Jeopardy! is not generally the kind of program that necessitates advance warning about an episode. But Friday it was, with the stalwart quiz show issuing a warning to its loyal fans to steel themselves and perhaps have the antacids handy.
Alert— Jeopardy! (@Jeopardy) January 22, 2021
Something crazy happens in today's Final Jeopardy! pic.twitter.com/ukyzchjmvS
The occasion for all this pearl-clutching was the show’s third-ever regular-season tiebreaker. Friday’s game saw contestants Maggie Houska, Jack Weller, and returning champion Brian Chang face off. Chang led through much of Double Jeopardy! until Weller found both of the round’s Daily Doubles. By the time the Final Jeopardy! category—Statues—was revealed, Chang and Weller were tied at $18,800, with Houska trailing at $10,000. All three went all in for Final Jeopardy!; Chang and Weller were correct, leaving them tied at an even $37,600 and sending them to a high-stakes tiebreaker round. A single additional clue was revealed: “In October 1961 Stalin’s body was removed from display in this other man’s tomb.” Chang buzzed in first and was correct (Who is Lenin?), becoming the episode’s champ; Weller, despite his hefty would-be winnings, went home as the runner-up with a $2,000 consolation prize.
What an ending! Here's what happens when two contestants are tied after Final Jeopardy! pic.twitter.com/wwTtGkkl00— Jeopardy! (@Jeopardy) January 23, 2021
Jeopardy!’s tiebreaker is a relatively recent innovation. Just ask Sarah Norris, who in 2018 found herself playing against Laura McLean in the first tiebreaker during a regular game of Jeopardy! in the show’s history.
“I have the dubious honor of being the only person to end up in a Jeopardy! tiebreaker because of a math/brain error rather than an unavoidable reality,” Norris says. “As I was trying to calculate my wager, I could not remember if I was supposed to subtract a dollar or add a dollar at a critical part of the equation. I added when I should have subtracted.”
Jeopardy! mostly tapes in real time with next to no editing of timing. The moments of wagering—when contestants work out how much they want to gamble on a Daily Double or in Final Jeopardy!—are exceptions, with players ostensibly given as long as they want to work out a sum. During Final Jeopardy!, contestants are even given slips of scratch paper to run through the options. But while there might be more time than it seems like in the telecast, Norris says, it’s hardly ideal arithmetic conditions.
“The thing about doing your wager for Jeopardy! is it’s not exactly a quiet, calm environment. During my episode, Alex had to do a number of pickups”—short, refilmed sequences—“so he was joking around with the production staff, re-recording things, and so on. It’s very distracting, and very high stress—I knew I was in a situation where I should win if I didn’t mess up, and I really just could not get my brain to process how to do the wagering math.”
Norris and McLean ended up tied at $6,799. McLean beat her to the buzzer on the show’s inaugural tiebreaker clue (“Her April decision to call a snap parliamentary election proved less than brilliant on June 8”—Theresa May), and that was that.
On Jeopardy!, a tiebreaker isn’t just a tiebreaker. It’s the result of a years-long effort by the show’s most diehard fans to lift up the hood of the nearly 60-year-old game show in search of analytical certainty. There is, it turns out, a lot to be found—particularly thanks to the exhaustive amount of data generated by the more than 8,000 episodes that have aired since Alex Trebek took over as host in 1984. Many of the show’s changes over the years—the introduction of the Clue Crew, the complicated buzzer system, the flashy tournaments, even the elimination of the five-day limit for returning champions—have been for the benefit of the audience at home: to make the show more exciting.
But the tiebreaker? That one’s all because of the contestants, and their endless quest to play an ever more perfect game of Jeopardy!
“Before we discuss any math, we should remember one important psychological point: The vast majority of Jeopardy! contestants want to take their destiny into their own hands. The only way to do that in a tie game is to wager everything,” says Keith Williams—whom, by the way, you can thank for Friday’s game, and Norris’s too.
Williams, who won the Jeopardy! College Championship back in 2003, gained notoriety in the show’s community a decade later, when he launched the website The Final Wager. Williams has a background in math and game theory, and to him, wagering on Jeopardy! is not subjective. Especially when it comes to Final Jeopardy!, there are good bets and bad ones, right ones and wrong.
At The Final Wager, he spent three years breaking down the events of each night’s game in short YouTube tutorials, pausing as the doo-doo-doo of the “Think!” music began (yes, that’s its name) before launching into an explanation of exactly how much money each contestant should bet. His goal was clear: Stop the world—or at least the approximately 400 brainiacs who reach the Jeopardy! stage each year—from making lousy wagers. In the first video of the series, Williams downs a shot of scotch—ostensibly to drown his sorrows after watching yet another would-be champ fritter away a win—and then wincingly introduces himself to viewers. “Every night I sit here and I ask myself why,” he says to the camera. “Why hasn’t anyone done anything about the epidemic that’s plaguing our television screens?”
While Williams’s primary goal was to stop bad bets, he also wanted to spike the rate of good ones, and that meant a substantial portion of his advice revolved around gunning for a tie. While tiebreakers always had been an element of tournament gameplay—Jeopardy! wasn’t about to hand out two Teen Tournament grand prizes—there was no such thing in regular-season episodes. If two contestants (or even three, as happened in 2007) finished with the same non-zero score at the end of Final Jeopardy!, they were named co-champions and welcomed back together to play in the next game—taking home whatever money they won in the first and getting a shot at a second big payday.
As more and more aspiring Jeopardy! contestants discovered Williams’s site and began to follow his instructions, the number of ties skyrocketed: In 2014, for example, the games that aired on October 28 and October 30 both produced co-champions. That spring, Arthur Chu had embarked on a headline-grabbing 11-game winning streak—at the time, the third-longest in show history—in which he explicitly deployed Williams’s recommended strategies to gun for a tie. (He tied once, and took home just shy of $300,000.) Chu’s success pushed the strategy into the mainstream.
Ryan Alley was in the studio for both those October 2014 games. Because Jeopardy! records five episodes during each of its tape days, he began the morning on which both were filmed watching from the audience when Bill Albertini and Jenica Jessen tied for $19,200. He was assigned to be the third contestant in the next game as they returned as co-champions, and he toppled both. Then, in his first game as a returning champ, Alley tied Allison Solomon with a final total of $20,200.
Alley says he was aware of Chu’s streak and the rise of Final Jeopardy! wagering strategery, but hadn’t spent much time worrying about it himself. “I watched the tie happen and I thought, ‘Oh gosh, people are really serious about this,’” he says.
His own co-champion title, he says, “was an accidental tie.” Solomon had the lead after Double Jeopardy! with $12,600 to Alley’s $10,200. The Final Jeopardy! category was “Monarchs of England,” and, as luck would have it, Solomon just so happened to have mentioned to him backstage that she was an expert on the English aristocracy. Alley figured she would get it, and assumed that the game’s third contestant, Eileen Dreyer, would nail such a classic Jeopardy! category as well. He decided to bet an even $10,000, leaving himself just enough money to perhaps pull off a win in case of a disastrously hard prompt. “I bet thinking we were all going to get it or we were all going to miss it, or I’m going to miss it and Eileen is going to get it.”
Trebek came to the contestants one by one, revealing that all three were right: The two monarchs with a shared name who were proclaimed king but never crowned were both named Edward. Since Solomon bet $7,600, the game culminated in a tie.
Apparently, two ties happening in the space of a couple of hours at the Culver City studio was enough for Jeopardy! to make a change. Although the show didn’t formally announce the tiebreaker system until 2016, Alley says the rule was installed immediately following his and Solomon’s victory. Alley knew someone in the cohort of contestants who taped just a week after his own games. “He said that they told us”—that is, the producers told that day’s contestants—“that in the case of a tie, there is now a tiebreaker.” As a result, Alley and Solomon were Jeopardy!’s last co-champs. As one fan put it on the Jeopardy! subreddit: “Keith Williams ruined everything.” The words now grace The Final Wager’s home page.
(Suffice it to say, Williams still obsesses over Final Jeopardy! scenarios. After I asked him about what led to Friday’s tie—which, like the show’s second tiebreaker, in 2019, was the result of the contestants being tied for first place and then betting their entire total—he sent back a series of game theory matrices. “Maggie’s all-in wager was terrible,” he says. “There’s no shame in winning with one dollar!”)
Alley’s suspicion is that the show was never all that worried about the extra expense of paying for multiple champions’ victories (a reasonable guess, given how much Jeopardy! rakes in each year). Instead, he says, the tiebreaker was likely implemented to preserve the flow of contestants. In a given year, some 100,000 people try out for one of those 400 spots on the show. Many spend years trying to get chosen. On a typical tape day, the show brings in 10 new contestants—many having flown in from across the country at their own expense—as well as a couple of local alternates. With two ties, there are two fewer slots—two more people who may have waited years for the Jeopardy! invitation before being told to go back home and try again. For all the perennial stories about strategies like the Forrest Bounce or James Holzhauer’s big bets breaking Jeopardy!, this was the one that really did it. And so: the tiebreaker.
After their game, Alley and Solomon struck up a friendship. She attended his wedding to David Rigsby, who became a Jeopardy! champ in his own right in 2017. By that time, Alley says, the tiebreaker was “just the rule.”
He and Solomon still text whenever there’s a tie on Jeopardy!, just as they did Friday night. It happened again.