Jeopardy! Is a Proven Winner

Updated November 29, 2022 | Infoplease Staff

"America's Favorite Quiz Show" celebrates its 50th year on television.

by Catherine McNiff
Jeopardy gameboard

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Second only to Wheel of Fortune in game show rankings, Jeopardy! is the most-honored game show, with 30 Daytime Emmy Awards. Jeopardy! earned one of the highest accolades in the business with the 2012 Peabody Award for "encouraging, celebrating and rewarding knowledge."

Jeopardy! Is Born

Created by the man who brought us Wheel of FortuneMerv GriffinJeopardy! first aired on March 30, 1964, and was hosted by Art Fleming. In this early form, the answers were hidden behind sliding wooden panels. After a 10-year run that was followed by a brief iteration during the 1978–1979 season, this popular game show was reborn in syndication on September 10, 1984.

Why We Love Jeopardy!

Its unique answer-first-and-question-later format won fans from the first airing, and Jeopardy!'s refusal to dumb down has held viewers in thrall ever since. While the basic format has been a familiar constant through the decades, Jeopardy!'s producers have made an effort to move with the times; a popular innovation came in 2001 with the introduction of the Clue Crew, a trio of personable and attractive trivia hunters who travel the globe to deliver video clips meant to bring clues/answers literally "to life."

And then there is the man behind the cue card, famous for his now-absent mustache and ever-present unflappability: Alex Trebek. Born in Canada, Trebek has been the face of more than 6,500 episodes of (trademarked) "America's Favorite Quiz Show"—a feat that has endeared him to his adoptive country (he became a U.S. citizen in 1998). In fact, he was named number eight in 2013's Reader's Digest 100 Most Trusted People in America. He has won five Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Game Show Host and recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award. Trebek has earned star status in two countries, with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a maple leaf on Canada's Walk of Fame in Toronto.

The Games We Play

Jeopardy! appearances were limited to five until 2003 when participants were allowed to continue playing until they lost. This led directly to the budget-busting-but-ratings-lifting 74-game winning streak in 2004 by Ken Jennings, who racked up more than $2.5 million during his record run. Brad Rutter of Lancaster, Penn., accumulated the highest amount won by a single Jeopardy! player: $3,455,102, earned through two separate appearances in 2002, plus an appearance in each of the years 2005 and 2011.

Jeopardy! is a game that celebrates all its champions. Each evening, announcer Johnny Gilbert introduces the episode's two new players before welcoming on stage "our returning champion." Additionally, the show pits winner against winner in games like "Million Dollar Masters Tournament," the "Ultimate Tournament of Champions," or this year's "Battle of the Decades: A Tournament 30 Years in the Making." In this retrospective gaming epic inspired by the thirtieth anniversary, Jeopardy! opened its vaults to bring us pictures and video footage spanning the entire life of the game show. For some, it was only a matter of years; for others it had been over a decade or more since they had put themselves in jeopardy.

A Champion Among Us

One returning winner is Ryan "Fritz" Holznagel. After his initial appearance (four wins), Holznagel (then competing as "Ryan"), competed in 1995's "Tournament of Champions," "Olympic Games Tournament" in 1996, the "Ultimate Tournament of Champions" in 2005, and represented decade 1990 in the "Battle of the Decades" (won by Pam Mueller). What was it like to come back almost 20 years since his first appearance? In an interview, he explained that yes, the reflexes have slowed and the mental flexibility isn't quite what it used to be. He describes a "sweet spot" for Jeopardy! success; in your thirties you are at your peak—you've accumulated a lot of knowledge and you are immersed in pop culture. As you get older, you "sort of age out." Then there are the nerves: "Will my mouth open? Will I be able to speak?" Still, being a contestant is always fun, he insists. "Jeopardy! people" really do like getting up there, under pressure and in front of millions, baring their wits. Otherwise, why would they keep coming back?

What Is the Secret?

Holznagel isn't sure, but he has some ideas. A Jeopardy! superchamp is fast on the buzzer and simply knows more than the rest of us—even more than other Jeopardy! winners: "It's like they have some other compartment in their brain." Taking the case of Ken Jennings, for example, Holznagel asks us to just consider all the categories and obscure questions Jennings faced during his record run. To go 74 games without getting a killer question is "astonishing." And the 3 or 4 superchamps that Holznagel identifies follow one basic formula: they get the questions right.

Be a Contestant!

Do family and friends want to challenge Fritz Holznagel, Jeopardy! champion to a friendly game of Trivial Pursuit? "People always say, 'I don’t want to play with you,'" he said, "But when it comes down to it, they really DO want to play. They want to take down the champ."

So, do you want to play? Your first stop is the Jeopardy! website where you can take an online test. According to the website, since online testing began in 2006, more than a million people have registered to take the test, which is offered to adults, teachers, kids, teens and college students at various times of the year. If you are then selected from the contestant pool, you will take another test and be interviewed. Be prepared to be patient. Holznagel says he tried out 3 or 4 times, starting in 1988, before he got on the show in 1994.

While you're waiting for your moment under the lights, buzzer in hand, both Holznagel and Trebek would agree that it would behoove you to practice, practice, practice. Trebek's favorite tip is to practice with a retractable pen at home to sharpen your reflexes. The most common mistake that he sees on the show is buzzing in before the answer has been completed. From the other side of the podium comes this wisdom from Holznagel—who does, by the way, have the Jeopardy! app on his phone—visit j-archive, a site created "by fans, for fans" of Jeopardy!. There you will find every question of every game that has been answered and asked. Then, pen in hand, you must play. And play. And play. That's how a Jeopardy! champion is made.

Reality TV

In an interview on The Five, Trebek explained that people enjoy Jeopardy! because they are competitive; they like to play along at home and "beat" the competitors. They also like to root for their favorite—or boo their least favorite. He sees Jeopardy! as a reflection of America, a reflection of ourselves. Jeopardy! gives contestants a chance; "you bring your smarts, a working knowledge of the rules, quick reflexes, and a little bit of luck."

The pervasiveness of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and reality TV have proven conclusively that we like to know what other people are doing, and we like to tell others what we are doing. We like to know what other people know, and what they don't know. We like to play games; sometimes we win, and always we lose. Most of all, we love to watch.

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