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The 2021 Tournament of Champions and the Science (OK, Art) of Measuring ‘Jeopardy!’ Skill

This year’s competition, the first without Alex Trebek, will feature Buzzy Cohen behind the lectern. And as always, it will push the best trivia minds to the top of their games.

Efi Chalikopoulou

In case you were wondering, Buzzy Cohen would like to be the host of Jeopardy! for good.

You might not have been wondering at all, given that Cohen—a nine-time champ, the winner of the 2017 Tournament of Champions, a captain in the 2019 All-Star Games, and a favorite of nanas everywhere—has been openly campaigning for the gig for years. The first time we met, I was in the audience at the All-Star Games; so too was his family, who used a commercial break to ask Alex Trebek whether Cohen could have his job once he decided to hang up his hat. (Answer: inconclusive. Trebek was hard-pressed to endorse anyone not named Betty White.) When Cohen happened to be in the green room with Harry Friedman, the longtime executive producer of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune who left the shows last year, he appealed directly. “I said, ‘Well, since we’re not going to win the tournament, it makes it that much easier for Harry to hire me as the next host,’” Cohen says. In return, he says he got “a Cheshire cat smile.”

Beginning Monday, Cohen will get his chance as the latest of Jeopardy!’s guest hosts, taking the show’s reins for the program’s Tournament of Champions. Yes, this makes him ineligible for future competition. “I had some pangs about not being able to hold the buzzer again,” he concedes. “I was joking with Ken [Jennings, another of this season’s guest hosts] right when I got the call. It’s my moment like Moonlight Graham in Field of Dreams, when he walks across the rocks and turns into the doctor. It’s like: It’s over.”

But Cohen, a lifelong Jeopardy! fan, says he already found what he was looking for when he taped his first game five years ago. “The first time I buzzed in and Alex said ‘Buzzy’ and I gave a correct answer—that was it. And everything after that has been gravy.”

A brief refresher on the tournament’s structure: The first week of the two-week contest is devoted to five quarterfinal matches between the 15 contenders. The winner of each of those games, plus the four highest-scoring non-winners, move on to the second week’s three semifinal games. The winner of each semifinal will advance to a two-day final that begins on Thursday, May 27. The champ will go home with $250,000, a permanent place in the great geekdom pantheon, and a good chance of being invited back for additional future tournaments.

These 15 contestants are the last great champions of the Trebek era; more recent players who competed with a guest host will come back for the next tournament. Absent from the lineup is Brayden Smith, who died in February following complications from a surgery. Smith, who was just 24, was an electrifying player. His five wins were the last long streak of Trebek’s tenure and visibly delighted the host in what would be some of his final tapings before his own death in November.

Tragically, this is the third consecutive Tournament of Champions in which a contestant who qualified died before they could return to the Jeopardy! stage, after Cindy Stowell and Larry Martin.

It was Sarah Whitcomb Foss of the Clue Crew who first asked Cohen whether he would be interested in guest hosting. They’d gotten to know each other during the All-Star Games, when she was assigned to be the show’s liaison with Cohen’s team during the group’s pre-taping training. “I ran through my house and started screaming at my wife,” he says of getting the call.

After Cohen signed on to guest host, Whitcomb Foss took it upon herself to help him prepare (a tall order, considering he literally wrote a book on training). Two or three times a week, they met for rehearsals on Zoom, where Cohen made his first attempts at hosting and Whitcomb Foss—who’s had nearly two decades of experience reading on-location clues—stood in as a contestant and then critiqued his reads. Don’t always emphasize “this.” Mix up the rhythm. Switch up your replies to the contestants’ fun facts. “Watching back, Alex went into each clue totally differently, and that’s what’s really hard,” Cohen says. “Each clue is a little story that you tease out. It’s not a marathon—it’s 61 sprints, and you have to bring intensity to each clue.”

Once he got into the studio—and set up camp in Trebek’s former dressing room, as all of this season’s guest hosts have—Cohen found new challenges, like mastering Jeopardy!’s official lexicon (clues, not questions; responses, not answers; lectern, not podium) and adjusting to life with a hot mic. “I also found out, of course forgetting I was miked up, that everyone can hear everything—so when you’re talking to the makeup person, Mike [Richards, who replaced Friedman as executive producer] and Rocky [Schmidt, a supervising producer] and everyone are listening,” Cohen says, laughing. “Sarah was like, ‘Yeah, I joined you in the bathroom earlier today.’”

Cohen also learned perhaps a bit more about his own speech patterns than he would have liked. “There was one thing where I say ‘animals,’” Cohen, who grew up in the Northeast and now lives in Los Angeles, says of a clue. “Sarah was like, ‘You say animals with an accent.’ I asked her how she says it. ‘Animals.’ So then I go into the writers’ room and I’m like, ‘Apparently I say “animals” weird.’ And Michele [Loud, the show’s co–head writer] just looks at me dead in the eye and says, ‘You say the word “and” weird as well.’”

In 2017, Alex Jacob attempted to predict the results of that year’s Tournament of Champions. He was no stranger to Jeopardy!: Two years earlier, he had won six games and just shy of $150,000, deploying an aggressive wagering strategy that mirrored his years as a professional poker player. A few months later, he returned for the Tournament of Champions and won that, too.

Jacob knew that on Jeopardy!, the number of games a champion wins during their streak is often what comes to define them. It’s an easy shorthand to summarize the bona fides of many of the game’s most storied players: Ken Jennings, 74 games; Julia Collins, 20 games; Arthur Chu, 11 games. And it is—with rare exceptions—the metric that Jeopardy! itself uses to select the Tournament of Champions playing field: As the official tracker for the next tournament explains, all players who win at least four games are eligible. (This season, Brian Chang and John Focht are the only contestants to have won more than three consecutive games with a guest host—an unusually Spartan stretch that might have something to do with players struggling to master the varying cadences of the rotating hosts.) Given that competing in the Tournament of Champions is the show’s highest recurring honor for players, it’s clear that in the eyes of Jeopardy!, the number of games won matters most. The show typically separates the contestants with the longest win streaks for the quarterfinals, and many fans consider the player with the most wins going in to be the tournament’s top seed.

But, as Jacob explained in an essay laying out his prediction, he found number of wins to be a highly imprecise measure of a Jeopardy! contestant’s skill. He likened it to the wins metric for pitchers: a stat that was “intuitive and memorable,” but that didn’t reveal the whole picture. More than that, however, it’s a pretty lousy predictor of Tournament of Champions winners. In 2019, when the last tournament took place, 32-time champ James Holzhauer’s victory was the second time since the 2003 elimination of the five-day limit for returning champions that the contestant with the longest winning streak won it all. Streak length isn’t totally useless as a predictive factor—in the 11 tournaments in that post-five-day-limit window, the player with the most wins made the finals seven times (in 2017, when both Austin Rogers and Seth Wilson had 12 wins, only Rogers made the finals)—but the ostensible top seed winning only twice in 11 tournaments is telling.

Jacob wondered whether there might be a better way to pick a tournament favorite. He proposed what he called the average jeopardy, or AJ, score, which looked not at number of wins but instead at performance in each game—specifically, how much money a player earned prior to Final Jeopardy! (which he argued inserted so much randomness as to be a distraction). Jacob equated the AJ score to a different baseball statistic: WAR. By comparing it to a raft of other Jeopardy! statistics, including the percentage of Daily Doubles a player found and how many of their games were runaways, Jacob sought to build a more detailed picture of the playing field than the two most obvious stats—games and money won—have long offered.

In the end, Jacob picked Austin Rogers, who had the highest AJ score in the group, to win it all. Ultimately, Rogers came in third. The champ, meanwhile, was Cohen, whose AJ score was 11th of the 15 competitors. (Cohen didn’t take Jacob’s ranking personally: As a captain in the All-Star Games, he selected Jacob, as well as 2015 Teachers Tournament champion Jennifer Giles, to be on his team. When I joked that by hosting he had given up his chance to play again against contestants like Jacob, Cohen deadpanned, “You mean I’ve deprived myself of a chance to be beaten by Alex Jacob. I’ve already gone head-to-head with Alex 51 times in a weekend in Denver [during All-Star practice]. He wiped the floor with me 40 of those times.”)

Of course, as any statistician knows—much less any sportswriter given the onerous task of making postseason predictions at a season’s start—data isn’t quite so simple. If raw statistics were all that mattered, there wouldn’t be a postseason: The team with the most wins that season would be handed the trophy (er, champion’s belt) and that would be that. Indeed, Jacob bested the player with the highest AJ score, Matt Jackson, to win his own tournament in 2015; Jackson was the runner-up.

Jeopardy!, like any game—or sport—worth its salt, has plenty of variability and chance baked in: whether a player happens to find a game’s randomly placed Daily Doubles at the right time, whether the categories in a given game happen to be a player’s strong suit, whether a player is matched up with a particularly fierce buzzer operator, and so on. All those other factors Jacob looked at mattered, too.

Which brings us, finally, to the 2021 Tournament of Champions field. With immense gratitude to the J! Archive, a fan-maintained database of game and player history, we can identify some standouts. (The tournament taped in April, but we’ll treat Jeopardy! like the live sport it spiritually is.) This year’s Tournament of Champions features the owner of one of the longest win streaks in Jeopardy! history: Jason Zuffranieri, whose 19 wins are tied for the fourth most ever in regular gameplay. The Zuff, as some in the Jeopardy! community have taken to calling him, also happens to have the highest AJ score of anyone in the tournament: He averaged a daunting $27,215 heading into Final Jeopardy!

There’s one additional fact about the Zuff that should strike terror into the hearts of his opponents: He has a proven history of getting better with time off. Zuffranieri is an unusual Tournament of Champions contestant: He is one of 36 players to win a season finale, meaning he had to come back to the studio after the show’s annual three-month summer break to defend his streak. He was already a shoo-in for the tournament when he went home for the summer, having won six games by the July 2019 finale. After a long layoff, he could have been forgiven for being a little rusty when he finally returned to the stage.

He wasn’t. In 2019, I interviewed Ted Berg, who played Zuffranieri in what would be the Zuff’s 19th, and final, victory. Berg recalled joining the group of fellow contestants at his hotel that morning and waiting for the shuttle to the Sony studio where Jeopardy! tapes. As he waited, Berg recognized Zuffranieri in the crowd and realized to his horror that this was the new season’s second week of taping—and Zuffranieri still being there meant that he’d added another 10 wins to his streak. Even more intimidating: The Zuff was still studying. “He’s sitting there looking at a laptop and making a knowing nod,” Berg said of that morning. “He’s still taking in Jeopardy! stuff right now.”

For Berg and the other players who encountered the back half of Zuffranieri’s streak, the terrifying part wasn’t just that he’d kept winning games—it was that he’d gotten even better as a contestant during his time off. During the first six games of his streak, he averaged $22,883 in winnings and added an average of $2,300 with Daily Doubles in each episode. When he returned for the new season, he averaged $29,621 in winnings and nearly tripled his average Daily Double take: $6,250. His average coryat score—a metric Jeopardy! diehards use to track how much of the material a player knows—also improved in the second leg, from $21,993 to $25,471. During his summer break, Zuffranieri became both a better Jeopardy! player and a more aggressive one, and this time, more than a year and a half after his last game aired, he’s had much longer to prepare.

Interestingly, Zuffranieri is set to face the person who might be his fiercest competition in the first round, when he kicks off the tournament Monday against Ryan Bilger and Sarah Jett Rayburn (whom you might recall for her delightful midgame explanation of a Final Jeopardy! whiff, to Trebek’s bemusement). Bilger has the highest AJ score ($24,680) after Zuffranieri; he was also right on every Daily Double that he found (he uncovered 47 percent of them—about middle of the pack in this group). Zuffranieri was more likely to find Daily Doubles—he picked up an impressive 70 percent of them, the best mark in the tournament—but he was also more likely to be wrong, missing 19 percent. Note to Bilger, Rayburn, and anyone else who faces him: If the Zuff has a weakness, it’s in Final Jeopardy! He got just 55 percent of those clues correct, the fourth-lowest mark in the tournament, ahead of just Kevin Walsh, Ben Henri, and Nibir Sarma.

But Zuffranieri shouldn’t get all the attention for his long streak. This tournament also has three eight-time champs: Karen Farrell, MacKenzie Jones (an animal-print icon), and Jennifer Quail. All played in the same two-month stretch last year; five of Farrell’s and Quail’s victories were runaways, as were four of Jones’s. As Trebek himself said of Farrell, “One thing you’ve discovered about our champion Karen is that she’s good.” She’s not alone: Jones, for her part, was apparently such a fan favorite at Jeopardy! HQ that footage from her streak was included in this season’s opening credits:

In a Reddit AMA after her run on the show, Jones, who in three of her games wagered nothing in Final Jeopardy!, explained her cautious bets by saying that she works with programs funded by casinos: “[L]et me tell you—the house will eventually always win.” (I highly recommend her inspirational collage of powerful ladies.) Quail, meanwhile, is a distinctly formidable opponent. She was right on 89 percent of her Final Jeopardy! clues and nailed 100 percent of the Daily Doubles she faced, too. Her average coryat score, $21,644, is second among all contestants, after Zuffranieri. As you might expect from someone who still live-tweets Jeopardy! each evening, she is a particularly sharp player, even compared to other elite contestants.

Steve Moulds (alias Steve!), Henri, and Sarma are the only players with just four games under their belts. The latter two come to the tournament as the reigning champions of the Teachers Tournament and College Championship, respectively. (Until 2001, the Teen Tournament champ got a ToC invite as well; cruelly, the powers that be seem to have decided that sticking a high school student into the nerd Super Bowl isn’t fair.)

On the one hand, coming to the Tournament of Champions from another Jeopardy! tournament would seem to offer some advantages: Players have already dealt with the vagaries of wild-card strategy (all 15 players are in the dark about the results of the other quarterfinal games until they have played to prevent contestants in the later games from having an unfair advantage) and the higher stakes of tournament play. The Teachers Tournament does seem to produce a disproportionate amount of finalists: Two of the eight educator champs who’ve played in the Tournament of Champions have made it to the finals; in 2013, Colby Burnett won it all.

The odds aren’t as rosy for the collegiate champion. The College Championship has been around since 1989; of the 29 champs to play in the Tournament of Champions since then, only three have made it to the finals. Just Tom Cubbage, who was the very first college champion, managed to take home the Tournament of Champions’ grand prize (then a measly $100,000).

Dhruv Gaur, who won the 2018 College Championship and was a semifinalist in the most recent Tournament of Champions (where his Final Jeopardy! note to Trebek caused the legendarily steely host to choke up), acknowledges that coming from the college competition poses its own unique challenges. “I think there’s only so much of Jeopardy! content that you can learn from reading and studying,” Gaur says. “A lot of it comes from just being attentive to random things that come up as you experience the world. As someone who hasn’t been paying attention to the world for particularly long, I really acutely felt that disadvantage, especially on pop culture questions.”

Still, Gaur says his advice for Sarma, a college junior, would have been: “Don’t be intimidated just because there are grown-ups around.”

Around these parts, we love streaking champs who take down other streaking champs. That’s precisely what happened when Sam Kavanaugh (a possible Dr. Robotnik associate) showed up for the fifth game of Bilger’s streak, toppling him and then winning another four games to boot. If both make it through their separate quarterfinals, they may get a rematch—which would be especially impressive given that they’re the two players with the longest layoffs since their original winning streaks, which aired in July 2019.

But what is the 76ers angle? you might be wondering. In March 2020, Paul Trifiletti faced the following clue on the first day of his five-game winning streak: “Joel Embiid in 2019 won the trademark for this nickname of his that also describes the 76ers’ strategy of improving the team.” Alas, Trifiletti did not land on “the Process,” offering up “do a 180” instead—to the delight of the Sixers star, who promptly changed his display name on Twitter to “Joel ‘do a 180’ Embiid.” Should he advance to the semifinals or beyond, Trifiletti may find himself facing Bilger—a self-described Process truster.

Ryan Hemmel, who shared an Om chant with Trebek, may pose his own complications if he ends up playing against Bilger; when a Redditor asked how the two Ryans would be identified on a famously first-name-forward program, Bilger proposed a “steel cage death match to see who gets to keep his name.” You might remember Walsh as one of the only Jeopardy! players to compete alone in Final Jeopardy! (Walsh also happens to have a second-degree black belt, so the competition had reason to skedaddle.) And Andy Wood, a comedian, might have the biggest personality in the tournament:

Finally, while some contestants spend years trying to get on Jeopardy!, Veronica Vichit-Vadakan took the test on the fly and was promptly ushered into an audition. On the set, she ran out of changes of clothes—contestants are asked to bring two spares; by her fourth win, she’d maxed out every possible combination—and ended up wearing a coat, as she put it, out of the show’s lost and found. She lost: “I had a little bit of a premonition as I was putting it on that this was going to be bad luck,” she said. Veronica, not a soul would blame you if you sought some green-room revenge during the tournament.

For Cohen, it was strange to return to the Jeopardy! set but not join the contestants waiting to compete. “My Tournament of Champions was a highlight of my life,” Cohen says. “I wanted to make sure they all had the best experience they could. And for me, that was making sure I was being as flawless of a host as I could be.”

Aware of the fact that the contestants would benefit from having extra time to practice aligning their buzzer timing with his voice and reading tempo, Cohen volunteered to host the tournament’s off-camera practice game, which is usually led by the Clue Crew’s Jimmy McGuire. “They were all saying, ‘You’re doing great!’ I was like, ‘Do not worry about me!’”

Beware, visitors to the Jeopardy! set: The walls have ears. “One of the best compliments that I wasn’t onstage for but that I heard on the feed was one of the finalists said it was uncanny how my pacing and my reads were very close to Alex. That meant a lot.”

Cohen is now part of this season’s pool of 16 guest hosts, one of whom is likely to be named the show’s permanent host sometime this summer. The Tournament of Champions, he knows, is his audition; two weeks that will decide whether the show that changed his life will come to define it for decades to come. Richards, the executive producer, told Broadcasting & Cable last week that Sony is interested in finding someone who will serve at the helm of Jeopardy! for the long haul: “We aren’t looking for a three-year host, we’re looking for a 10-year or a 20-year host,” he said.

One of the strange aspects of appearing on Trebek’s Jeopardy! as a contestant was the certainty of a lifetime of being asked what the host was really like—but being unable to answer, because of the show’s strict fairness rules, which dictate how much (or, more specifically, how little) players can interact with the staff off camera. That goes not just for the host but for all the behind-the-scenes figures who make the quiz show run: the writers and researchers, the producers and crew, the coordinators and lawyers, many of whom have spent decades working on Jeopardy!

Now, as host, Cohen was finally able to step behind the curtain, attending the daily meeting in the writers’ library to go over the upcoming games and offer his own thoughts, as a tournament veteran, on the clues these latest contestants would face: what might be reworded or shortened; how to pronounce the latest obscurity that the writers were planning to unleash on the players. “You know the way there are people who love sports but also love not just the athletes but the coaches and the scouts—how you know who these people are when you get really into it?” Cohen says. “[Head writers] Billy Wisse and Michele Loud and Michael Harris, who is the guy who also controls the buzzer—I’m a fan first, so the writers and researchers? These people are my heroes.”

For Cohen, one of the highlights came during the lunch break of his first tape day on the set. “I just wandered out onto the stage and it was basically empty—just the set medic and a jib operator,” Cohen says. He stood on that stage, looking at the place where he’d first tested his trivia mettle on TV. Where he’d first gotten to meet Trebek, where he’d pulled off a come-from-behind victory to win his own Tournament of Champions. And where, maybe, he might have the chance to welcome years of contestants just like him.

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