(Almost) Clash of the Trivia Titans

Jeopardy! fans just missed out on a regular-season game for the ages

Something newsworthy happened on “Jeopardy!” this month: Yogesh Raut and Troy Meyer, two members of the top tier of American competitive quizzers, both made it on the show within a week of each other. Since any short list of the best players never to appear on the show would include them both, this news caused a bit of a stir in the quizzing community. (Disclaimer: I’m friendly with both players, and I’ve competed against each of them many times.)

As of this writing, Meyer has won twice, both times mathematically clinching his games before Final Jeopardy. It’s an impressive start, but that’s not why so many of us have been breathlessly watching: given both quizzers’ accomplishments, there was every reason to expect fireworks, or even a regular-season clash like no other. Sadly, the hoped-for showdown – two friendly rivals capable of playing on the highest level, plus one extremely unlucky third party – never materialized. Despite an excellent run of three wins and nearly $100k in winnings, Raut lost on Monday, three days before Meyer’s debut.

Raut faced some memorably stiff competition along the way. His second game on January 12 was a so-called “golden game,” in which contestants answered all 61 clues  correctly. A game like that hadn’t happened since 1998. Equally remarkable, albeit bittersweet, was his fourth game on the 16th, when he trailed slightly entering Final Jeopardy and lost when his opponent made an unorthodox wager that nonetheless gave her the victory when all three players missed the question. It may have been the “wrong” move according to wagering calculators, but it left her $23,100 richer. On the Alex Trebek Stage, hindsight like that is crystal clear.

A single game of Jeopardy is roughly analogous to a leg of darts or a set in tennis: often very impressive, but pretty much meaningless in a larger context. It’s a high-variance game in which control of the board and minute differences in buzzer speed mean all. It’s no raw test of knowledge.

Both Raut and Meyer established their bona fides long ago. Raut has finished at or near the top of many global competitions using the MIMIR format, and is merely regarded in quiz bowl circles as “the greatest film player of all time.”

Meyer is a four-time winner of the LearnedLeague Championship (something like the national championship of solo quizzing, very broadly speaking) and his team dominates the top division of the Online Quiz League USA, routinely creaming very good teams like my own. And both players are former top-five finishers in the notoriously difficult World Quizzing Championships.

These accolades amount to very little in the public mind, of course; Jeopardy is the one thing everyone knows and is impressed by. For even the most decorated, talented quizzers, it can feel like a white whale, the culmination of a childhood dream.

So, you might ask, why not game the system and give the people what they want, a match featuring two juggernauts without the pesky problem of six games in between? Jeopardy doesn’t work that way, and can’t for compliance reasons. At the beginning of a taping day you have your returning champ plus a dozen or so others, including potential alternate contestants and maybe someone who could only fit a specific day into their schedule. The show makes up matchups randomly with an auditor looking on.

Yet they were in the dressing room together. Surely a look of recognition passed between them; more likely they made friendly banter. I imagine the same thought fluttering through their minds: Oh, shit. Take it from someone who’s tangled with them both: you don’t want to wind up facing either of them in a competition, even with nothing at stake but bragging rights. These are extremely bad dudes indeed.

Let me put it like this: it’s impossible to quickly explain the nuances of something like the MIMIR quiz format to somebody in a loud bar. But Jeopardy we’ve all seen. Everyone loves meeting someone who’s been on Jeopardy, no matter how they did. Meyer even met his wife on a Jeopardy message board, and they have a New York Times “Vows” profile to prove it. You can dine out on a Jeopardy story for a long time.

How close can the line between winning and losing be? In the case of Meyer’s first game, a seemingly meaningless $400 clue about the “Twilight” books ensured him a narrow runaway, a situation in which the leader has more than double the score of his nearest rival and cannot be caught. When he missed the Final and the returning champion got it, it was all for naught, and everyone knew it. The Meyer era, however long it lasts, almost never started.

When his second game rolled around on Friday, Meyer still looked a little starstruck under the lights, as if he’d not quite settled into his position. Like a thoroughbred race horse, he started off at a somewhat leisurely pace and then turned on the afterburners in Double Jeopardy, adding a cool $35,000 to his total. If a nervous Troy Meyer is capable of playing this well, what might a relaxed one look like?

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Daniel Cohen

Daniel Cohen is a software developer who lives in Syracuse, New York. He has written for Yard Work, The Guardian, and Maura Magazine.

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