Every so often, Jeopardy! likes to remind its loyal viewers that their puny little brains aren’t worth a hill of beans, and if they think that by shouting the answers at their TV every night like freakin’ bozos, they’d succeed in the vaunted House of Trebek, well, they’ve got another thing coming.
Wait, apologies, wrong script. Hello, and welcome to the 2019 Tournament of Champions! Sorry about that.
Yes, it’s that time again. The heaviest of Jeopardy!’s most recent heavy hitters are back. The questions are harder, the prize money is greater, and the competition is, well, positively terrifying. Fifteen of the best contestants from the last two seasons return Monday to kick off a two-week battle of the brains, duking it out for a $250,000 grand prize while your pathetic neurons quiver and atrophy. Er, I mean, compete! Yes, compete.
While the Tournament of Champions is always some of the best competition that Jeopardy! has to offer, this year’s tournament has historic potential. One of the returnees is James Holzhauer, who shattered Jeopardy! records when he won nearly $2.5 million over a 32-game winning streak this spring. Another is Emma Boettcher, the University of Chicago librarian who defeated Holzhauer in game no. 33. (“Am I eager for revenge?” Holzhauer tweeted after the lineup was announced. “You Boettcher ass I am.”) We don’t know for sure that we’ll get a Holzhauer vs. Boettcher rematch (more on that below), but if they play anything like they did the first time around, it’s likely that they’ll get the chance to face each other once again. In the meantime, 13 other storied players might have a thing or two to say about Boettcher’s and Holzhauer’s ascendance.
Read along for more on what to expect, but first, a sad note. While winners of Jeopardy!’s other notable tournaments—the College Championship and Teachers Tournament—are guaranteed berths in the subsequent Tournament of Champions, the fan favorite winner of the 2018 teachers bracket, Larry Martin, passed away in January after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the same disease that host Alex Trebek was diagnosed with earlier this year. Martin taught for nearly 30 years in Prairie Village, Kansas; contestants in this tournament will wear purple ribbons in his honor.
The Return of James Holzhauer and Emma Boettcher
Holzhauer’s 32-game winning streak was unlike anything Jeopardy! has ever seen. While he ultimately fell just short of topping Ken Jennings’s regular-season winnings record (he walked away with $2,462,216 to Jennings’s $2,520,700), he shattered the single-game record again and again. (To wit, consult the Wall of James that is the official Jeopardy! Hall of Fame.) A professional gambler, Holzhauer hunted for Daily Doubles and wagered aggressively, often nearly doubling his score with each correct answer. And, because of his tendency to be in control of the board in the first place, he collected opportunities to vastly outpace his fellow contestants.
Boettcher countered his aggression with more of the same, finding two of the three Daily Doubles in the June 3 game (the more meaningful latter two, to boot) before Holzhauer could; she beat him with a score of $46,801 to his $24,799. But while that game was most notable for resulting in the end of Holzhauer’s streak, you might consider it for another reason: It was arguably the best-played game of Jeopardy! ever.
Boettcher bested Holzhauer at his own strategy, bouncing through different categories, locating Daily Doubles, and betting big. In the end, the combined performance of Boettcher, Holzhauer, and research engineer Jay Sexton, who came in third with a respectable $17,000, was the single best sum performance in the history of Jeopardy! in terms of its combined coryat score, a measure of total clues answered correctly. The highest possible combined coryat score is $54,000; the Holzhauer–Boettcher–Sexton matchup came in at $53,200. The three missed just one clue through the whole game, a $400 entry in Double Jeopardy: “Paternalism is restricting freedom in our (supposed) best interests, like state taxes on these, which began in Iowa in 1921.” (Answer at the end of this section, if you’d like to test your wits.) In essence, the Holzhauer–Boettcher–Sexton game had the best competition of any matchup in the 36-year history of the game show’s Trebek era.
Boettcher’s presence in the tournament is something of a surprise: Generally, players need to win five games to qualify for the Tournament of Champions, and Boettcher won only three. But Boettcher’s claim to fame isn’t just that she defeated Holzhauer. Her victories were authoritative: She averaged $32,334 in winnings, no shock for a contestant who wrote her master’s paper on the difficulty of Jeopardy! clues. Three other ToC players—Eric R. Backes, Anneke Garcia, and Lindsey Shultz—had four wins in their initial runs. Props to producers for taking Jeopardy! mastery, not just streak length, into account.
OK, it might not have been entirely altruistic. The people demand a Holzhauer-Boettcher rematch—if it produced fireworks last time, and gosh-darn historically great gameplay, a mere 26 minutes was not enough. There’s also the tiny matter of the ratings: Four of Holzhauer’s episodes, including his loss to Boettcher, ranked in the top 10 of any entertainment programming through that point in the 2018–19 television season; all of them surpassed the size of the audience for the finale of Game of Thrones.
Because of the Tournament of Champions’ structure, a rematch isn’t actually guaranteed. The ToC’s first week features five rounds of quarterfinals; Holzhauer will play Wednesday against Shultz and Alan Dunn, while Boettcher will play the following day with Backes and Josh Hill. The rules state that the winner of each of those five games plus the four nonwinners with the highest score move on to the next round. Knowing what we know about their Jeopardy! skills, a betting woman might suppose that Boettcher and Holzhauer will both make it to the semifinals—but it’s not a lock, meaning the quarterfinal stakes are plenty high.
(The answer to the one clue Boettcher, Holzhauer, and Sexton failed to come up with: What are cigarettes?)
Sky’s the Limit?
In mid-April, I interviewed Holzhauer about his buzzer technique. At the time we spoke, he had won just seven games, and was already emerging as a historically dominant player: In his fourth game, he busted the single-day cash record for the first time with $110,914; he would go on to beat his own record three times over the next six weeks.
Even then, Holzhauer was looking ahead—to this very moment. In response to one of my questions, he emailed me a photo of the homemade buzzer he created to practice ringing in before his first episode. I replied, asking if we had his permission to publish the picture.
“Yes, go ahead,” he wrote back an hour later. “I doubt anyone in the Tournament of Champions is going to defeat me because they copied its design for practice.”
Holzhauer, of course, knew then what I did not: That he would keep winning, and, judging by the fact that he had an email address set up specifically for media requests by win no. 7, that he would become a national sensation. (He almost lapped himself, which only Jennings had previously achieved without the help of a summer break: Because Jeopardy! is taped months in advance, Holzhauer’s loss to Boettcher, which aired in June, actually took place during a March 12 taping. That was three weeks before the first episode of his streak aired on April 4. In other words, by the time he was on TV, he had already lost, making the fact that his loss didn’t leak until the night before it aired that much more remarkable.)
It wasn’t a spoiler that Holzhauer was already looking forward to the Tournament of Champions even then—but with the benefit of hindsight, it makes sense that Jeopardy! James was fixated on it: Reunion tournaments are where the real money is.
Many of the most dominant Jeopardy! players have significantly increased their lifetime winnings through tournaments. Jennings has added an additional $850,000 to his initial winnings through four reunion tournaments since his regular-season run. Brad Rutter, who first competed on Jeopardy! in 2000, when the show still booted champions after five consecutive victories, took home $55,102 and two Chevy Camaros during his initial run. (The five-game rule was ditched in 2003, heralding in Jennings the following year.) Since then, Rutter has returned six times to play in Jeopardy! tournaments. He’s undefeated in every single one of those save the 2011 match with Jennings against IBM’s Watson computer (the computer crushed them both), taking home an additional $4.6 million and helping make him the winningest game-show contestant ever.
In short, Holzhauer was right to be thinking about the tournament—even if the first-place prize is a measly $250,000, scarcely a 10th of his initial winnings. And so are his 14 fellow players. Add to this that the top three finishers in the Tournament of Champions are very likely to get invited to additional tournaments down the road in addition to their runner-up prizes ($100,000 and $50,000, respectively), and, well, there’s a lot of money to be made.
Ryan Fenster Returns (Again)
Ryan Fenster is one of a very small group of Jeopardy! contestants who’ve appeared during the show’s regular gameplay more than once—making this tournament technically his third time on. Fenster’s first appearance took place in January 2018, and he won four games. In the fifth game, he encountered a $1,200 clue in Double Jeopardy: “St. Thomas Aquinas died traveling to Lyon, France while attempting to heal this rift between the Latin & Greek churches.” Jeopardy!’s writers were looking for the answer “schism”; Fenster answered with “the Great Schism” and was marked incorrect. He went on to lose that game, landing in third place with $8,400, a single dollar behind the second-place contestant.
But a Jeopardy! staffer named Matthew Sherman, who tracks the games’ clues to prevent (or at least limit) repetition, thought that Fenster’s answer was correct, and research proved him right: While “the Great Schism” is mostly used to refer to a different conflict 200 years before Aquinas lived, the term is also sometimes used for the event Fenster was asked about.
So Jeopardy! invited him back on: Fenster came back that July and won an additional three games, pushing his seven-day winnings to $156,497 and taking home both the $2,000 second-place prize and the $1,000 third-place prize.
That’s not, however, what you might know Fenster for.
During his first streak on the show, Fenster was part of a trio of contestants who faced the dreaded category … Talkin’ Football. None of the three, it turned out, knew much of anything about the sport: They cleared the entire board before reluctantly embarking on the five football clues. On Jeopardy!, it’s called a “triple stumper” when none of the three contestants ring in to answer a clue. These are generally fairly rare, but on this day, none of the players rang in even once. The Jeopardy! “doo-doo-doo” noise rang five times; Trebek became increasingly (and delightfully) salty with the contestants, going so far as to mime some of the answers for them.
To his credit, Fenster has a sense of humor about that day. “I’m Ryan Fenster, and I’m ready for any category,” he said in a recent ToC promo. “As long as it’s not Talkin’ Football.” Game categories are divvied up at random, so there’s no saying if Fenster will get another set of clues about ye olde pigskin, but it’s a fair bet that he’s since spent some time studying up on the basics.
“The Claws Are Coming Out”
Josh Hill won seven games in May 2018. He made a name for himself by improving on the usual polite and/or awkward smile that contestants generally give when their names are read during the opening credits: Each time, he flexed his fingers at the camera like claws.
A nod to his alma mater, the Brinkley High School Tigers, Hill has had fun with it. On Twitter, his name is “Mr. Tigerclaw Himself,” and in the ToC promo, he promised audiences (or his fellow players?) that “the claws are coming out.”
Hill first tried to get on Jeopardy! back in 1998 when he was just 15. He says that being a little too brusque with his fellow would-be contestants—he rolled his eyes when he wasn’t called on during his audition—might have cost him that chance.
Hill is also one of seven ToC contestants who play in the invite-only trivia bracket Learned League—meaning many of this tournament’s players have competed against each other before. Because Learned League also features a defensive element—players face off head to head, assigning points to their opponent based on what they think they might get wrong—those players have also thought a lot about what the other Learned League alumni might not know. Meaning, of course: Time for some game theory.
OK, OK, there isn’t time to spotlight everyone—yet. But many gems fill out the rest of the roster. There’s Gilbert Collins, who promised his young children 1 percent of his winnings and now has the potential to make some very wealthy tots (invest wisely!); Dhruv Gaur, who won the 2018 College Tournament when he was just 18; cookbook author and instructional design consultant Anneke Garcia; macarena aficionado Rob Worman; and Rachel Lindgren, who got our lord and savior Trebek to say “who is Luigi?!” during her initial run. Don’t sleep on Alan Dunn, who at 60 is the oldest contestant in the field and says he’s going to “show these kids how it’s done”; seven-time winner Kyle Jones; Lindsey Shultz, who spoke recently about joining Jeopardy!’s “tribe of magnificent nerds”; Francois Barcomb, winner of the 2019 Teachers Tournament; Steven Grade, who once almost tackled Hank Aaron; or Eric R. Backes, who had the highest winnings per victory after Boettcher and Holzhauer and proudly refers to himself as a Florida Man.
In closing, take a gander at the upcoming field of smarty-pantses (smarty-panti?):
Aw, just look at them all. Their brains could flatten you in a heartbeat. Let’s just hope that they use their powers, and newfound riches, for good.