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How to dominate ‘Jeopardy’ like Julia Collins

"Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek with contestant Julia Collins, 31, of Kenilworth, Ill. (AP Photo/Courtesy of Jeopardy Productions Inc.)

Julia Collins continues to make history on "Jeopardy," winning her 18th consecutive game last night. This places her at number three on the list of longest victory streaks, and with $391,000 in winnings she's at number three on the list of non-tournament earnings, as well. And as the Illinois woman's wins pile up, it's gratifying to watch the conversation shift from the "top female players of all time" to "the top players of all time, period."

The chart below plots cumulative earnings for the six "Jeopardy" players who have won nine or more consecutive non-tournament games. I cut Ken Jennings off at 20 games for now -- otherwise I'd need a page that's three times as wide in order to show all 74 of his wins at the same scale.


Jennings, of course, is the standout here. No other player comes close to his average earnings of $33,000 per game across his first 20 games. Arthur Chu came closest on a per-game basis, at about $27,000 per game, but he only made it through 11 games.

After his 18th win, Jennings had earned a total of $602,000, about 50 percent more than Collins's earnings at the same point in her streak. But these cumulative figures don't tell the full story of how Collins continues to dominate her opponents.

In over 60 percent of Collins's matches, the game was over before the Final Jeopardy round. In those matches, Collins had more than doubled her closest competitor's score at the end of the Double Jeopardy round. Since players can at most double their scores in Final Jeopardy, in those matches Collins could simply wager zero dollars and still win, regardless of whether she answered the question correctly.


And as it turns out, there's a strong relationship between how often a player locks things up in Double Jeopardy and how many games they go on to win. Jason Keller and Dan Pawson, who each won nine games, went into Final Jeopardy with a guaranteed win only 33 percent of the time. Arthur Chu and David Madden managed to do so more than half the time. But only Collins and Jennings have been able to pull off this feat in more than 60 percent of their games.

A few months ago there was a lot of conversation around Chu's divisive strategy of hopping all over the board to disorient his opponents. But there's been less media interest in Collins, despite the fact that she surpassed Chu on the all-time leaderboards several games ago. This is partially because, compared to Chu, Collins plays it straight, methodically making her way through the categories on the board. Her greatest strategic asset is consistency.

It makes sense that staying out of Final Jeopardy is the key to winning repeatedly over time. It's much more of a chancy, all-or-nothing proposition than the other two rounds.

Of course, it's one thing to say, "This is how you win 'Jeopardy,'" and another thing altogether to actually do it with any consistency. But Collins has managed to pull off this feat in every one of her last six games.

Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.



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