Updated 11:55 a.m. on Jan. 21
Numerous articles have come out in recent weeks questioning the sudden increase in “Jeopardy!” players with winning streaks, and Tom Nichols, a five-time champion of the long-running game show, believes he has the answer.
Nichols joined Boston Public Radio on Thursday to share why he believes the show should consider retooling its rules to limit repeat winners — or end the program.
He said one key rule change put “Jeopardy!” on the path to be professionalized by hardcore, repeat players. Up until 2003, players were only allowed to win five consecutive games before being forced to retire. Ever since that rule was abolished, Nichols claims, repeat winners can "slaughter" new players.
“After about two or three wins, I think you've got such an advantage," Nichols said. "You've been using the buzzer — which is much more important than people realize — you're a lot more comfortable in the studio; you understand the rhythm of the game."
Ken Jennings, a 2004 contestant, won 74 consecutive games and has the most consecutive wins out of all “Jeopardy!” contestants in the show’s history. He now co-hosts “Jeopardy!” with actress Mayim Bialik. In 2021, contestant Matt Amodio won 38 consecutive games, earning the second highest number of consecutive wins. Amy Schneider, a 2021 contestant who is still competing, currently has 36 consecutive wins. Viewership of “Jeopardy!” has soared during Schneider’s winning streak.
“If you've done that for eight or nine or ten games, there's a reason they used to retire you,” Nichols said. “But the ratings are up, and people want to treat it like a sport and professionalize it. You might as well move the show to Vegas.”
Nichols said this obsession with “Jeopardy!” superstars says something bad about our culture.
“All of us of a certain age can remember, [first “Jeopardy!” host] Art Fleming," he recalled. "It was, ‘Wow, this housewife from Dubuque turns out to be really smart. This New York City Transit cop, Frank Spangenberg, one of the legendary players in the game, is like this fount of knowledge. When James Holzhauer went on his streak, this was a Vegas odds guy who practiced and developed algorithms for this. And [Emma Boettcher], the woman who beat him, wrote her graduate thesis on ‘Jeopardy!’”
“The whole charm of the show was to celebrate ordinary Americans showing what they knew,” Nichols added. “It was not supposed to be 38 games of ‘Hulk Smash.’”
The real key to winning, he argued, is not mastering the show’s question patterns and buzzer times — it’s quick recall and memory.
Watch: Jeopardy champ calls for a return to original rules
“The ability to remember a whole bunch of stuff that has passed between your ears is how you win ‘Jeopardy!’ and it's not necessarily a matter of deep intellectual knowledge,” Nichols said. “I taught for years at the Naval War College and when I played, one category I chose was the violin, which I know nothing about.”
“My then-wife was in the audience and she turned to one of my friends and said, ‘What is he doing? He doesn't know anything about this. Does he think it said violins instead of violence?’ And yet, I had just had enough kind of musical exposure to remember things like plucking the strings is called pizzicato. Why did I remember that? I don't know. Because I remembered it in eighth grade music class or something. That's the key.”
Tom Nichols is a contributing writer and proprietor of “Peacefield” newsletter at The Atlantic, and a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI.
Correction: This article was updated to correct the year of Matt Amodio's winning streak. It was in 2021, not 2020.