Jeopardy! is in the finals of its Battle of the Decades, with Brad Rutter, Ken Jennings, and Roger Craig squaring off. The players have ridiculous résumés. Brad is the all-time Jeopardy! king, having never lost to a human and racking up $3 million in the process. Ken has won more games than anyone else. And Roger has the single-day earnings record.
That sets the scene for the middle of Double Jeopardy. Roger had accumulated a modest lead through the course of play and hit a Daily Double. He then made the riskiest play possible–he wagered everything. The plan backfired, and he lost all of his money. He was in the negatives by the end of the round and had to sit out of Final Jeopardy.
Did we witness the dumbest play in the history of Jeopardy? I don’t think so–Roger’s play actually demonstrated quite a bit of savvy. Although Roger is a phenomenal player, Brad and Ken are leaps and bounds better than everyone else. (And Brad might be leaps and bounds better than Ken as well.) If Roger had made a safe wager, Brad and Ken would have likely eventually marched past his score as time went on–they are the best for a reason, after all. So safe wagers aren’t likely to win. Neither is wagering everything and getting it wrong. But wagering everything and getting it right would have given him a fighting chance. He just got unlucky.
All too often, weaker Jeopardy! players make all the safest plays in the world, doing everything they can to keep themselves from losing immediately. They are like football coaches who bring in the punting unit down 10 with five minutes left in the fourth. Yes, punting is safe. Yes, punting will keep you from outright losing in the next two minutes. But there is little difference between losing now and losing by the end of the game. If there is only one chance to win–to go for it on fourth down–you have to take it. And if there is only one way to beat Brad and Ken–to bet it all on a Daily Double and hope for the best–you have to make it a true Daily Double.
Edit: Roger Craig pretty much explicitly said that this was the reason for his Daily Double strategy on the following night’s episode. Also, this “truncated punishment” mechanism also has real world consequences, such as the start of war.
Edit #2: Julia Collins in the midst of an impressive run, having won 14 times (the third most consecutive games of all time) and earned more money than any other woman in regular play. She is also fortunate that many of her opponents are doing very dumb things like betting $1000 on a Daily Double that desperately needs to be a true Daily Double. People did the same thing during Ken Jennings’ run, and it is mindbogglingly painful to watch.