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Second > First?
Gordon Pepper

During the past few weeks after the Jeopardy Tournament of Champions, there seems to be a weird trend occurring. It's not the fact that there is a ferris wheel of rotating champions - that's a usual trend, and even an expected one. The weird part is HOW it's happening - people are backing into winning the title because the champion is messing up on Final Jeopardy.

Let me explain myself. For the first 2 rounds of Jeopardy, the players try to accumulate as much money as they can. In Final Jeopardy, there is 1 question, and the contestants can wager as much - or as little - as what they have accumulated. If a player has accumulated so much that they have more than double what the person in second place has, then the game is over and unless that person has watched too many Cheers re-runs (featuring Cliff's monumental disaster on the very same game show), then the first placed person will win. Even if it's not a runaway, as long as the person in first has more than 150% of second place (ie. first place has $10,000 and second place has $6,000), then he has a huge advantage. In this example, even if first place bets enough to beat second place ($2,001 for $12,001, which would beat the person who has $6,000 by 1 dollar, since the best score he can get is $12,000) and muffs the question up, then he still has $7,999, which means that second place still has to get the question right. In order for the person in second place to be the champion, he has to get it right and first place has to get it wrong, which still gives the leader the advantage.

However, let's say that the leader has $10,000 and second place has $8,000. To shut the challenger out, the champion has to bet $6,001. Now a correct guess will still give him the win (with $16,001), but an incorrect guess would drop him to $3,999 - which is LESS than what second place has. Herein lies the new breed of Jeopardy strategy - by not betting anything, or by betting less than what would drop you beyond first place, it would force the leader to get the question right. In this scenario, the perfect bet for second is $4,000, because a right answer would get him $12,000, while a wrong answer would give him $4,000 - which is still $1 more than what first place would have to bet to shut second place out.

The effect of this? All of the pressure is now on the leader. Second place doesn't even have to get the question right - barring first place betting nothing (which won't happen, because first should always bet enough to shut second place out), a wrong answer by him will give second place the championship, regardless of how much money that person bet or whether they got the question right or wrong.

Why is this the new style of betting? The main attribution would have to be the elimination of the 5 time champion rule. It's no longer about how much money you can win in 5 days. Greed, which would propel someone to go after a lot of money (since you only have 5 days to obtain it) is much less of an issue now. It's all about plain old survival - if you win, then you can continue on and make up any money that you may have lost by being conservative, and hopefully you'll have 2 or 3 days where you rack up a lot of money and offset the days where you are playing conservative.

So what to do if you are the leader? The trickiest thing to do - but the most efficient counter is to bet enough money to force second place to get it right to beat you. Let's go back to the $10,000 Vs. $8,000 example. If first place bet $2,000 and got it wrong, then he winds up with $8,000 even - which would force second place to get the question right to beat you. This strategy would work if this was a category that you knew nothing about. Let's go back to the example - should you bet $2,000 and your opponent bet that perfect bet of $4,000 to defend you from going the full $6,001 bet), then you tie if you both get it right (at $12,000) and you win if you both get it wrong ($8,000 Vs. $4,000). It's a very safe plan, conservatively, but it does have one major drawback - should second place get the question right and bet big (such as all of it), then it's over for you, because your small bet won't be able to lock that person out, even if you get the question right.

So what to do? If you are comfortable with the category, then bet big, but if you aren't too sure - or if you think your opponent isn't too sure, then maybe you should play a little cagey. It depends if you want to lose because you got the question wrong, or if you want to make your opponent have to beat you. Or maybe if it's a close game, you should just drop $100 behind him into second and have him make that decision for you.

Gordon Pepper can be reached at


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