Me, Supervillain? How I Won $100,000 on Jeopardy! and Twice as Many Unkindest Cuts on Social Media
- All I said was that it’s absurd to treat the game show as though it were the Olympics of quizzing. And it opened floodgates of extreme and nonsensical hate.
Appearing on the TV game show Jeopardy! was something I’d dreamed of since watching it with my parents as a child; its modern version premiered in the year I was born, so I’ve literally grown up with the show. Yet, now that I’ve finally gotten to be on it — my episodes aired from January 11-16, 2023 — my memories of the experience will always be dominated by the extreme and nonsensical hate directed at me by total strangers who I did not harm in any way.
Criticism of my overall “vibe” was disappointing, but ultimately a matter of opinion. Many went further than that, though, making firm judgments about my personality and my character that were as confidently stated as they were demonstrably false. I could audibly be heard saying “Good game!” to the opponent closest to me on the stage at the end of my first game — due to the socially distanced design of the set, it’s not really possible to communicate with the person two podia away — but nonetheless, the Internet was convinced I was “ungracious” and “unsportsmanlike.” A popular Jeopardy! fashion blog (yes, that’s a thing) criticized me for dressing too casually during my second game … when I was wearing a shirt belonging to Jeopardy!’s wardrobe department that was hand-picked for me by their wardrobe supervisor.
Gliding past the nasty comments about my appearance and my voice (including the apparent “thick foreign accent” I had somehow picked up from being born in NYC and raised in Illinois), I was confronted with all sorts of offensive conclusions being drawn about me from my playing style. Across the Internet are videos of me taking part in quizzing competitions like Mimir’s Well, Connections Online Quiz League, and the Quizzing World Cup in which I am clearly laid-back and making jokes and whimsical comments. Hundreds of people can testify that that is my default style in competitive settings. But on Jeopardy!, I adopted a different playing style. I played as though tens of thousands of dollars were at stake and a single mistake could send me home.
Why? Because tens of thousands of dollars were at stake and a single mistake could send me home. I can’t find it within me to feel bad that in such a high-pressure, high-stakes situation, I failed to prioritize the emotional comfort of a bunch of fragile strangers watching an edited video of my game months later.
Nonetheless, my personal Facebook page was invaded by strangers, eager to diagnose me with having “no personality” (note: people who host successful podcasts tend to have personalities) and tell me to “smile” which, (a) my Facebook profile photo shows me beaming from ear to ear and (b) didn’t Brie Larson already make clear why this was offensive?).
This is as good a place as any to talk about my interview segments on the show, which are repeatedly held up as justification for calling me “arrogant” and attacking my character.
I recall being told during my Jeopardy! auditions that 100,000 people try out during every casting cycle. Of those, some 4,000 make it into the audition pool, and ~300 of them make it onto the show. Aside from the initial written test, selection has historically been observed to be unrelated to quizzing ability (though Jeopardy! has always been opaque about the specifics of selection procedures).
So yes, when I auditioned I offered up anecdotes that I thought (correctly, it seems) would grab the attention of Jeopardy!’s casting people. But it wasn’t my choice to present my quizzing achievements as my first two anecdotes; that was all the producers’ doing. They put me on the show because they wanted to stoke a certain angle for marketing purposes, and I played along because I know what it means to be a good guest.
That said, on re-watching my interview segments, the vast majority of the “bragging” and aggressive hostility that certain people read into them appears to be a biased Mandela effect. I have plenty of quizzing accomplishments I could have boasted about, but rather than do so I simply answered the questions I was asked, about achievements that the Jeopardy! producers and host directly steered me into talking about (presumably because they thought the audience would find them interesting and relevant).
The closest thing to an “insult” I can discern is my revelation that in high school James Holzhauer was known as “Jamie,” which is a) true, b) not very insulting, and c) not exactly punching down when said by an unknown about a millionaire celebrity. The only thing notable about it is how tepid it looks compared to the sorts of comments James routinely courts by leaning into his “heel” persona on Jeopardy! and “The Chase.”
Nonetheless, even before my second episode had aired a notoriously reactionary sports website had already branded me a “supervillain” and a popular tabloid ran a headline declaring that I had called myself “smarter” than James, with “smarter” in quotation marks in the headline. (It should go without saying that I never used the word “smarter,” or even implied it; indeed, the only competition I discussed was a team game.)
But look. In each of my first three episodes, I said something during my interview segments that made the studio audience burst into laughter. The host of the official Jeopardy! podcast even praised my “dry humor” and “banter” with Ken Jennings. Yet complete strangers took to my personal Facebook page to inform me that I lack a sense of humor and that I deserve criticism because I didn’t look like I was having “fun.” (Why people so concerned about my level of “fun” chose to demonstrate their care by making my life more miserable remains an open question.) Judgments formed in the absence of facts aren’t going to be swayed by them.
At this point I need to discuss whether the most common criticisms I faced — people declaring me “arrogant” for daring to show something that could be interpreted as pride in my achievements, people saying I have a “chip on my shoulder” because I talked honestly about facing discrimination during my life, people reading “aggressiveness” (and being “out for blood” and throwing a “death glare” at fellow contestants) into my neutral behavior — are racist.
Just kidding. I don’t need to discuss that at all. If you know, you know; if you don’t, you’re beyond help.
Olympics of Quizzing?
So now let’s talk about the reason that, until I clamped down my Facebook privacy settings, I was getting 9-10 hateful direct messages a day: My opinions about Jeopardy!.
What I specifically said is that it’s absurd to treat Jeopardy! as though it were the Olympics of quizzing. At the time, this struck me as uncontroversially true.
Classical test theory in statistics partitions performance into “true score” and variance. In other words, all competitions are partly about relevant skills and partly about luck and peripheral skills, but it is possible to quantitatively estimate the extent to which various competitions reflect a “true score” (i.e., relevant skill) component.
Objectively, Jeopardy! is simply not good at differentiating levels of quizzing ability at the high end of the skill spectrum. Its questions are relatively easy, flattening out differences in knowledge. The player recognized as “buzzing in” is not the one who pressed their buzzer first; rather, all three players have to attempt to synchronize their buzzers with an external switch that is manually released after the entire clue is read. Thus all the things that usually give elite quizzers a competitive advantage, such as depth of knowledge and quickness of recall, are actively deprecated within the format. Massive elements of chance like Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy further increase the role that random variance plays in determining outcomes.
I don’t dispute that all this makes Jeopardy! exciting as a TV show. It is a product designed for entertainment, and it is a successful one. I’ve never at any point suggested that Jeopardy! should change itself. Rather, we as a culture need to recognize that it is not a very valid measure of quizzing ability.
Of course, it’s also the anti-Olympics in some other, very obvious ways. People have multiple chances to compete in the Olympics, and qualification occurs through skill at the event in question, rather than via an opaque procedure that solicits “fun” anecdotes and puts televisual presence above all else. Can you imagine a world in which Michael Phelps repeatedly smashed world records but was arbitrarily kept from competing for an Olympic medal, or else not allowed to try until he was decades past his prime, because he didn’t meet some casting director’s standard of what “makes for good TV”? And in which he could only compete in a single Olympiad, regardless of whether he continued to improve? Oh, and he was only ever matched against kinda-above-average swimmers, rather than the cream of the world’s crop? This is all ridiculous even before you contemplate an Olympics that only rewards him for competing in a game at best tangentially related to fast swimming, like pogo-sticking across the bottom of the pool.
It’s silly, isn’t it? And sillier still would be acclaiming *only* those who succeed in this competition as the world’s fastest swimmers. It would be like ignoring all the winners of the US Open, the British Open, the PGA Championships, and the Masters and declaring that the world’s greatest golfers are the ones who do well on “Holey Moley.”
I have no problem with the existence of Jeopardy!. But its centrality to our culture, and the way it is treated as more legitimate than other kinds of quizzing, have some unfortunate consequences:
* The many hard-working and skilled quizzers who haven’t been able to get on J!, or whose performance on Jeopardy! doesn’t reflect their overall ability, go without recognition or reward commensurate with their abilities.
* Non-Jeopardy! quizzing competitions remain in the shadows, shielded from the sunlight that might disinfect them of the many power-abusing racists and sexists involved in running them (and in excluding POC from them).
* Rewards, status, and platforms are doled out to quizzers not on the basis of who works the hardest OR who demonstrates the most skill, but on the basis of a non-meritocratic game show where opportunities are based on privilege and success is determined largely by luck.
The public response to my comments makes this point even more strongly. My qualifications for speaking out were based on a) my academic training as a social scientist, b) my experience as a high-level quizzer and c) my nearly four decades as a POC experiencing discrimination in the U.S.
After I went on Jeopardy!, my qualifications were exactly the same. My opinions were exactly the same. Yet, unlike before, people listened to me. Why? That’s the thing: I wasn’t platformed because of my hard-earned expertise or my ability to articulate a coherent critique. No, it was 100% the result of getting picked to go on a TV game show.
I shouldn’t have to explain why it’s problematic that the only voices in the quizzing community that get heard are the ones anointed by a Hollywood TV show — particularly a show that, as its own executive producer freely admits, makes zero attempt to serve as a public accommodation. And I hope it’s obvious how this system throttles the freedom of critical voices. Would you be okay with Muhammad Ali not being allowed to profit off of boxing, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar not getting paid to play basketball, unless they behaved strictly in a way that made casting directors and mainstream TV audiences comfortable?
But there’s another issue here. At heart, I want to see quizzing grow not because production companies throw money at it, but because people come to appreciate it as a craft and as an art. I want to see quizzing valued as a window into how much knowledge there is in the world, and how all that knowledge comes wrapped in stories that give it meaning.
That’s never going to happen as long as we continue to reward people more for succeeding on glitzy and arbitrary game shows than for demonstrating genuine knowledge and reasoning ability. When we prioritize the wrong sorts of things in quizzing competitions, we ensure that the respect-worthy parts of the field will never grow and we remove the incentive for players to work harder and get better.
In one of my social media posts, I laid out an agenda for the kinds of conversations I hoped (vainly, it seems) to start. As I said then, the most important of these conversations is about why we have to look the next generation of quizzers in the eyes and tell them, “I know you want to learn everything there is to know. But, for your own sake, please don’t. It will only get you labeled a ‘know-it-all.’ You will be told that you’re a freak, a product of genetic quirks rather than hard work and shining passion, or else a personality-less robot, and that label will be used to justify excluding you and marginalizing your voice. So, for your own good, kill the light that burns inside you. Extinguish your love of learning. Instead, learn just enough to not seem threatening, and devote the rest of your energy to cultivating a hobby that someday a casting director will deem ‘wacky, but not too wacky.’”
I come neither to praise Jeopardy! nor to bury it. I just want to open your eyes.
Yogesh Raut is a freelance blogger, podcaster, and writer who currently lives in Vancouver, WA. Born in New York City, he grew up in Springfield, IL, and is a graduate of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, Stanford University, New York University, the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, and the Washington State University Carson College of Business. He holds master’s degrees in psychology, cinema-television studies, and business administration. You can read his blog at https://harpo84.blogspot.com and hear his podcast at https://recreationalthinking.podomatic.com.
Very good achievement on Jeopardy, Yogesh! Sickening, the kinds of comments you have received. Real idiots, demagogues, racists. The idea of being on the show and playing the game, is to do prepare, do one’s best, and go as far as you can. All this other stuff these morons bring up, is irrelevant and obnoxious.