As I watch Julia Collins play on Jeopardy!, I’m reminded of what Suzanne Collins wrote as Katniss Everdeen in her Hunger Games trilogy:
“I can only form one clear thought. This is no place for a girl on fire.”
It’s time to play “Casual Game Show Fan”. As a point of reference, if you are reading and/or writing this, then you are the die-hard. You live the game show. You breathe the game show. You eat the game show. You s**t the game show. You’ve been watching since Bud Collyer first wound the dials on “Beat the Clock”.
On the other hand, if you are Casual Game Show Fan, you’ve heard of the biggies – Wheel of Fortune, The Price Is Right, Jeopardy! – but you only know “The Chase UK” host Bradley Walsh as “that guy from Law & Order UK”. This column is for you, and today, it’s to explain why Julia Collins matters. Not that she needs explaining; 19 games and over $400,000 is explanation enough. But to understand the how and the why she got to where she is today, the reigning queen of quiz, you have to understand a few things that I will dispense… now.
Before I present findings, a bit of a disclaimer. Admittedly, I had to violate clw83.com protocol and do actual research on this subject. And by “actual research” I mean “go through all of her games on J-Archive.com on my lunch break”.
EXHIBIT A: Since it began in 1984, “Jeopardy!” has had a rule in place that capped a champion’s appearances – save for tournaments – at five. That changed with the season 20 premiere in 2003. From then on, as long as you kept winning, you kept earning. Since then, we’ve had six-, seven-, eight-, even 10-time champions take the left-most podium. One guy gamed it for 74 shows, but that’s another story.
EXHIBIT B: Also since it began in 1984, only the champion was allowed to keep whatever he or she won that day, and unlike many quiz shows of that time, there was no risk involved in returning. There were more than a few shows where you could return as champion so long as you were willing to risk whatever you won up to that point. Not on Jeopardy!. You won that day, Jeopardy! cut the check, it’s yours no matter what. According to Alex Trebek, who actually produced the show during the first few years on the air, this was done to keep the games competitive. Same rationale was given for doubling the stakes in 2001.
EXHIBIT C: Then there is the issue of timing. Casual Game Show Fan watching will see the clue – often edited in post-production – then the players ringing in their lockout timers (sometimes like demons possessed). What they will not see (and what they haven’t seen since they were implemented in 1985) is the light border that surrounds the game board that tells the players WHEN to start ringing in, usually after Alex finishes reading the clue. Ring in too soon, and you’re locked out for a fraction of a second. The purpose was two-fold: to keep faster players from having an unfair advantage, and to encourage Casual Game Show Fan to play along.
EXHIBIT D: Put A, B, and C together, and you have the optimal strategy of locking the game. A “lock” (or as Alex terms it, a runaway) is exactly what it says it is, defined by J-Archive.com as a scenario in which the score of the second-place player is less than half the score of the leader. The leader, whom Alex will regard “cannot be caught”, is secured a win so long as said player does not wager more than the difference between his or her own score and double the second-place score.
So that brings us to the last month on Jeopardy!, Battle of the Decades aside. Julia Collins has been the only champ that the month of May has known, breaking records and cementing herself as one of Jeopardy!’s greatest ever players. Yet if you, Casual Game Show Fan, are watching, all you’ll see is answering a lot of questions quickly and winning a lot of money as a result. That’s a really big part of her game, but it’s not the only part. It’s also about timing the buzzer to the lights, knowing to leave well enough alone if you have no clue, and maximizing your earnings potential from the first two rounds to, as the ad for a leading sports drink says, “win from within”.
Consider this: of the 19 games that Julia has played as of May 29, 2014, she has locked 12 of them out. In those games, she was 7-5 in responding correctly to Final Jeopardy!, which is to say that she won as much as she lost, more or less. Game 11 can be regarded as a beat – when a smart play is beaten by a lucky play – after the Battle of the Decades; Julia bet incorrectly, but so did everyone else. Bad Jeopardy! mojo, I guess.
Of course, it helps matters a tad when late-season opponents tend to be all the also-rans that apparently weren’t good enough television for the regular season. Jeopardy! casting, after all, is as much about making good television as it is about making good competition. For Julia, though, it’s been a case of no competition, as the last SEVEN of her matches were runaways. In a matter of speaking, she had to lock the game out to stand a chance (in Final Jeopardy! since the tournament break, she was 4-5 in responding correctly).
Hence the importance of playing the whole game out and not waiting for the 30 seconds at the end. This is why Julia is winning as much as she is – because she understands that the game is about more than just answering questions and winning money.
This is why Julia Collins, a humble supply professional from Illinois, is, after a month of answering questions and winning money, the girl on fire.