Were Jeopardy! contestants less smart in the 80s? | Bleader

Were Jeopardy! contestants less smart in the 80s?

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This shot from a June 87 episode isnt helping anyones case.
  • Jeopardy
  • This shot from a June '87 episode isn't helping anyone's case.
Regular Jeopardy! viewers are currently enjoying a welcome respite from the frenetic trivia stylings of Arthur Chu, a three-day champ whose game-play strategy is really smart but really annoying to watch; more on Chu in a minute.

The show's annual College Championship airs this week and next, and last week Jeopardy! presented the first installment of its Battle of the Decades, a tournament that brings back the best players from each of the three previous decades and pits them against one another. It's a fun enough idea—even though I don't remember any of the contestants, it's entertaining to see which ones are worse for the wear, which ones have since abandoned their earlier-in-life aspirations, and so on. But there are flaws aplenty, for instance that a lot of the people playing during 80s week were actually on the show in the early 90s. No one bothered explaining, so I figure the others refused to subject themselves to another awkward post-first-commercial-break interview with Alex Trebek.

So far the best part of the Battle of the Decades is that Jeopardy! teamed up with the Hulu-style service Crackle to make available flashback episodes that feature the BOTD contestants. Playing along with these older shows is sort of like playing Trivial Pursuit's original 1981 Genus edition—some of the current-events questions are hard for young(ish) people, but then there's the benefit of not having to concern yourself with anything that's transpired over the past 30 years.

The fashion is great, the mustaches are intense, and it's fun to be reminded that Alex used to be a person with charisma, but a striking difference between today's Jeopardy! and the Jeopardy! of yesteryear is that the scores are a lot lower. It's partly a product of the fact that all of the dollar amounts attached to the clues are half what they are today. It's also because people kind of don't play the game right.

Back to Arthur Chu . . .

Rather than cramming before his appearance, Chu researched how to play the game. There are apparently lots of sites and blogs devoted to best practices—at least one of them written by a previous Jeopardy! champ—and they encourage jumping around the game board, as well as choosing higher-value, higher-difficulty questions first, because those are the spots where you're most likely to find Daily Doubles. Playing this way also serves to disorient your opponents, not to mention people watching at home. Everyone hates Arthur Chu, except for the contestant he intentionally tied because, as he later explained, he didn't see the point in taking money away from her when they could just both go home with $20 grand. I suspect the less magnanimous reason was that he knew he could beat her.

The game play on the flashback episodes is a lot less sophisticated. Suffice it to say that none of the "best" players in the late 80s were using game theory to win; in fact, a lot of contestants don't even abide by the show's cardinal rule: if you don't know the answer, don't fucking ring in. There are lots of really bad guesses, and lots of money vanishing into thin air. The game wasn't harder then and players aren't smarter now—although online testing has probably improved the show's ability to find high-quality contestants—but we understand the game better. Maybe too well.

The next installment in the Battle of the Decades begins Monday, March 3. It's on at 2:30 PM, because Chicago is weird.

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