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Confounded by all the ‘Jeopardy!’ winning streaks? You’re not alone.

Nine contestants have become ‘super-champions’ so far this season. Is the game getting easier, or are the players getting smarter? Or are we asking the wrong question?

(Jeopardy Productions/Washington Post illustration)
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If you watched Amy Schneider triumph during 40 games of “Jeopardy!” earlier this year, it’s hard to imagine there’s a question that she doesn’t know how to answer. But one truly stumps her: What in the world is going on with all the “Jeopardy!” winning streaks this season?

“People kept asking me about it during my run because of Matt,” Schneider said in an interview, referring to Matt Amodio, who won 38 games mere weeks before Schneider’s episodes started airing. “At the time, my feeling was it’s not really anything. It’s just a statistical fluke.”

“But since then, it’s kept happening,” she continued. “And so that’s starting to feel like a less satisfying explanation to me.”

The question has baffled everyone, including viewers, “Jeopardy!” staff and the contestants themselves. Sure, over the past two decades since the quiz show removed the five-game win limit, you see the occasional week-long streak, with the anomaly like Ken Jennings (74) or James Holzhauer (32) or Julia Collins (20). But the 2021-2022 season has gone a bit haywire, and it shows no sign of slowing down.

Amy Schneider has made ‘Jeopardy!’ history — and helped the show find calm after chaos

So far, nine contestants have won more than five games, becoming “super-champions” and making them eligible for a spot in the Tournament of Champions this fall. (This includes Megan Wachspress, whose recent streak included several close brushes with defeat in Final Jeopardy. She lost Wednesday night after winning six games and $60,603. She was the third consecutive winner since May of more than five games.) Although it’s not the highest number of super-champions in a year just yet — the 2014-2015 season had 10 — no other season has seen the astonishing number of wins per streak, including Amodio; Schneider; Mattea Roach with 23; Ryan Long with 16; and Jonathan Fisher with 11. Only 14 contestants total have won more than 10 games in the show’s 38-year history.

“This year, you’ve got 40, 23, 16, 11 games, … and then you’ve got me down there with six,” said Eric Ahasic, who competed in June and was thrilled with his $160,601 in winnings, despite feeling like “the middle of the pack” these days. “That’s great in a normal season, but it’s kind of bringing up the rear this year.”

So what’s going on? Schneider thinks one possibility is that contestants are playing with pandemic-related restrictions that were enacted in 2020, meaning there’s no studio audience — and although some could feed off the energy of the crowd, there’s also less pressure without “the most important people in the world to me sitting in the audience watching.”

“When I try to think of things that might have made it easier for me, it’s definitely possible,” Schneider said.

Executive producer Michael Davies, who was unavailable to comment, appears just as perplexed as everyone else. “I don’t have a simple answer,” he told the Associated Press earlier this year, and added that it’s not hurting ratings, because the show has seen an increase of about 400,000 viewers this season. In a New York Times story, he said he and his staffers have wondered “whether this is some kind of ‘new normal’ or whether we’ve just had an unusual windfall of brilliant ‘Jeopardy!’ players.”

Both the Times and the Ringer published stories in early January during Schneider’s run about the winning streaks, suggesting that contestants now have more resources to prepare, thanks to Reddit threads, YouTube clips of old episodes, and in-depth websites such as J! Archive and the Jeopardy! Fan. Others are taking cues from Holzhauer, the professional sports gambler who won more than $2 million in 2019, and playing more aggressively. Claire McNear of the Ringer, who wrote a book on the history of the show, reported that online application numbers spiked during the pandemic, bolstered by auditions moving from in-person to Zoom, and therefore making them more accessible, leading the way for “many more buzzer hopefuls — and big, beautiful brains — from which to choose.”

‘Jeopardy!’ champ Matt Amodio’s epic winning streak ends at 38 games and $1.5 million

One popular take online is that the clues have become easier, although people involved with the show immediately shoot that down. Davies told the Times that he thinks the show is actually more difficult now, because of the “massively diversified” range of categories. Schneider added that she has been playing along for years and has never gotten the impression that it’s less challenging. Ahasic agreed, saying that he watched some of Jennings’s games from 2004, and it seemed as if the clues were more straightforward back then.

“Now it seems like the writers are a little bit wordier, and there are hints and nudges and clues within the clue,” Ahasic said. “You kind of have to parse through it. It’s a little bit more work.”

Then there are wilder, eyeroll-inducing theories, one of which speculates that producers secretly show contestants questions in advance or that categories are aligned to help certain players. Long, whose episodes aired in May and June, recalled a viewer sending him some sort of “crazy statistical analysis” on Twitter that implied a conspiracy was afoot.

“I felt it was goofy, and at the time when I saw it, I also felt a little insulted,” Long said, “because a lot of people work very, very hard on the show, and they’re very, very careful.”

Accusations like that, he said, devalue “Jeopardy!” staffers and contestants. Long saw some criticizing the fact that one of his Final Jeopardy clues was about the athlete who launched Omaha Productions (Long was the only one who correctly guessed Peyton Manning), as if it was unfair that he was well-versed in sports when the category, which is doled out randomly, happened to come up. “It’s like, oh, all of a sudden we’re the benefits of a conspiracy instead of actually being really smart and having those kind of skills,” he said.

But Long said he thinks that all the suspicion about the winning streaks comes from a place of fans still being rattled by the changes to the long-running show following Alex Trebek’s death and the revolving door of guest hosts a job that now alternates between Mayim Bialik and Jennings.

“ ‘Jeopardy!’ has been an institution in everybody’s lives. … And now what they see is this ‘cheapening’ of this thing they love, so people find ways to lash out,” Long said. “So I get why these comments come up, and I get the places they’re coming from, but at some point, you’ve got to let it go.”

“At its core,” he added, “It’s still ‘Jeopardy!’ ”