For decades, the end of the work/school day has been signified by one fixture: Jeopardy. The trivia game show has existed since 1964, but truly began in the form we all know and love when Alex Trebek joined as host in 1984. The answer-question format, Daily Doubles, Final Jeopardy, and the most awkward small talk imaginable after the first commercial break: that’s Jeopardy.
But in recent years the show is not the same staple it once was. The death of Alex Trebek may have created a war of host succession, but the show was cracking even before then. Seven of the 10 longest winning streaks in Jeopardy history have been since 2019. Four were in 2022 alone. It begs the answer: this classic game show has changed.
The root of Jeopardy’s shakeup lies in the win streak of James Holzhauer. In 2019, Holzhauer changed the way Jeopardy was played. It used to be simple: players would climb down the board, choose their strongest categories, going for the high value questions when they’re down. But Holzhauer’s professional gambling background helped him develop a riskier style of play: Daily Double searching. By darting around the board Holzhauer increased his odds of getting Daily Doubles, which he used to multiply his winnings to such a high degree that no other contestant could catch him. Holzhauer currently holds every spot in the top 10 for highest single-game winnings.
Holzhauer’s high profile streak exposed a new method of play. During Holzhauer’s run you could see other players try to mimic him. Even after his loss, other contestants copied his method. Professional poker player Cris Pannullo’s recent 21 game streak further proves the gambling method is a winning strategy. With the trick now revealed, it’s hard to go back to playing Jeopardy the same way.
Obviously, you also need to know a lot of information to be good at Jeopardy. All-around Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings’ book Brainiac details how he spent all his time amassing trivia knowledge. Most great Jeopardy champions buzz in with the correct answer over 95% percent of the time. You need to be good at puzzle solving and have a wide variety of general trivia knowledge that takes a long time to learn to even qualify.
But collecting extensive knowledge is not the same as it was in 1984, or even 2004. Online guides and explainers on how to become a Jeopardy expert are easy to come by. Tricks like pavolving (when a word in a clue acts as a hint) are common knowledge amongst Jeopardy superfans. Trivia websites like Sporcle turn quizzing yourself into a fun exercise. An infinite encyclopedia is in most people’s pocket every single day. Finding and memorizing a wide variety of information doesn’t take libraries and heavy books: all you need are a couple websites.
A former neighbor of mine who had a 4-day Jeopardy streak in 2007 said most people up there know the answer to every question, it’s all about the buzzer. If everyone knew the answer 15 years ago, then there must be an even bigger pool of potential contestants to choose from now. The internet has multiplied the amount of eligible players more than we can even imagine. It doesn’t cheapen being smart enough to be on Jeopardy, but it does make it more competitive to earn a spot. The people who break through are in the top 0.001% of the top 0.1% of trivia experts. Therefore the contestants who make it to the stage are going to be in the best position to win big and for a long time.
New strategies on how to make it to Jeopardy alongside tricks to dominate the game have completely broken open the possibilities of the show. Jeopardy has thus been completely gamified; the path to victory is more common knowledge than ever. Week+ long streaks used to be rare, now it feels like there’s at least one every month.
Jeopardy’s precarious new position is reminiscent of the game show crash in the 1950s. The amount of shows was never ending, but scandals and behind-the-scenes fixing eventually broke the illusion. It’s just not entertaining if you know the result has nothing to do with luck or knowledge, just backroom dealings. Jeopardy doesn’t have a corruption problem, but like those previous game shows it just doesn’t sing the way it used to. Once you see the formula, it can’t be unseen.
Should something be done to stop this evolution? Making the questions harder is silly. Barring different styles of play is absurd. Jeopardy can’t be “fixed” in any way that won’t break the show further. A change to the format is out of the question. The handling of Alex Trebek’s succession was tumultuous enough: the brief rise and harrowing fall of producer Mike Richards and the Mayim Bialik controversy over previous anti-vaccination statements was more dramatic than the previous 8,000 episodes combined. At this point, I don’t think Jeopardy could handle even a slight structural change. No one likes to see their favorite food plastered with a “New formula, same great taste!” sticker. It never tastes the same. Jeopardy is a comfort show where people have tuned in every day for decades. There would be riots in the streets if the show changed even slightly.
And so far, frequent long streaks have actually been a benefit for the show. Jeopardy is thriving. The 2021-22 season pulled in an average 9.2 million viewers an episode, making it the most-watched show on broadcast or cable. Amy Schneider and Matt Amodio’s runs were great topics of water cooler conversations and small talk with your grandparents. Long streaks have turned the game into something exciting; they encourage even more people to tune in to every episode, just to see when the mighty will fall. The rarity of Ken Jennings’ run is no longer. The world has evolved, and so must Jeopardy. It cannot exist in a vacuum. If society has figured out the best path to victory, then we must accept it. Long Jeopardy streaks are here to stay.
It’s honestly wonderful that Jeopardy remains so popular. Alex Trebek’s death was certainly a blow to the show, but it has managed to continue. The strategies on how to play and win Jeopardy may have changed things, but the show isn’t broken yet. The transformation of how Jeopardy is played reflects how information may evolve, but the desire to beat people at trivia remains the same. As long as there are new answers to tell and questions to ask, Jeopardy will remain strong. And maybe one day even Ken Jennings’ streak will be a blip on the rankings. But for now I’ll take “Jeopardy in Any Form” for $800.
Leila Jordan is a writer and former jigsaw puzzle world record holder. Her work has appeared in Paste Magazine, FOX Digital, The Spool, and Awards Radar. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila
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