game shows

Jeopardy! Isn’t a Team Sport, Right?

From left, Larissa Kelly, David Madden, Brad Rutter, and Alex Trebek. Photo: Sony Pictures Entertainment

For a certain kind of game-show nerd, high-level Jeopardy! is like the Super Bowl. Few other shows bring back their top contestants, and only on Jeopardy! do the best games take on a frantic rhythm of their own. Everyone knows how to play the game to maximize their chance of winning. The Daily Doubles take on supreme importance, so you hunt for them. Contestants rarely spend more than one or two clues in a single category and usually cover the harder ones first. It’s chaotic and tough to follow, grounded only by Alex Trebek’s indefatigable professionalism and even-keeled command of the show.

In 2014, I played in the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions, losing in the semifinals, and more than anything I remember the intensity. It’s an unforgettable adrenaline rush, fueled both by the game itself and the camaraderie that comes from meeting and competing against people whose weird, instant-recall brains made them game-show famous. You play for prestige as much as money. I don’t follow Jeopardy! much day-to-day anymore, but events like these remain appointment TV, and remind me how much I’d give to play again.

Unsurprisingly, I was more than ready for Jeopardy! All-Star Games, the latest twist on the show’s semi-regular tournaments that bring back the best of the best. The show invited 18 champions back for a two-week tournament with a team format. Six captains selected two players apiece in a September draft. Each player on a team would play one round per game. Compounding my excitement was the fact that friends from my Tournament of Champions, Julia Collins and Ben Ingram, were playing on the same team. (I offered to make T-shirts, but we ran out of time.) Plus, the new format offered a compelling twist from a show that rarely tries new things: What would happen when Jeopardy! became a team sport?

The All-Star Games mostly delivered on that potential, offering a number of dream matchups, compelling games, and excellent performances, with Team Brad Rutter beating Team Ken Jennings and Team Colby Burnett in Tuesday’s final to take home the $1 million prize.

That ending felt predestined: There was little Jeopardy! could do to keep this tournament from becoming Brad versus Ken IV: This Time With Teammates. They remain fantastic players. Ken is more fun, pulling off the immensely difficult combo of wreaking havoc while joking about other contestants, profusely apologizing to Trebek for not knowing the date of Canadian Independence Day, and answering a question about Titian with a ’70s SNL reference. Brad’s a little more machine-like, but still way looser than I ever was up there. They’re both terrors on the buzzer. It’s humbling rooting for the greatest Jeopardy! players you know to ring in just once — never a problem for them before! — while Ken and Brad jauntily rack up thousands of dollars.

Amid the Ken and Brad show, though, several other players confirmed their place as all-time Jeopardy! talents. Alex Jacob had both the tournament’s greatest round (convincingly outplaying finalists Brad and Pam Mueller in the second game of round one) and its most gutting (missing a true Daily Double that would have secured a trip to the final, but instead knocked his team out of contention). Larissa Kelly came out flying in both her Double Jeopardy rounds, securing huge leads and forcing equally excellent comebacks from Buzzy Cohen and Matt Jackson. Unfortunately for my rooting interests, Julia, Ben, and their teammate Seth Wilson were eliminated in round one, but they acquitted themselves well, and seeing them play again had me beaming.

With the excitement now fading, I do have one request: By all means bring back All-Star Games, but let’s not do team Jeopardy! again. It added too many rules for too little return. Making the tournament work required an incredibly complicated format. The strategy element fizzled, too, despite its enticing premise. Who do you play? When do you play them? Given the amount of preparation the contestants undertook — 364,878 flash cards, anyone? — they undoubtedly thought about every scenario.

The problem is that the strategy was still ultimately straightforward, and both players and show editors alike figured this out. (Jeopardy! showed clips of team strategy sessions throughout, but they got way shorter in week two.) Each player must play one round of a two-game match, and you can’t play the same round in consecutive games. Buzzer rounds clearly matter most. Therefore, top contestants on each team played Single Jeopardy first and Double Jeopardy second. The second-best played Double Jeopardy first and Final Jeopardy last. The remaining teammate played Final Jeopardy first and Single Jeopardy last, and I felt like I barely saw them. My only actual strategic question never came up: Teams generally put their best lineup in game two, but with two teams finishing a game one with huge leads and two runaway Final Jeopardys in game two, there was reason go for broke early.

The tournament seemed like a logistical nightmare to tape, too. Promos, press, photos, interviews, a plethora of strategy sessions and, oh yeah, occasionally playing Jeopardy! too. The stop-start-wait rhythm of gameplay seemed to make some contestants struggle in a way unrepresentative of their phenomenal skill. Success on Jeopardy! is equally dependent on buzzer timing and rhythm as smarts, but with the team format, contestants spend all day waiting around for their ten minutes to shine, or the one Final Jeopardy question that makes or breaks the game. If the questions are easy (and the whole tournament seemed easy given the caliber of players), the show becomes a buzzer race. You have to adjust, or else supernatural buzzer fiends like Brad, Ken, and Alex get even more of an edge.

I’m not against bringing back All-Star Games, of course. I’m for anything that gets great players back on television, as well as nerdy team photos, overwrought promos, and celebratory dancing. But I hope Jeopardy! scraps this team format so we can see these all-time contestants play normal games again. Matt, Larissa, and Alex could contend with, if not beat Brad and Ken in a standard game, and deserve their shot at trying to take down the kings. That display of individual prowess over 61 clues is why Jeopardy! works so well and why it gets my adrenaline pumping. Maybe soon we’ll have the second Ultimate Tournament of Champions and finally get some answers.

Jeopardy! Isn’t a Team Sport, Right?