The Jeopardy! Masters tournament airs in prime time on ABC. It’s the crown jewel of the rapidly expanding Jeopardy! multiverse, featuring six contestants, of recent trivia-savant vintage, who have returned to the Alex Trebek Stage to compete for their share of a $1 million prize pool across 20 brutal rounds of anagrams, historical minutiae, and potpourri.
Each of these contestants lorded over their lecterns during their first run on the syndicated show, racking up oodles of cash and prodigious winning streaks. The headliner is James Holzhauer, a dweebish professional gambler and eternal nemesis to host Ken Jennings. He wrested a commanding lead of the tourney and has already clinched his place in the finals. A smattering of ludicrously skilled but objectively lesser players—Andrew He, Mattea Roach, and Matt Amodio—are currently fighting for the remaining spots.
The champion will be crowned on Wednesday night in a veritable Jeopardy! Super Bowl, where something called the Trebek Trophy will be unveiled and bequeathed to the sole survivor. It is there that the world shall finally know its true Jeopardy! master—so long as you pay no attention to the yearly Tournament of Champions, the occasional invitationals, and the four-day-long derby in 2020 that claimed to officially adjudicate which player was The Greatest of All Time, once and for all. (Holzhauer was in that tournament as well. He lost to Jennings.)
Jeopardy! has been on the air, for the most part, since 1964. It’s maintained the same format we know now for the majority of its life span: Three contestants (lots of librarians, lawyers, engineers, and professors) answer rapid-fire trivia queries in pursuit of a cash prize that might not be life-altering but is certainly year-altering. The more existential curiosities underlining the show—how do the best Jeopardy! players stack up against one another?—long went unanswered because game shows, especially those conceived during the golden age of broadcasting, were designed to soak up vacant weeknights with as little friction as possible.
In recent years, the shape of Jeopardy! has slowly begun to change. The path to its modern era of stars began in 2003, with its 20th season, during which a rule limiting standout players to five games was lifted, and new contestants were allowed to continue for as long as they kept winning. Not long after, in 2004, now-host Jennings showed up to the podium, won 74 games, and left $2.5 million richer. Though he lost to Jennings in the most recent tournament of greats, Holzhauer, who had a 32-game winning streak in 2019, has been widely credited with changing how Jeopardy! is played years later, with not only a dizzying knowledge base but also an optimized gameplay that targets Daily Doubles and sends his point totals sky-high game after game.
Now, following Trebek’s death in late 2020, the show’s leadership has undertaken deeper changes to the Jeopardy! mystique. The producers seek to escape the limited confines of early-evening syndication, becoming bigger, more versatile, and closer to the heat of American discourse. In practice, that means that Jeopardy! now brandishes all sorts of gimmicks to foster a sense of perpetual spectacle, as if the old half-hour and an enticing Egyptology category can no longer stand on their own. Whether that’s sacrilegious or long overdue for America’s most beloved game show will likely depend on your own mileage. Mine, lately, has gotten a little spent.
The Masters tournament is just the tip of the iceberg. Earlier this year, Jeopardy! brought on a High School Reunion series, in which kids who’d first competed on one of the show’s juvenile brackets were invited back to the stage as college students so we could all see if their acumen had been dulled by campus life. (Justin Bolsen, a freshman at Brown University, won the $100,000 prize and punched his ticket to this winter’s Tournament of Champions.) In 2022 the show broke ground on a recurring Second Chance special, where strong players who’d ultimately lost their games (usually at the hands of a wunderkind like Holzhauer) were offered an opportunity to avenge those unlucky defeats, which undoubtedly evoked at least one pickled rant about “participation trophies” somewhere in the conservative webspace. Jeopardy! has moved its longtime Celebrity Jeopardy! variant, by far my least favorite flavor of the format, to prime time for extra eyeballs. (Congratulations to Ike Barinholtz, who has also, hilariously, been invited to the Tournament of Champions. He’s gonna get smoked!) Meanwhile, the game show’s competitive structure—newly bloated with all of the edge cases and contingencies that come with an expanded footprint—has grown so unwieldy that someone on the r/Jeopardy subreddit devised a viscerally unpleasant flowchart detailing all of the arcane qualifying rounds and selection minutiae a contestant must navigate to make it to the show’s hallowed ground. It looks like a trigonometry problem you’d find in a Saw dungeon. Participating in Jeopardy! fandom used to be as easy as turning on the television. Now there’s a clear line of demarcation between the die-hards and the casuals, and I’m starting to feel left behind.
This is all part of the plan for Michael Davies, who has served as executive producer for Jeopardy! since 2021. He’s continued to reaffirm a desire to transform the game show into something akin to America’s fifth major sport. In a revealing profile by the Ringer’s Claire McNear, Davies described “a dominion of Jeopardy! stretching into a mostly uncharted future. He imagines bars playing episodes, then rolling right into Jeopardy!-sponsored pub trivia.” Davies’ grand strategy includes “pop culture and sports spinoffs, and international expansions … to cue up a Ryder Cup–style global battle royale. A book club and a fully fledged fan convention. Celebrity tournaments with their own pipeline of trivially inclined VIPs.” In the piece, Davies floats the idea of a professional league for elite Jeopardy! superstars—effectively offering someone like Holzhauer a heavyweight title they could defend all season, an avenue for anyone to become a professional in the art of trivia. “Jeopardy! is kind of like the NBA, but they wipe off every roster every season and they start with whole new players,” Davies says at one point. “You know, LeBron James is still out there, and we’ve stopped all these great players from playing.”
I will admit that, so far, I’ve mostly enjoyed Davies’ vision. Despite all of its textual vagueness and weird redundancy with the other high-level Jeopardy! brackets, the Masters tournament makes for compelling television. It’s undeniably fun to spend time with the show’s recent stars again, even if it seems as if someone has given one too many notes on dialing up the “personality.” The Second Chance mechanic is also satisfactory, if only because I have a special sympathy for those right-brained players who bungle their Final Jeopardy calculus.
But I do find myself wondering if an emphasis on endless, monolithic growth—an incarnation of Jeopardy! that wishes to compete head-to-head with Mets games—is exactly what I want from the straightforward quiz show I’ve been watching since I was a teenager. It reeks of a Marvel-brained corporate strategy driven toward constant extrapolation: limited serials, alternative rule sets, an overload of new characters, storylines, and motifs. It all builds up to a world where, just to watch Jeopardy!, we must do deranged, ungodly things like set our DVR to record multiple versions of Jeopardy! on the same night, in order to stay on top of what was once such an ambient joy. Jeopardy! contestants are not Batman, and they do not deserve a Ben Affleck era.
Davies, for his part, seems to be aware of the risk factors. He previously served as the executive producer of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the textbook game show fad that burned ultra-bright before winking out of existence, and he’s dead set on avoiding that fate with his push toward total Jeopardy! ubiquity. “In three years, we made 363 prime-time editions of Millionaire,” Davies told McNear, “and it was just overexposed.”
Except, so far, I see few signs that’s a lesson learned. Is it possible to maintain that temperance while simultaneously scheming up Jeopardy! fan conventions? Or intercontinental trivia showdowns? Who’s to say? Jeopardy! was already in my life so much: It aired every weekday and rattled off 60 clues in 30 minutes, overlapping nicely with a thrown-together dinner. Now the show wants to be truly everywhere. I can’t decide if that’s heaven or hell.