What: The end of the March 16, 2007, episode of the quiz show Jeopardy!, which featured the only nonzero three-way tie in the program’s history. Here is the Final Jeopardy showdown.
Why: As it headed to commercial before Final Jeopardy, the March 16 episode looked to be like most others in the four decades since Jeopardy! debuted: one contestant, in the lead, would bet just enough to guarantee a win if he knew the right answer. But that contestant wasn’t just any contestant, it was Mount Saint Mary’s University professor Scott Weiss, a likable genius with a devilish sense of humor. In the break, Weiss’s eyes twinkled as he realized that if all the other participants (the two challengers and question writer) behaved as expected, he could achieve game show immortality. Leading $13,400 to a pair of $8,000s, Weiss’s wager should have been $2,601; had he bet that and gotten the answer right, he would have had $16,001 and the win no matter what the other players did. But Weiss made history by just betting $2,600, and since the other players also got the right answer, all finished with $16,000, and all were invited back the next week. Weiss guaranteed himself a rematch against two people he had already beaten. And for the measly price of $1, he gave two complete strangers $14,000 and $15,000 apiece (second and third place usually get $2,000 and $1,000, respectively). That’s a 2,900,000% charitable return on investment. Wouldn’t you do that?
Impact: And the internet exploded, naturally. Weiss played by the rules, but he broke the mercenary spirit of the game. Everybody wanted to know why would Weiss do that?* The answer, of course, is that if you have to ask why, you will never know why. Weiss’s move headlined the news, made the rematch appointment viewing, inspired a musical, and showed the triumph of man over machine. Weiss was not a number—not $16,001, anyway—he was a free man.
*Well, not the idiot mathematician who calculated the odds of this happening at 1 in 25 million. It’s a non-random event, jackass. The “odds” are roughly equal to those of me tracking that guy down, getting on a plane, and punching him in the face. But I digress.
Personal Connection: It’s not going to surprise anyone that I know Scott Weiss (squonk_npl). I know lots of people who’ve been on game shows, including Jeopardy! vets sproutcm (details here) and lemurtanis (here and here). Despite that, not even knowing Scott was on Jeopardy! got me to watch the show, until the rematch. Because of its stultifying sameness, I don’t much like Jeopardy!; it’s better in parody than real life. However, I do like it in one context: home-brewed Jeopardy! games using Quizzards have become staples of annual National Puzzlers League conventions. I’ve hosted two “Slikardy” games and likely will cobble together a third for the convention we’re running in Seattle in July. If you’re a puzzlehead, you should join the NPL if you haven’t yet. It’s just $23 a year. As Mr. Trebek says, what a deal.
Other Contenders: John Carpenter, the first Who Wants to Be a Millionaire champion, uses his lifeline to call his dad; the British quiz show Catchphrase slowly reveals an interesting image; Colin breaks an ox on The Amazing Race; Kseniya Simonova paints World War II in sand on Ukraine’s Got Talent, ending all need for further “Got Talent” shows; in a matched pair of hopeless futures, Family Feud host Richard Dawson plays his doppelganger in The Running Man, and That Mitchell & Webb Look‘s “The Quiz Broadcast” urges us to remain indoors.
Programming Note: The Most Beautiful Things was the subject of some commentary this week during my interview on the Ninja vs. Pirates podcast, at roughly the 34:30 mark. Plus, I settle the whole “ninjas vs. pirates” thing forever.