tries to buzz in a millisecond before the other guys. Buzzing in early will lock you out for a split second; two of you buzzing in at the same time locks out both of you. Usually, all three of you know the answer, and it’s just a matter of getting there first. (“Triple stumpers,” where all three players stand there dumbfounded until the timer beeps, are pretty rare.)
Why does this matter? Because the more times you use the buzzer, the better you get at it. It really is a learned reflex. It takes a little getting used to, and then you develop a rhythm. And as my friend Jonathan Last pointed out to me recently, veteran players who master this ability have a greater chance of finding the Daily Doubles (where contestants can make big wagers beyond the value of the clue) because they can control the board for longer stretches. The Daily Double used to be a shot at changing the game’s momentum, sometimes with a dramatic bet. (I won some and lost some.) Now it's mostly a way for the returning champs to invest in padding out a lead.
Another factor here is that the more times you win, the more comfortable you are in the studio. To play the game well, you have to get over the shock of realizing: Holy cats, I’m in the Jeopardy studio and that really is Alex freakin’ Trebek standing right there addressing me by name and wishing me luck.
Believe me, getting past that distraction is worth a lot of money.
Watch the veterans play after they’ve won a few games. They have cracked the code, which, as paradoxical as it seems, includes completely ignoring the host. The losers—again, you can watch this happen—are very focused on looking at the host, but the winners are looking at the board. They’re reading ahead, forming an answer, and waiting for the light to go on. In my best moments on the show, it was me and the board, that little light, the buzzer, and nothing else.
If you’ve done all this even two or three times, new players are at an instant disadvantage. No one wants to play against a returning champ. The day I played—I did five straight games in one day—there was wonderful camaraderie among us all in that sequestered contestant room, but there was just a little hesitance to sit with me at lunch after I’d turfed a bunch of other players. During the intro to one of the games, Alex said he’d overheard one of the other players saying “Someone’s gotta get this guy”—hey, thanks, Alex!—but that’s kind of normal, since I’d won a few already.
Now imagine going up against someone who’s won a half-dozen games. Or a dozen. Or 15 or 20.
It’s inherently unfair. What makes it worse is that players like James Holzhauer basically turned the game into a full-time job before they even got there. As I said at the time, it was about as interesting as going to the Sportsbook room at Caesars Palace and watching guys handicap the ponies or figuring out the spread in a college-basketball game.
Don’t get me wrong—Holzhauer’s damn smart. But when he finally lost, it was to someone who had literally written a graduate thesis about Jeopardy. That’s a bit more commitment than you’ll find in the average player. The charm of the game, the thing that made it beloved to so many people, was that you weren’t watching a brute-force match between a Vegas odds guy and a Jeopardy scholar; you were watching a New York City cop and a librarian from Tucson, Arizona, and a homemaker from Dubuque, Iowa, battling it out with little more than a high-school education and some quick recall.
Worse yet, this has actually improved ratings, which says something bad about us, the viewers. Americans no longer care about the triumph of the everyman or everywoman. They want to see someone bust the board. They want a Trivial Pursuit version of Conan the Barbarian who will crush their enemies, see them driven before them, and hear the lamentations of their women. They want winners.
To their credit, most of the long-streak players seem like lovely people. (Okay, Holzhauer was kind of smirky, and let’s not talk about Arthur Chu, but most of them.) That’s not the point. Jeopardy was originally a kind of celebration of the smarts of the average American, not a colosseum where the crowds could cheer the slaughter of new players who had no real shot against champs who had mastered the game mechanics through sheer repetition.
So maybe it’s time to retire the game—especially as they’re having trouble finding hosts who aren’t annoying. (Chu recently wrote about how the hosts, and not the contestants, have become the focus of the show, and he’s right.) At the least, the show needs a post-Trebek retooling. Bring back the five-game rule. And tighten up on contestant selection. Apparently, the pandemic eliminated some of the in-person screening, and it shows. I’ve seen a few games recently in which some of the contestants simply had no chance even on a more level playing field. I want everyone on Jeopardy to have a good run, not just wave to Mom and Dad and then get creamed.
Jeopardy used to be a spirited, and limited, competition among ordinary Americans. Now we watch because we want to see James or Matt or Amy squash a passel of newbies every week, hapless victims for whom victory is mathematically out of reach within 20 minutes. This doesn’t reflect well on our culture. Bring in more people and make it about watching your friends and neighbors again.
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