Like thousands of other hopefuls, I took the online Jeopardy! qualifying exam earlier this week. While it will be quite some time before I know if I’ve made it past the first round or not, I wanted to do a quick overview of the extant academic writing on the show for today’s blog post. (Also, in case you missed it, I recently put together a hypothetical Wheel of Fortune GOAT tournament inspired by the 2020 J! competition.)
Those who kept up with the phenomenal regular-season run of James Holzhauer back in 2019 may remember that the contestant who eventually defeated him, Emma Boettcher, had written a master’s thesis related to the show. As it turns out, Boettcher was not the first person to turn a scholarly gaze toward the program, and there is a surprisingly robust literature out there that could prove useful–or at the very least, interesting–for contestants and fans of the show.
Below are chronological groupings of articles and graduate projects which represent different phases or eras of J!-related scholarly activity. Given that I am trained as a historian, I am not particularly qualified to speak to the relative merits of the works cited below, which come from a variety of academic disciplines; I am simply aiming to bring their insights together in one document. I have also made a couple of categorical exclusions in the interest of keeping the list manageable.
- First, I have excluded articles on the use of Jeopardy!-style games in teaching contexts, since there are many such write-ups, and since our focus is on the game show rather than its underlying concept.
- Also, I have omitted scholarship on the development of Watson which, while interesting, is not particularly helpful to us feeble, meat-based humans in our J!-related pursuits.
Without further ado, let’s begin.
Jeffrey K. Floyd, “A Discrete Analysis of ‘Final Jeopardy,'” The Mathematics Teacher 87, no. 5 (May 1994): 328-331.
George T. Gilbert and Rhonda L. Hatcher, “Wagering in Final Jeopardy!” Mathematics Magazine 67, no. 4 (October 1994): 268-277.
Andrew Metrick, “A Natural Experiment in ‘Jeopardy!'” The American Economic Review 85, no. 1 (March 1995): 240-253.
The first spate of J! scholarship arrived in print in the months ranging from Spring 1994 to Spring 1995. (Given the often glacial pace of academic publishing, it is likely that all of these projects were being written at or around the same time.) All three articles deal with that chestnut of J! debate and analysis, Final Jeopardy wagering, which has been a recurrent theme in academic writing on the show throughout the last quarter-century. Because of subsequent rules changes (particularly the introduction of the tiebreaker in 2016), I’m not sure how usable the articles’ specific insights are today. Either way, though, they show scholars attempting to reckon with FJ wagering in a systematic way for the first time, and they are worth skimming for that historical development alone.
Sheila Brownlow, Rebecca Whitener, and Janet M. Rupert, “‘I’ll Take Gender Differences for $1000!’ Domain-Specific Intellectual Success on ‘Jeopardy,'” Sex Roles 38, nos. 3-4 (1998): 269-285.
Patrick Headley, “How I Lost on Jeopardy!” Math Horizons 6, no. 4 (April 1999): 27-28.
Like the three articles in the first section, Patrick Headley’s 1999 thinkpiece relates to FJ wagering, and also like those works, it remains interesting from a historical standpoint if for no other reason. Headley’s honesty is refreshing, too: he bluntly admits on p.27 that “in spite of my mathematical training, I failed to analyze the Final Jeopardy! round thoroughly enough.”
The year before, however, a trio of scholars released the first study looking at the relationship between gender and Jeopardy!, representing the first entry in the other major subcategory of academic writing on the show. Based on their sample of 65 games, they found that male contestants were more likely to appear on the show, make more of the topic/answer selections, and ultimately win more money. Key in this regard was a possible tilt in the first round categories. The scholars employed a panel of judges to label the games’ categories on a sliding scale ranging from “masculine” to “feminine.” A disproportionate amount of categories from the first round of the games were deemed to be “masculine,” which, the authors hypothesized, may have allowed male contestants a chance to extend their leads somewhat before going into Double Jeopardy. The authors also noted, somewhat surprisingly, that male contestants did not correctly answer the “masculine” categories at a higher rate than the “feminine” ones; they were just more likely to choose them.
Elizabeth Boyle and Zur Shapira, “The Liability of Leading: Battling Aspiration and Survival Goals in the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions,” Organization Science Articles in Advance (2011).
Gabriella Sjögren Lindquist and Jenny Säve-Söderbergh, “Securing Victory or Not? Surrendering Optimal Play when Facing Simple Calculations–A Natural Experiment,” Applied Economics (2012).
Thomas J. Linneman, “Gender in Jeopardy! Intonation Variation on a Television Game Show,” Gender and Society 27, no. 1 (February 2013): 82-105.
For over a decade, no new scholarship on Jeopardy! was published, but from 2011-2013, a trio of articles took the conversation in new directions. In 2011, Elizabeth Boyle and Zur Shapira examined contestants’ wagering strategies in the 2000 and 2001 iterations of the Tournament of Champions. They found that even though contestants could advance to the second round by winning their first game OR by having one of the top four non-winning scores, a majority of contestants did not bet optimally to maximize their chances of moving on. Despite the fact that winning the first-round game conferred no additional benefit over advancing with a top-four score, contestants frequently bet riskily in order to retain an in-game lead, indicating, perhaps, that the desire to win in the short term could actually work against long-term strategic success.
The following year, providing an interesting counterpoint to the wagering scholarship cited above, Gabriella Sjögren Lindquist and Jenny Säve-Söderbergh analyzed FJ strategy in the Swedish version of the game. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, Swedish contestants are forced to mentally keep track of opponents’ scores and are not given competitors’ totals in advance of making their FJ wagers. The two scholars concluded that players do not behave rationally if the wagering problem becomes more difficult, which is certainly the case when information is incomplete–like when competitors’ scores are unknown!
The most recent scholarly article on Jeopardy!, Thomas J. Linneman’s analysis of contestants’ use of uptalk on the program, appeared the following year. Linneman found that women (particularly young white women) were more likely than men to use a rising intonation when responding to a clue, and that men were more likely to use uptalk when buzzing in immediately after a female competitor responded incorrectly. Generally speaking, Linneman found that contestants used a questioning intonation over a third of the time when responding.
Emma C. Boettcher, “Predicting the Difficulty of Trivia Questions Using Text Features,” M.S. paper, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2016.
Kyle Patrick Chauvin, “Essays in Applied Microeconomic Theory,” PhD diss., Princeton University, 2017.
Emma Boettcher’s master’s project–likely the most widely read piece of Jeopardy!-related scholarship, given her defeat of James Holzhauer and subsequent appearance in the 2019 Tournament of Champions–was completed in 2016. Seeking to identify the most important factors in predicting trivia question difficulty, Boettcher found in analyzing J! questions that the inclusion of media content, the length of the question, and its number of phrases each had a small but measurable impact on difficulty.
Although only one of its three essays focuses on Jeopardy!, Kyle Patrick Chauvin’s PhD dissertation deserves consideration here as well. In chapter two, “Gender Differences in Competition: Evidence from Jeopardy!” Chauvin found that women correctly answered questions at almost the same rate as men, but that they attempted 16% fewer clues. As such, women’s final scores and overall cash winnings were significantly lower on average. Chauvin also discovered that the gender composition of the contestant panel mattered significantly with regards to buzzer speed; on a mixed gender panel, women were 8% slower to buzz in than with an all-female panel, while men chimed in 2% faster when at least one of the other two contestants was a woman.
To be sure, the practical value of the current Jeopardy! scholarship to potential contestants is less than it might have been before the introduction of the FJ tiebreaker question, which rendered at least some of the wagering scholarship outdated. Nevertheless, I hope that this brief lit review has been interesting, and that it will encourage future scholars (and contestants) to continue to think deeply about various aspects of the show’s strategy and culture.