Watching James Holzhauer on “Jeopardy!” — pinballing around the board, betting insane amounts on Daily Doubles, matching winnings to the birth dates of family members — makes it seem like he knows the question to every answer in the annals of all human knowledge.
That accusation, dismissed by previous “Jeopardy!” savant Ken Jennings, has an eerie historical echo to the show’s origins, when quiz shows were quite literally broken in the 1950s.
Back then, unscrupulous TV producers trying to gin up ratings created Holzhauer-type characters by giving them all the answers. One of the first fake stars was an English professor named Charles Van Doren — a man so studious he didn’t even own a TV. He was recruited by a producer to beat Herb Stempel, the unbeatable champion of “Twenty One” on NBC.
The producer, Albert Freedman, would help Van Doren beat Stempel. “I swear to you,” Freedman promised, “no one will ever know.”
Other game shows did the same thing. The scandal was so huge that Congress got involved.
But one man saw opportunity in the scandal’s wake: TV talk show host and media mogul Merv Griffin.
Actually, it was Griffin’s wife.
In a 1989 Sports Illustrated story tracing the history of “Jeopardy!” Franz Lidz wrote that Griffin, an aspiring game-show producer, and his then-wife, Julann, were on a long plane ride when the quiz show scandal came up:
"Why don't you do a show where you give the contestants the answers?" Julann joked.
"Sure, and I'll end up in the slammer." said Merv.
"Suppose I said, 'Five thousand two hundred eighty feet.' "
"How many feet in a mile?" Merv shot back.
"Seventy-nine Wistful Vista."
“Wow! What was Fibber McGee and Molly’s address?”
Seriously, this was how “Jeopardy!” was born.
It was 1964.
And the show was kind of boring.
There was a game board with “pivoting question slats” and the host was Art Fleming, whom Lidz described as “somewhat unctuous,” which is a somewhat infrequently word used to describe someone who is, according to one dictionary, “excessively or ingratiatingly flattering; oily.”
The show was a mainstay, though, until 1975 when it went on a three-year hiatus. The show went off the air again from 1979 to 1984. When it returned, the host was, in Lidz’s words, “the natty, clipped and aloof Alex Trebek.”
(Asked to describe Griffin, Trebek said: “What is overweight?”)
But Griffin (and his wife) were right about the format and right about Trebek. Five years after he began hosting, the show became so popular that the CBS Evening News had to change time slots in New York.
Back then, the show was — eerie historical echo alert! — sometimes criticized for being all answer, no soul. Contestants just needed the facts, not the why.
Today, critics have derided Holzhauer, a baseball gambling whiz and stat junkie, for his analytics, soul-less approach to the game. He knows not just the answers but the answer to how to win -- over and over.
“In short, this professional gambler from Las Vegas does not so much play the game as beat the system,” wrote Washington Post opinion writer Charles Lane. “What’s entertaining about that? And beyond a certain point, what’s admirable?”
Which brings to mind a “Jeopardy!” style answer. When was the following description of “Jeopardy!” written:
The show is both a cause and a symptom of the Information Age’s lust for naked data.
The correct question:
What is in the Sports Illustrated article from way back in 1989?
But at least nobody’s cheating anymore.
“What is we hope?”
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