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Betting Big: A Jeopardy! Legend’s Lessons for Winning Football’s Own Tournament of Champions.

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ABC’s 2020 Winter TCA

Editor’s note: I never cease to be amazed at all the interesting things readers of this site are involved in when you’re not actually on it. Things like, in the case of Seth Wilson, becoming a repeat champion on legendary quiz show Jeopardy! When Seth reached out to let me know that he had a chance to talk to Jeopardy! legend Ken Jennings about his strategy through the years, how it changed, and what lessons Kirby Smart might draw from it, well, I couldn’t help but bet big. I hope you enjoy Seth’s behind-the-scenes look at America’s favorite game show, and his thoughts on where the Red and Black stand.

Like most Georgia partisans, I clear my schedule for fall Saturdays. We only get twelve to fifteen games a year, and I like to make the most of them. This is why I haven’t attended a fall wedding in more than a decade unless it falls on a bye weekend. During the Dawgs’ September 22, 2018 tilt against Missouri, however, events conspired such that I found myself away from both a television and my smartphone. In an excruciating limbo about how Georgia was faring against Missouri, I turned to the nearest person to me with an iPhone and asked him to check the score for me. He kindly obliged and said that Georgia led 20-7 at the half.

That man was Ken Jennings, recently crowned the greatest Jeopardy! player of all time.

One of Jeopardy!’s winningest contestants. Also, Ken Jennings.
Seth Wilson

Ken and I were participating in the Jeopardy! All-Star Games, a one-of-a-kind tournament in which 18 of the show’s most successful former contestants were invited back to play as teams. The live draft for the games was held the same day as Georgia-Missouri. Ken was captaining one of the teams, and I was one of the other contestants, having myself won 12 episodes of the show in the fall of 2016.

My Jeopardy! resume is nothing next to Ken’s. His time on the show is still the gold standard by which contestants are measured. Over the summer and fall of 2004, Jennings won 74 consecutive episodes, setting a record that is as unbreakable as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or Cy Young’s 511 career wins. Despite his unmatchable success in regular play, Jennings had long failed to capture a victory in one of the show’s periodic tournaments. Based on his lengthy run, he was given an automatic bye to the final round of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005, where he lost to Brad Rutter, another of the show’s most famous former contestants. Jennings lost to Rutter again in the 2014 Decades tournament, and his team lost to Rutter’s in the All-Star games. In January of this year, Jennings finally defeated Rutter and James Holzhauer, whose own phenomenal streak made headlines last spring, in a special primetime tournament called Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time. As I watched that tournament and the way Jennings approached it, my mind turned, as it almost always does, to Georgia football.

Since it became clear during the South Carolina game last year that something was amiss with the offense, there has been no shortage of hand-wringing, teeth-gnashing, “FIX IT, KIRBY!” thinkpieces all over the Dawgosphere. Watching Ed Orgeron, a man previously most famous for his disastrous tenure at Ole Miss (where he was 3-21 in SEC play), transform his offense into an eleven-headed, fire-breathing dragon scorching the holy hell out of everything in its wake further underscored the possibilities available to teams who embrace change. In the process, Orgeron delivered LSU fans their first national title in more than a decade.

In an excellent essay from his book Eating the Dinosaur, author and cultural critic Chuck Klosterman attributes the enduring appeal of football to the fact that the game not only allows for but forces coaches to embrace strategic innovation although the rules remain relatively static. To cite but one small example, the proliferation of the spread offense has led to teams having a level of success running out of the shotgun that would’ve seemed impossible in the year 2000.

My intention here is not to belabor this point further. Jamie Newman’s arrival on campus and the staff changes to the offensive side of the ball suggest that some philosophical adjustments are already underway. Also, Kirby Smart has forgotten more about football than I will ever know about anything at all (although I can tell you that there is absolutely no point in running the zone read if the quarterback never keeps the ball) and so I won’t presume to lecture him about what the best way to run an offense is. I merely want to point out another recent example of strategic adaptation that paid handsome rewards, drawn from my own experience with America’s best quiz show.

Jeopardy! Gameplay

Before discussing strategy, I need to take you inside the game a bit to understand what the experience is like. The first thing to know is that your competition is going to be top-notch trivia minds. The screening process to get on the show is rigorous: two tests of 50 questions each, drawn from a wide range of categories, as well as an in-person interview and mock game to ensure players will perform well under pressure. Each year, around 70,000 people take the online quiz to earn the right to try out for the 350-400 spots available. Anyone who makes it to that stage is going to know almost all the answers to any given board. What the game often comes down to, then, is the ability of one contestant to ring in faster than the others. Ultimately, the most important aspect of Jeopardy! is....the buzzer.

On each side of the video board that shows the clues is a strip of lights that come on to let you know you can ring in. Alex Trebek has to finish reading the clue before the lights turn on, activated by one of the show’s staff members. If you press the button too early, you’re locked out for a quarter-second, which is an eternity in the lightning-fast world of Jeopardy! Too slow, and one of your competitors will have already correctly identified the British Romantic poet who died while fighting in the Greek War of Independence (Lord Byron) and scooped up the cash. Managing the buzzer is a tricky feat of timing, based on Alex’s voice, the lights, and the player’s own confidence in their ability to respond correctly.

The game consists of three rounds: the Jeopardy round, Double Jeopardy, and Final Jeopardy. The first two are colloquially known as the “buzzer rounds” because contestants use their signaling devices to win the opportunity to answer each clue. Final Jeopardy involves a tougher question on which the contestants must wager between zero and the entire sum they’ve earned based only on the category. The goal is to have the game won before getting to final; that is, a player wants to have amassed more than twice as much as the second-place contestant so that their total cannot be overtaken. This is what’s known as a “locked game.”

Each of the buzzer rounds also has a strategic wrinkle: the Daily Double. When a player picks a Daily Double clue, they alone are allowed to answer it, and may wager up to 100% of their total winnings to that point—betting the entirety of your score is called a “true Daily Double.” The Jeopardy round features one Daily Double, and the Double Jeopardy round has two.

Strategy

The game’s rules are simple. Even if you’ve never seen it before, you can understand how an episode of Jeopardy! works before reaching the first commercial break. The objective is straightforward: ring in as many times as you can, answer as many questions as possible, and end with the highest score so that you get to return as champion for the next day’s episode. But within that framework, a surprising number of strategies have arisen as to how to play the game.

Before you play your first Jeopardy! episode, you go through several steps. You get to rehearse on the set with the actual game board and buzzers, you do some paperwork, and you get briefed on the rules of the game. As a part of that briefing, you’re told that the game is designed for each category to be played from the top down as the clues increase in difficulty and there may be pertinent information for a later clue buried in an earlier one. During the show’s second season, a then-law student named Chuck Forrest introduced a technique known as “the Forrest Bounce.” Because the player who gave the last correct response has control of the next clue selected, that player can dictate the game’s rhythm. Rather than picking from the top down in each category, the player bounces around the board, picking clues in a non-linear pattern to disorient the opponents.

If the buzzer is the most important aspect of the game, then finding the Daily Double is a close second. The ability to potentially double your score can lead to massive momentum swings. In fact, in the game I lost during my initial run on the show, I was running away with the game when the second-place player got a late Daily Double and cannily used a big bet to catch up to me, putting the pressure on in the Final. Strategically, the Daily Double is the crux of the game: you should use it to build up your score, but you also need to keep it out of the hands of your competitors. Based on this principle, some of the show’s recent famous contestants have paired the Forrest Bounce with a ruthless hunt for Daily Doubles.

Roger Craig, a graduate student in computer science at the time of his first appearances in 2011 (and one of the funniest people I have ever met), used data analytics to set a longstanding single-game record winnings of $77,000. He went on to win his appearance in the show’s Tournament of Champions, and finish third in the 2014 Decades Tournament against Jennings and Rutter. Arthur Chu won 11 games and reached a ToC final with a aggressive strategy in which he bet everything on a Daily Double when he was confident he knew it, and the minimum wager of five dollars when he felt he might not. Alex Jacob won the 2015 Tournament of Champions with a similarly bold strategy, having secured four locked games en route to winning.Finding the Daily Double and using it to build huge sums that put a game out of reach is changing from an insurgent, disruptive technique to a part of the orthodoxy of winning Jeopardy! strategy.

Most recently, in the spring of 2019, a professional gambler from Las Vegas named James Holzhauer made national headlines when he won 32 consecutive matches and set a string of records along the way. Holzhauer holds the top 16 highest single-game scores (and 21 of the top 25), amassed nearly as much money as Jennings won in fewer than half as many games, and had average winnings over $75,000 per episode. Holzhauer’s plan of attack involved starting at the bottom of the board with the highest dollar-value clues to build up a large bank before finding the Daily Double. He then bet aggressively, averaging $9,000 per wager on Daily Doubles, often putting games out of reach before his competitors could even get their bearings. His run was so dominant that he was already being hailed as the greatest Jeopardy! player of all time at the conclusion of his run.

The G.O.A.T.

Of course, that type of distinction can only truly be settled with head-to-head play. And so, in January of this year, the show aired a special primetime tournament for the title of Jeopardy! G.O.A.T. Holzhauer, the man who set records at a fever pace, faced off against Jennings, the longest-running contestant in the show’s history, and Rutter, who had never lost a match to a human opponent. The format was a bit different from the show’s usual structure: each night, the three would play two games of Jeopardy! and whoever finished with the highest point total across the two games would win the match. The first to win three matches would earn the right to be called the G.O.A.T. Over the course of four matches, Jennings won three to one for Holzhauer and none for the previously undefeated Rutter.

As I watched the tournament, I was struck that it seemed like Ken was playing much more aggressively than he previously had. I asked Andy Saunders, the Bill James of Jeopardy! (minus the latter-day crank turn) whose website The Jeopardy Fan is an essential resource for Jeopardy! enthusiasts, and his statistics confirmed my suspicion. In Ken’s original run, he bet more than half of his score only about 22% of the time. He only made the maximum bet 7.5% of the time, and the largest score with which he did this was $3,200. By contrast, in the G.O.A.T. Tournament, he bet the maximum on seven out of the eight Daily Doubles he hit and bet more than 50% of his score on the eighth. Statistically, Ken’s gameplay was significantly more aggressive than in his first run.

Of course, the data can only tell you so much. To get to the bottom of things, I knew I needed to talk to the man himself. Ken graciously took some time out of his ongoing G.O.A.T. Victory Lap to chat with me about how his gameplay has evolved.

Ken’s approach to his initial run was straightforward. “I didn’t really have any gameplay innovations in mind,” he said. “I mostly just thought ‘I’ve been watching Jeopardy my whole life. I should just play in the rhythms I’m used to from my couch.’ And I don’t even know if I explicitly ever said that to myself. I just kind of assumed that was the right way to do it, and it turned out to be right.”

It’s hard to argue with his results, since it turned out that Jennings is one of the all-time best players on the signaling device. I watched his entire run on television as a slothful undergrad, but you really have to see him in person to get a sense of how quickly his reflexes work. It’s like watching Todd Gurley shred a coverage team on a kickoff return (looking at you, Clemson). You get a sense of it on TV but seeing him up close is mind-boggling.

He’s so quick on the buzzer that, out of the 75 games he played in his original streak, 65 were locked going into Final Jeopardy. To use a football analogy, Ken’s initial run was like the early Saban-era Alabama teams, relying on a massive talent advantage to separate yourself and then force the other players into making mistakes.

Obviously, this strategy has some limitations. Specifically, when the talent advantage is narrower, it’s very difficult to overpower an opponent. That’s exactly what happened in the Ultimate Tournament of Champions, a massive tournament played in the spring and summer of 2005. The tournament featured a huge field of 145 former champions, with Ken getting an automatic bye to the championship round thanks to his streak. That’s where he ran into Brad Rutter for the first time. Rutter had won the show’s previous mega-tournament, the Million Dollar Masters, in 2002. “I was like, ‘Oh, well this is as bad as it could possibly be for me,’” said Jennings.

“In hindsight, you just realize that like in football parlance, not having any playoff experience really did hurt me,” he continued. “I had just never buzzed against anyone that good. And I could never quite find the timing, just coming off the bench so abruptly. But as it was, he just cleaned my clock on the buzzer.” Rutter’s speedy buzzer skills were evident in the outcome: he won the UTOC decisively, having the tournament locked going into Final Jeopardy of the second game.

The two men would face off again in the championship round of the Battle of the Decades Tournament, a 2014 contest that took 45 former players from across each decade the show has been on. Going into the championship round, Jennings knew he would have to be more aggressive because of the third player in that final: Roger Craig.

“Against someone [hunting for Daily Doubles], it wasn’t a matter of not being prepared to play that way. I just never had to,” Jennings said. “As soon as you’re playing with somebody who’s hunting for Daily Doubles, you have to do it too.”

Not only do you have to pick the clues in service of finding a Daily Double, but you also have to be willing to bet aggressively. “As soon as you’re playing against someone who’s willing to double up on Daily Doubles, you have to be willing to do that, too.” Jennings said. “So it’s just a matter of who’s going to break the glass on it.”

The only way to counter that plan of attack is to embrace it. Strategy ended up mattering less in the Decades final, though. Jennings didn’t get a chance to play a Daily Double clue, and Craig missed on both the max bets he made. The tournament came down to the final question, about the two U.S. Secretaries of State who served 160 years apart and remained unmarried, and Rutter pulled it out after Jennings missed it.

Jennings and Rutter faced each other again in the finals of the All-Stars Tournament, and Rutter again came out on top thanks in no small part to excellent play by his teammates Larissa Kelly and David Madden. Going into the G.O.A.T. Tournament, held this past month, Ken noted that his preparation was much more intense. For one thing, the tournament may well end up being the last chance he has to play the game he loves.

“It’s not just the big one, it’s almost certainly the last one,” he said. “I mean, honestly it helps going in knowing I was the last one. I was a little bit stressed about it. And I just thought, ‘You love playing this game, and you’re probably never going to get to do it again.’ I don’t see how they top this. So, I just had a good time and that really helped calm me down, honestly. I was just so happy to be out there and saying ‘Hi’ to everybody again.And to get to play against like really good competition, that really helped.”

The G.O.A.T. was special not just because it was such elite competition, but also because of the circumstances surrounding the show and its longtime host, Alex Trebek. In March of last year, Trebek announced he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His treatment has gone well so far, and he’s received an outpouring of support from fans, but it’s unclear how much longer he’ll want to continue hosting the show. With all of that in mind, Jennings geared up to play.

He had the advantage of knowing who his competitors would be going in. He knew what Rutter brought to the game, and he scouted Holzhauer. Knowing the competition informed his strategy, as did the seven-game series structure of the tournament.

“Honestly, given what we know about Jeopardy! tournament difficulty, against somebody who’s going to be doubling up on Daily Doubles, you’re probably going to want to do it yourself given the chance. Given a good hand, you’re going to want to put all your money on the table,” he said. “Again, it might be a seven-game series, and even a big risk that goes wrong isn’t fatal the way it would be in another Jeopardy! tournament.”

“Basically, that was the decision. It was like a Nietzschean thing. If you’re going to beat James, you’re going to have to gaze into the abyss and beat James,” he added with a laugh.

And it worked. Jennings and Holzhauer slugged it out, but in the end, he was able to beat Holzhauer by playing a similarly daring game. Newly crowned the G.O.A.T. (in addition to the million-dollar prize, he got a trophy making his status official), Jennings said he was as excited for the show as himself.

“To have Jeopardy! and Alex be able to take this victory lap, in primetime, and have everybody just kind of agree what good TV it was,” he said.

That’s not to say he’s not enjoying a bit of a victory lap of his own: “Of course, it was just euphoric to win it. And it’s been a fun few weeks.”

Every Jeopardy! board, regardless of the material, has the same structure. It’s 61 clues and three Daily Doubles. Within that rigid format, however, is a range of possible ways of attacking the game. The goal is to have the most money at the end of the game. As long as you do that, it doesn’t matter how. The best strategy is the one that wins. The circumstances of the game dictate your approach, but you can’t let yourself lose before the game even begins by playing a strategy that allows the opponent to neutralize your strengths. Commitment to a winning philosophy entails being adaptable.

“When it’s the right strategic play, I have no problem betting $30,000 on a trivia question,” Jennings said. “Every Daily Double is nerve wracking. But I didn’t find it particularly scary to make big wagers, because I always knew it was strategically the right play.”

Like Jeopardy!, the rules of football are the same as they always have been. Eleven players have to move a leather oval 100 yards. But the days of being able to bullyball your way to a national championship are probably gone. We’ll see what the future holds, but the signs of philosophical change are encouraging.

Before the G.O.A.T. tournament, Ken knew that he was facing two juggernauts with lightning-fast buzzer reflexes, massive amounts of trivia knowledge, and nerves of steel. They couldn’t simply be overpowered; instead, he would have to approach the game with an aggressive strategy.

Similarly, to win a title, we know who we’re going to have to play. Georgia is going to have to beat at least one out of Alabama (maybe twice), LSU, Clemson, and Ohio State. Since 2017, Smart has improved Georgia’s recruiting to the point where we can simply overpower most teams we face. To beat any of the other superpowers, though, is going to require more than talent because they sport equally stacked rosters. When the time comes, we’re going to have to bet it all to win.

Oh, and Ken thinks teams should go for it more on fourth down: “I just get furious when I see the actual numbers on [going for it versus punting]. And then I see what coaches do—it’s insane.”

Go Dawgs!

Seth Wilson is a writer, editor, and theatre professional who will complete his Ph.D. in theatre and performance studies from UGA this summer. Raised a Tennessee fan, the scales fell from his eyes when his younger sister enrolled at Georgia, and now he roots for the Dawgs with the zeal of the converted. In 2016, he won 12 consecutive episodes of Jeopardy!, good at that time for the fifth-longest streak in the show’s history. He currently lives in Chicago, where he frequently yells Go Dawgs! at anyone wearing a Georgia shirt and, occasionally, very confused Packers fans.

Special thanks to Ken Jennings and Andy Saunders for their help with this piece.