The Jeopardy! All-Star Tournament

Trivia Enters Its Moneyball Era

Have you been watching the Jeopardy! All-Star Games? As a former champion, but not a super-champion, I’ve been keeping an eye on them like a disbarred lawyer hoping for a reprieve from the state. Until last week, a 47-year-old Rickey Henderson playing sandlot ball had more of a chance of getting back to the bigs than I do of returning to the Jeopardy! stage. As long as Trebek walks the Earth, I knew, the call wouldn’t come again. Too many other people are waiting for their dreams to be fulfilled, or, more likely, crushed by the Jeopardy! buzzer.

But suddenly, with the All-Star format, a wisp of hope has emerged.

It’s a team game now.

The All-Star Tournament takes most of the top players of the past 15 seasons and carves them into six teams of three apiece. The six pre-selected “captains” held a draft a few months ago, and then the teams had a few weeks to prepare. Each player on the team plays a different round, each match is comprised of two games, and no player can play the same round twice in a match. If you watch, it sort of makes sense.

I belong to several  former Jeopardy! contestant Internet holding pens. Some people have been griping on the boards about the format and the endless “visiting” with old friends. I’ve been feeling a little sense of “the rich get richer.” Does anyone need to watch Brad Rutter win a million dollars again?

But we all pretty much agree that the thrill of watching the best players play the game against one another at the highest level offsets any minor quibbles or moments of envy. The show has put these elite athletes on display again. And they’re producing in a fresh format.

We’re All In This Together

While our most popular knowledge games–Jeopardy! and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?–tend to be lone-wolf affairs, there have always been team versions of competitive trivia. To win the final round on the now-defunct The Chase, teams of two or three contestants had to defeat Mark Labett, the unctuous Beast.

The Beast

The College Quiz Bowl circuit, which requires multiple players on the buzzer, has been churning out Jeopardy! champions for decades, and it once had its own hugely popular show. The greatest upset in televised trivia history came on GE College Bowl in 1966, when a team from Agnes Scott, a tiny women’s college, defeated a mighty all-male team from Princeton.

In previous, pre-social media decades, Jeopardy! was an isolating sport, where most contestants faded into the sunset like departing gunslingers. But now we have online trivia leagues where we can congregate and slap one another around every day. We congregate on message boards and annoying group-oriented trivia app contests like Confetti on Facebook, which offer daily payouts. I’ve never pulled in more than $35 bucks from one Confetti game, but I know a guy who scored $1250. In one night. Most importantly, it happened collaboratively.

Then there’s bar trivia. I’ve spent far too much of the last five years of my life wrangling my own team, Post-Trebek Stress Disorder, comprised solely of former Jeopardy! contestants. We rarely win more than a bar tab, but we also rarely lose. On our own, we’re pretty good. But when we work together, as a group, we’re an awesome force of useless knowledge. Like Maximus and his Gladiator friends, we’ve got a better chance to survive if we stay together.

 

When a version of Post-Trebek Stress Disorder, comprised entirely of former Jeopardy! champions, marches into the arena this weekend in Las Vegas at the 13th annual Geek Bowl, we’ll be facing 250 other teams, some of them similarly constructed. We habitually finish in the top 20, but I’m hungry for more. Split six ways, the $13,000 prize will just about cover our Vegas meals. But like Trebek said on yesterday’s show, “our contestants aren’t in it for the money. They’re in it for the glory.

The NBA Finals Of Trivia

The people who run Jeopardy! don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. They can see that their former contestants have built a powerful community based on a dorky thirst for knowledge, on friendship, and on mutual envy. And they’ve tapped into that collective desire to play as a unit.

My trivia-team maneuvering revolves around who’s free on a Tuesday night or who can afford a weekend trip to Vegas. But Jeopardy! held a draft, which adds a whole extra layer of intrigue to the gameplay. Team construction really matters.

Brad Rutter, the face of evil

It’s no accident that the teams headed by Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, the two greatest Jeopardy! players of all time, have dominated proceedings so far. Rutter brilliantly drafted two high-quality players, Larissa Kelly and David Madden, with a huge number of wins under their belts. Both of them write trivia questions for a living. They were mercenary picks by a man without conscience or mercy.

Jennings’ team may look weaker on paper, but he chose young players with an eye toward statistical analysis. They’ve computed the odds and filled in knowledge gaps, like nerdy robots. To my eyes, Buzzy Cohen, a smooth operator who took Alex Jacob with a fortunate first pick, captains the only other team with a chance to win the whole thing. Jacob, a former options trader and a professional poker player, knows everything and studies hard, but he’s also a master of game pace and odds-calculation. The winner can no longer be determined by “who knows the most shit” It’s “who knows the most shit compared with dozens of hypothetical opponents in thousands of random scenarios.”

These exciting games have me thinking, and other former contestants must also be thinking the same thing: could Team Jeopardy! actually become a regular thing? Is it possible we might make it back on the show playing alongside our friends?

Probably not. Prayers rarely get answered. But I know plenty of one-time, two-time, and three-time champions, as well as many people who didn’t win at all but easily could have, who’d love another shot at the buzzer. We’d be happy to play alongside our dorky sisters and brothers.  Like the soldiers of Gondor, whatever comes through those gates, we’ll stand our ground.

 

 

If it’s a team game now, then I’m ready to serve. As long as they don’t ask me any questions about artichokes.

 

Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of ten semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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