We Went There: Behind the Scenes at the ‘Jeopardy!’ Battle of the Decades Tournament Finals
It had been, by all accounts — Alex Trebek’s included — the most trying and exciting Jeopardy! tournament ever, and now it was almost over. Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter, and Roger Craig were standing at their podiums, the last remaining Battle of the Decades contestants competing for a $1,000,000 grand prize, the final three survivors from an all-star field of 15 of the greatest champions of the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s. The Final Jeopardy! clue was read: “Serving 160 years apart, these two Secretaries of State are the only ones who never married.” Craig, who had only $2,000 (in comparison to Rutter’s $11,800 and Jennings’s $13,600) and no funds carrying over from the previous day’s battle, wrote down his response and put down his pen, and then everyone in the audience held their breath and waited.
Jennings’s $7,000 bankroll from the previous day’s show would be added to his total, as would Rutter’s $10,000. The category was no longer just “Secretaries of State,” it was also “Addition, Subtraction, and Chutzpah.” I should have clocked how long it took them to finalize their numbers, but instead I was focusing on Brad’s mother, Pam, who was seated across the aisle from me. She was focused so intently on her son that her eye-line looked like it might trip somebody who tried to pass through it.
Jennings’s wife, parents, and son were doing the same for him. While Jennings — who remains Jeopardy!’s most famous, and possibly most well-liked, contestant — had been the name most overheard in the audience as the favorite to win, Rutter’s game play had been impressive every time he took the stage (he buzzed in first, and correctly answered, more than any other contestant in the preliminary rounds). Despite beating Jennings in 2005’s Ultimate Tournament of Champions, Rutter is still the lesser-known contestant (his past victory over Jennings started a heated online debate, which has been reignited in the form of hate-tweets fired off during Decades). The difference between the knowledge of Jeopardy!‘s charming longest-reigning champion, Jennings, and the hotshot whose Twitter bio reads “tell your sister to stop calling me” was so slight it was inconsequential.
The only sound in the audience was of pens scratching against paper, vicarious wagers being calculated and crossed out. The crowning of the Decades champion had all come down to math.
After attending two full days — 10 episodes — of Decades tapings last month, I felt as though I’d been on some kind of immersive genius retreat. The contestants were champions pulled from 30 years of shows, all of them with reputations at stake, which probably accounts for the fact that some of the categories they faced were so difficult that I had nightmares about them. I felt like I was standing on a cliff in Big Sur, looking out onto vast ocean and nature and glowing sun-orb, and realizing that I’m small and mortal, but in this case the knowledge that slapped me across the face was that I know nothing about geography, science, math, or even using an electronic buzzer. For two days, I embedded myself with the Jeopardy! crew, cast, and contestants, and when I emerged on the other side I felt like I’d been hiking through the wilderness with brainiacs, chugging omega-3 juice along the way. I was still stupid when we crested, but the view from the bluffs was pretty majestic.
Some of the contestants featured in this tournament — Ken Jennings, the winning-streak record holder; Chuck Forrest, whose “Forrest Bounce” strategy, consisting of hopping between categories in an effort to disorient opponents, recently landed in headlines when it was adopted by Arthur Chu; and Brad Rutter, the winner of the most money of any contestant ($3.47 million, plus two Camaros) — were familiar to me, but others weren’t. (Being a casual Jeopardy! fan is like being a casual Simpsons fan in that you have to immediately differentiate yourself from the diehards so as not to appear a fool.) The winner would receive $1 million, the runner-up a minimum of $100,000, and the third-place contestant a minimum of $50,000. The preparation involved in competing in the game today is vastly different than it was in the early years, before the existence of the J! Archive, a fan-generated site containing more than 250,000 of the show’s past clues, responses, and stats that now serves as a contestant cramming tool. Today’s Jeopardy! players have a huge advantage over their predecessors, some of whom played more than 10 years before Google was founded. The game isn’t just a science; it’s an art, a language, a mentality all its own.
On the first day, I arrived at Sony Studios and headed to the holding area on the ground floor of the garage. The contestants’ families and friends milled around nervously, either getting to know each other or sitting on the very edge of a bench with clasped hands. I knew that the tournament’s hopefuls were all past winners, so they’d already amassed some amount of prize money after appearing on the show (and would bring home at least $5,000 this time, even if they lost in the first round), but it was still humanizing enough to make it difficult to approach the game in a ruthless and calculating way. I did not want Ken Jennings’s son Dylan to cry, for instance. Keeping him tear-free became a preoccupation, as was the friendship I struck up with first-round competitor Robin Caroll’s daughter Allison. Allison noticed me hugging a wall outside of the studio and asked me what my deal was, so I told her I was there to cover the tournament. She was chill, her nerves either expertly suppressed (her mother is a five-time victor and won the 2000 Tournament of Champions, so Allison is no stranger to Jeopardy! adrenaline) or just forgotten because she was in L.A., mecca to chill girls. The strange ambiance of the whole situation compelled me to glue myself to Allison like a barnacle, and her mother’s victory became my urgent concern. I wanted them to celebrate with sushi that night. I wanted them to bring me along. I wanted to clink sake glasses with them and picture them drag racing new cars back to Georgia, flinging dollar bills out the windows.
We took our seats in the audience in front of the undulating blue shapes of the Jeopardy! stage. The long-time announcer Johnny Gilbert, who, along with Alex Trebek, has been with the show since its reintroduction in 1984, warmed us up by informing us that there were microphones and cameras over our heads and we were not to shout or even whisper answers while in the audience. Gilbert is the trivia world’s Vin Scully: smooth yet grandfatherly, effortlessly filling the empty time with butterscotch-voiced introductions (to the “Clue Crew”) and invitations to ask Trebek anything that was on our minds during his brief Q&A moments between rounds. Robin was matched up with Roger Craig (from the ’00s, remembered for winning the most money in a single game) and Leszek Pawlowicz (the “Homer Simpson” or “Michael Jordan” of game shows, depending on whom you ask, who competed in the ’80s bracket). It was immediately apparent that Robin was struggling with her buzzer, which is not uncommon: Nobody can ring in unless Trebek has finished reading the question, at which point a set of lights appears around the clue screen letting everyone know it’s time to push. I have never seen anyone work so hard while only moving their thumbs, not even in 20 years of video-game voyeurism.
In the break before Double Jeopardy! began, Trebek approached the audience to take questions. Trebek is a master of deflection, and he never gets flustered, though people will try. The most common questions he received fall into one of four categories: (1) broad, (2) topical, (3) personal, and (4) from children. People seem to be unusually obsessed with Trebek’s drinking habits, perhaps because he once owned a winery (and this is why I now know that one of his “favorite celebrity drinking buddies” is Peter Marshall, the original host of Hollywood Squares, who actually doesn’t drink — he introduced Trebek to O’Doul’s, for which Trebek has developed a liking; he also enjoys drinking a lot of milk due to his “advanced age”). Spending time with Trebek, you can feel the impact of all of the misguided and frenzied Rupert Pupkins who have approached him over Jeopardy!‘s 30 years. He’s not prohibitively guarded, but he’s quick to turn your attention back to the trivia. His only purpose is to further the game without becoming a distraction, without making it about him.
Trebek told the audience that he shed a tear when Jennings was eliminated by Nancy Zerg because they’d developed such a rapport (for his part, Jennings now suffers from “post-Trebek stress disorder” when he tries to watch the show, but his son — who wants to one day compete — “won’t let [him] change the channel”), but I couldn’t help but think that it was also because Jennings kept his dealings with Trebek so professional. He proved himself to be driven and devoted to the program and the format in a way that Trebek could respect and understand. Jeopardy‘s staffers are enthusiastic and committed, and at least two people I talked to had been with the show for more than 10 years. A common refrain among the Jeopardy! crew is that they’re proud to work on a show that doesn’t make them embarrassed by association (a hall of Emmys welcomes you to the studio, with another recently added to the collection). During a break, Gilbert told the audience, “Other shows show you how stupid people are; this one shows you how bright they are.” “I like intelligent people,” Trebek said. “There are so many stupid people out there.”
Everything remarkable that occurs on Jeopardy! is confined to a very narrow world: questions and answers. Few contestants get the opportunity to reveal as much of their personalities on the show as Jennings has — that kind of character development takes a long time when each episode features such brief introduction segments. To stand out, you have to showcase a different technique or stick around for a long time. That’s what I tried to remember as I watched Robin get pummeled in Round 1 of the quarterfinals. Roger was betting all he had on Daily Doubles, scoring them and besting Leszek, leaving Robin in a distant third position going into Final Jeopardy!. “This word for a timid person comes from the last name of a character in a 1920s comic called The Timid Soul,” read the answer, and only Roger got the question correct (“Milquetoast”). I exchanged bummed looks with Allison during Roger’s winner’s circle interview. Women were outnumbered in this tournament, and the first had fallen. At least on Jeopardy!, the falls are always somewhat graceful.
Without Robin to root for, I focused on Pam Mueller, which was a wise decision: Though she lost to Russ Schumacher, her winnings allowed her to advance to the next round as a wild card. Pam’s wheelhouse seemed to be humanities, and she was able to knock it out of the park when a category matched her expertise. The next round featured Brad Rutter, who along with Jennings competed against Watson the computer in 2011 (Watson won, though he incorrectly answered the Final Jeopardy! question in a U.S. Cities category with “What is Toronto?????” — oh, computers). Rutter is currently producing a “sitcom about pub quiz teams” in which he “plays a twisted and demented version of himself,” and something about him seemed slick even before he said that he wanted to use his winnings to replace one of his Porsches (an idea he has since abandoned). He was not only quick to buzz, he was ready for the Daily Doubles and emerged unscathed after bidding nothing on his Final Jeopardy! response, totaling $32,400 for the day. His round was followed by one featuring Jennings, whose interstitial style was vastly different: Ken was such a veteran winner, he had what amounted to a politician’s way with asides, remaining humble throughout his interviews (he was always “just one mistake away from not being invincible”). He swept an entire category requiring contestants to translate answers into first initials, then Roman numerals, then numbers. When Jennings knew the correct British thinker for Final Jeopardy!, it was no surprise: Everyone in the audience was assuming he’d win, and he would proceed into the final round with $40,000 in his pocket.
Joining Roger, Ken, and Brad in the semifinals were Chuck Forrest, Leszek Pawlowicz, Pam Mueller, Russ Schumacher, Tom Cubbage, and the very magnetic Chicago teacher Colby Burnett, based on their final totals. On trend with the normcore, Steely Dan played before the second day’s taping began, and everyone was feeling juiced and loose (Pam and Colby scrawled “Token Female” and “BUZZ HARD,” respectively, on their podium screens during rehearsal). Ken was up first against Russ and Chuck, and it seemed a foregone conclusion that he would mop the floor with both of them, even though Chuck co-wrote the book Secrets of the Jeopardy Champions, which Russ studied. This time, however, the Bounce distraction technique was met with resistance. Ken managed to tame tough categories like “Make Your Own Spy Novels,” and after scoring the correct answer in Final Jeopardy!, sailed straight on through to the last round. He applauded the “brain power” in the green room and acknowledged the “American” will for the underdog to succeed, and if you’d been sitting in that room for several hours, it almost seemed like there was a glowing white halo beyond his blond head, like a spotlight emanating from his ever-powerful brain.
Jennings seemed unstoppable, but then Brad had his round and the future seemed less certain. Brad buzzed and wagered aggressively, treating every answer like it was his disposable Porsche and he was both Thelma and Louise, steering it off a cliff. Joining Ken and Brad in the final three was Roger, who had previously flown under the radar until he was badgered by Ken and Brad to bet everything on a Daily Double. He took the bait and lost everything. With nothing to bid in Final Jeopardy!, he sat it out, writing his correct answer from offstage.
When Roger returned from that stinging indignity to compete against Brad and Ken again the next day, he climbed back up and then — again — lost it all in a Daily Double. He had no prayer come Final Jeopardy!, with $2,000 against Ken’s $13,600 and Brad’s $11,800. It was crushing. He correctly answered the final clue, betting everything and winding up with $4,000. But it was still game over for Roger.
At one point before the final round, after having spent a couple of days behind Ken’s family, I sneaked outside for a second and started running my mouth to someone on the staff. I compared Ken to Betty and Brad to Veronica, contrasting Brad’s Porsches with Ken’s children’s book enterprise. I felt a tap on my arm. It was Brad’s mother, Pam. “Oh, I was just saying how much I admired your son’s technique,” I said. She walked me back to my seat, absorbing my damage-control speech all the way there. “I don’t know what happened to that car,” she said, “I try to stay out of his business.” To atone, I told her that I would root for Brad, and I did, shooting her a thumbs-ups whenever she caught my eye.
But now, all the thumbs in the house were balled up in nervous fists as we all sat waiting for Jennings’s and Rutter’s final answers for the standard 30 seconds of think music. Roger knew who those two Secretaries of State who never married were (Rice and Buchanan), and like a true good sport, he wrote “Great game, guys!” below his response. Brad bid nothing, but pulled the correct answer right out of his own mental J-Archive. Ken risked $13,001, so everything depended on him nailing the clue. He had swapped Albright for Rice. Brad was crowned the winner. I caught Pam’s eye and we did our celebratory chair-dances at each other, while Ken’s wife mouthed “It’s OK” to their son.
Not a head in the house was without hurt, either from brain-strain or the comedown from the excitement. I managed to tell Brad that I’d been caught talking about him by his mother, comparing him to Veronica. “I’ve never heard that one before,” he said. “I’m OK with being Veronica. Anytime Ken and I get together, it’s a coin flip. I happened to get lucky twice.”
It made the drive home easier because, besides the emotionally charged air in the studio, what Jeopardy! comes down to is the same as any other game: The winners win, and the losers train to win next time. Why did I feel so sorry for Roger, who had just brought home $50k? I had been indoctrinated. The money wasn’t the point. Walking away the winner was like holding a trophy that could evoke one’s awe like a shooting star or a giant abyss. It was proof of the kind of knowledge that makes outsiders feel small, of having a brain of infinite capacity, like the cosmos. It dwarfs you by showing you just how much you’ll never know. I went there, examined the life forms who learn about Romantic poets and state sea levels and papacies instead of doing whatever it is we’ve all been doing with our leisure time, and now I’m still trying to come back. I’ll take “What does it all mean, Alex?” for a billion.