Formula J

The gameplay is great on ‘Jeopardy! Masters’, but the format is a little weird

Anticipation was high for the Jeopardy Masters tournament, airing May 8-26 on ABC, but it came with a caveat: nobody seemed to know how it actually worked.

Despite months of hype and a barrage of ads on ABC, details were scarce until the tournament finished taping early last week. Five players from last year’s Tournament of Champions, plus legend James Holzhauer? Some sort of round-robin system?

Eventually they quietly revealed that the tournament would have a scoring system similar to soccer: three points for a win, one for second, zero for third. They would use “all possible combinations of three players”  in the opening round. If your memory of combinatorics is a little fuzzy, that’s 6c3 = 20 games, or two weeks’ worth of hour-long episodes, two games in each.

After that, they will reset the points table, eliminate the bottom two players , and play a four-game semifinal, again with every combination of the remaining players. One player will get their consolation prize after that, and the surviving three play a traditional two-game finale for the title and $500,000 prize.

So just to recap: twenty games over ten episodes, points instead of dollars, the points don’t accumulate but the, uh, points do, then a four-game semifinal where the points reset entirely, then a traditional two-game tournament finale where the points carry over. Nice and uncomplicated!

They were keeping close wraps on one more innovation. Before each round they show the location of the Daily Doubles to viewers, who may look away from their TVs if they wish to maintain the veneer of surprise.

I’m no purist. There are still people who grumble about doubling the dollar amounts and lifting the five-game limit. (Read the Jeopardy Facebook page sometime. If you can think of it, some fogey in Iowa has whined about it.) But did anyone, anywhere ask for this? This isn’t The $100,000 Pyramid. Suspense is integral to Jeopardy’s presentation.

This is seemingly all the bright idea of British executive producer Michael Davies, who took over the show in 2022 and is best known for importing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Airing every weeknight until Memorial Day weekend, Jeopardy Masters evokes that one-time phenomenon, but it also shares DNA with soccer and F1, those sports beloved of every American hipster you know. A league table? Automatic promotion for future TOC winners? You might as well enjoy a Wigan kebab while watching (pey wet, of course).

Not all of Davies’ ideas are bad. Publishing box scores makes it feel like a real sport. The Second Chance Tournament and expanded TOC were excellent ideas that made for compelling television. After Mike Richards’ host search debacle, Ken Jennings has proven to be an adept host, though Mayim Bialik is…a little less adept.

This is all a bit of a shame, because the actual tournament has been fascinating: by now Holzhauer’s game-breaking tactics are familiar, and watching elite contestants adapt to them has led to some fascinating game theory situations, risky bets, and all-around high-quality play. The contestants aren’t the problem here. The problem is the presentation. Jeopardy is prestige TV by game show standards. There’s no reason to tinker with the formula like this.


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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.

2 thoughts on “Formula J

  • May 20, 2023 at 9:47 pm

    I am a long time fan of Jeopardy and I think that the Masters tournament is a wonderful entertaining event. The only problem is James Holzhauer who is nothing but an asshat. He did not belong on this program. He was acting superior and obnoxious from the very beginning. I think we already know about his memory so now lets just forget about him. He was not a recent winner anyway. The other thing that bothered me was the behaviour of Matt Amodio. He thinks a lot of himself but it seemed there was something going on with his responses, Just watch his demeanor when he is trying to answer. Is he getting messages from somewhere? He is not a nice person any way.

  • May 23, 2023 at 8:55 pm

    I think differently. I am awed by all the masters’ knowledge and am enjoying the clever and fun banter among the contestants and Ken Jennings. James Holzhauer is fun and entertaining. He amazes me with the difficult answers to questions I sometimes don’t even understand. Matt Amodio is clearly thinking before he responds which is completely understandable. I look forward to watching exciting Jeopardy Masters and hope it will be done again soon with the same masters.


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