Friday, April 26, 2019

Why I'm watching Jeopardy! again

I’m watching Jeopardy! again, a show I stopped watching several years ago.

The reason I’ve returned to the fold: The current champion, James Holzhauer, makes Ken Jennings, the all-time champ who won more than 70 consecutive games, look dim-witted by comparison.

Holzhauer, a professional sports gambler in his early thirties, employs an unorthodox game strategy that, over the last 15 days, has earned him more than $1 million. I've no idea how long he will remain champion but if I had to guess, the reason he will exit is because he will grow bored and want to get out of the studio to spend his winnings. The producers are going to have to search high and low to find someone who can outplay this guy.

I’ve loved Jeopardy! since the original version, starring Art Fleming, debuted in 1964. I immediately applied to be a contestant and received a letter thanking me for my interest but informing me 12-year-olds weren’t accepted. Luckily, when Jeopardy! in its second and current incarnation, starring Alex Trebek, premiered in the mid-eighties, I was accepted. (For that story, click .)

As it has been since the beginning, Jeopardy! is played bass-ackwards compared to other game shows: The host reveals an answer to which the players must provide the correct question. But today's version is significantly different than the original in many ways:

1. It’s in color. (Duh.) 

2.  The answers on the game board are revealed electronically. In the first version, before digitization, a cover was raised manually to reveal each answer.

3. It is impossible to discern which player knew the question first which, in my opinion, should be every bit as germane to the scoring as knowing the correct question to ask. Originally, players were able to “buzz in” the moment they knew (or thought they knew) an answer, from the split second the cover was lifted until a few seconds after Fleming had finished reading the answer aloud. Speed readers ruled. When Trebek took over, he didn’t want players interrupting him so players are now forbidden from buzzing in until he finishes reading an answer in its entirety. A computer determines the nano-second Alex finishes, and only then are players able to buzz in. The player who knows the answer first isn’t necessarily the one who gets to answer it.

4. The current version has been dumbed down to the point it annoys some serious fans.

For example, an answer from the original version, under the category of “Presidents,” might have been phrased: “He was known as the Father of our Country." That’s two clues — one from the category title and one in the answer.

Today, the answer in the same category would likely be, “Our nation’s capital is named for him, the commander of the Continental Army, who is also known as the Father of our Country.” Four clues.

That’s a big difference — the difference between having to connect two dots or having the exponentially easier option of having three or four paths to lead to the correct question.

An answer on last night’s show under the category “What’s for Dinner,” revealed a photo of a plate of tamales with the following text: “You have to go south of the border to get these — get them while they’re hot!.” Four clues again. The category and plate of tamales would have sufficed or, at the very least, only one of the two additional clues should have been included.

A few days ago Holzhauer blew past $1 million in winnings by correctly providing the Final Jeopardy question to this answer in the category of "American History": "On May 1, 1869, these two men met at the White House 4 years & 3 weeks after a more historic meeting between them." In that case there were five clues: American; the participants were men; it happened four years after 1865 which even the most casual student of American history should know is the year the Civil War ended; the meeting took place at the White House, an indication a president was most likely one of the two men; and the two had met before at an event of some consequence. All three contestants came up with the right question, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. So did my dachshund, Rupert.

Four or five clues aren’t provided for all the questions but most contain at least three which makes the game less challenging for viewers who want to test their own wits against the players rather than watching passively. My wife and I found all those gratuitous clues so annoying we stopped watching until the media hoopla about Holzhauer.

If, last night, the first player who recognized the tamales —as they likely all did— could have buzzed as soon as he or she saw the picture without having to listen to Alex read two more clues, viewers would have known which of them was the first to connect the dots. 

But I’m not really complaining. It’s a pleasure watching Holzhauer, who is whip-smart and seems like a good guy. In one episode, he credited his deceased grandmother, who wasn’t a native English speaker, for watching Jeopardy! with him every day after school. He promised her he would someday appear as a contestant and it's nice to imagine her cheering him on from wherever she may be.

One last and unhappy fact about Jeopardy!: Trebek revealed last month that he has stage four pancreatic cancer. Attempting to inject some levity into that shocking announcement, he said he isn’t going to give in to the disease because his contract runs for several more years and so, for now, he’s continuing as host. It is difficult to imagine what a struggle that would be for anyone, much less a man in his late seventies.

Jeopardy! without Alex Trebek would be like a year without the December 25th holiday celebrating the birth of the Christian savior on which Santa often leaves gifts for kids under a decorated tree. 

May his long run continue.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Anything is possible

Don’t tell me there is is nothing that can be done to bring about peace in the Middle East.

Don’t tell me it’s impossible for Hillary Clinton to yet be president. Or for Trump to win a second term in a landslide. 

Don’t tell me you will never be called up to the stage to accept an Oscar. Or be named Super Bowl MVP. Or win the Powerball jackpot. 

Anything — anything — is possible, as I, the world’s unhandiest person, proved today when I changed a light bulb in my pool.

Granted, it took five hours, I had to watch seven youtube "how to" videos, made three trips to the pool supply store, and my index finger is bandaged after being pierced by a screwdriver but, by God, I did it. 

And I’m going to switch it on as soon as I can find a youtube video that will reassure me it’s OK if water got into the fixture as I was screwing it back into the side of the pool.