Kid’s Jeopardy!: The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeatt

skyler hornbackSomething exciting and inspiring happened on Jeopardy! last Wednesday.  But unless you were watching, you probably didn’t hear about it.  The awesome achievement has been drowned out by something else that occurred on the same episode that is symptomatic of an unfortunately pervasive trend.

But first the good stuff: On the Wednesday Jeopardy! Kid’s Week contest a 7th grader from Kentucky named Skyler Hornback won $66,600.  That’s the highest total ever for a kid, and the third highest in the history of any variety of Jeopardy!.  What was really impressive is that he wagered $30,000 of his $36,600 on Final Jeopardy, putting his huge lead at risk, confident in his knowledge of the Civil War.  Here’s the Final Jeopardy clue:

     Abraham Lincoln called this document, which took effect in 1863, “a fit and necessary      war measure.”

Yeah, the clues are a little easier for kid’s week, but Skyler was the only one who correctly responded “Emancipation Proclamation.”  (You can watch the Final Jeopardy reveals here.)

thomas hurley iiiWell, the Jeopardy judges ruled that he was the only one who was correct.  Lots of people apparently believe that another one of the players got it right.  Thomas Hurley III, who was in distant second place going into the final but had played the game with infectious enthusiasm, responded to the Final Jeopardy clue with this: “What is the Emanciptation Proclamation.”  (If you’re not familiar with Jeopardy, all the responses have to be in the form of a question, and Final Jeopardy is written with all three players facing the same clue.)

Thomas’ response was ruled incorrect.  He was visibly upset.  Who wouldn’t be?  Heck, I got two Final Jeopardy’s wrong in my seven games.  It’s no fun to stand there and have the entire world, at least the 9 million or so that watch Jeopardy!, be told you’re wrong.  And Thomas thought he had the right answer.  It was close.  He probably knew it, and just had a mental hiccup trying to spell such a long word in a pressure situation.  So I don’t blame him for being miffed.

(If anyone is to “blame” here for this situation besides Thomas’ misspelling it is the usually excellent Jeopardy! clue writers; to expect kids to remember and write out such long words under tremendous pressure was probably asking for trouble.)

Thomas’ body language at the end of the show when contestants talk to Alex Trebek on camera as the credits roll also belies his disgust.  Again, I know what it’s like to lose on Jeopardy!.  I did it three times (my fifth “regular” game plus the Tournament of Champions Quarterfinal that I lost well enough to earn a wildcard into the Semifinal that I also lost). It’s tough to fail so publicly.  Especially when you’re in Middle School and every emotion gets amplified by 1000.  So it’s no surprise his disappointment would be obvious.

But . . . the game was taped in February.  It’s six months later and it’s finally aired.  That seems plenty of time for the adults in Thomas’ life to help him get over the glitches and to help him celebrate the fact that he beat some very long odds to get on Jeopardy!, and actually do quite well.  But no . . . articles are popping up all over the internet, even internationally, quoting Thomas saying he was “cheated.”

That’s a shame.  Thomas’ resentment is overshadowing his own fine performance in the game and especially Skyler’s achievement.  It is often lazy and incorrect to blame “the media,” but it is “the media” that is spreading this misinformed story.  The allegation that Thomas was “cheated” is just plain wrong.

First, Thomas wasn’t cheated out of anything.  He went into Final Jeopardy with 9600 to Skyler’s 36,000.  So even if he had been ruled correct, he would still have finished second and won the same $2000 consolation prize he received anyway. (The third place kid was well behind Thomas.)

Second, Jeopardy! has been consistent about spelling in the Final round.  You don’t have to spell your response exactly right, but it must be  phonetically the same as the correct response. So I guess Thomas could have put “immansupashun” and been ruled correct.  But “Emmanciptation” changes the pronunciation.  This is not new – some Final Jeopardy responses that have been ruled incorrect in the past include “Vilnuis” for “Vilnius” (the capital of Lithuania) and “Bejamin Franklin” for, of course, Benjamin Franklin.

This rule is explained in the briefing contestants get before taping.  Again, I understand Thomas being upset and disappointed at the time.  But six months is a long time to carry around the (erroneous) feeling that he was cheated.  It is certainly beyond the point where one should be complaining to the media.  How about just congratulating Skyler on his performance and maybe even laughing about that extra “t.”

But since Thomas is just barely a teen, isn’t it the responsibility of the adults in his life to teach him to deal with defeat in a way that evidences character?  Isn’t that what character is at its root, responding to life’s inevitable disappointments with grace and maybe a sense of humor?

I don’t want to be too hard on those adults around Thomas, though.  I understand the impulse to be protective of a kid you care about.  I’m sure they are fine folks, or Thomas never would have had the skill and gumption to get on Jeopardy! in the first place!

I am more concerned about this as a symptom of a societal problem, the tendency to point fingers outward rather than look in the mirror when we fall short.  And, yes, “the media’s” tendency to indulge such behavior.

Acknowledging our own responsibility for our missteps is not just the right thing to do, it is the healthy thing to do.  We can only learn from failure if we accept our part in it.  It is only by admitting our complicity that we can achieve what Ralph Waldo Emerson called, “Our Greatest Glory:”

     Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.

An author with whom Thomas may be more familiar, J. K. Rowling, said this about failing:

     It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that        you might has well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.

I certainly applaud Thomas for taking the risk of striving to be on Jeopardy!, and of achieving his goal.  It takes guts to put yourself out there in front of millions of people.  I certainly hope that Thomas will get to the point of being able to look back on the fun I’m sure he had participating in Kid’s Jeopardy!.  That is probably only possible by letting go of the feeling he was “cheated.”

And all you enablers who are posting in the comment threads of those articles about Thomas, and on the Jeopardy! Facebook page and the Jeopardy Message Board,  just stop!  Find a real injustice to put your pique and verbosity toward.

“Alex Trebek is a jerk,” many of you say.  The fact is that Alex Trebek doesn’t make  decisions about what responses are right or wrong – there are judges who let him know the rulings.

“Jeopardy has always accepted misspellings,” has also been often put forward by the affronted commentators.  Yes it has, but not when they change the pronunciation of the word.  (It’s fun to see how many of these incensed posts contain their own misspellings, often of the word “misspelling.”)

“I’ll never watch Jeopardy again” is the final word for many of these outraged netizens.  I don’t really care if you do or you don’t.  There’s millions more who will.

But I am sad to read that Thomas says he won’t watch Jeopardy! again.  I hope one day he will see the wisdom in what Winston Churchill said:

Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.

That’s something for all of us to remember.  Failure is a reality, over and over again, even daily if we are really living.  The key is not losing our enthusiasm for life and for risk and for trying new things.  Like Skyler . . . and Thomas . . . did when they decided to try out for Kids Jeopardy! in the first place.

And like the adults in their lives did when they encouraged them to go for it.

About pastordavesimpson

I'm an unexpected pastor. Why unexpected? Because no one is more surprised than me that I'm a pastor. See the "About" page on my blog for more info.
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21 Responses to Kid’s Jeopardy!: The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeatt

  1. Peggy P. says:

    I watched the show and saw the misspelling. I did not know the rules and thought it was close enough. I was surprised they ruled it “incorrect”. Thomas was visibly upset and I felt sad for him, but I see that is an important thing to be a good loser as well as a good winner.


    • Perhaps Jeopardy! needs to be more clear about the rules with viewers. A lot of the upset is a result of folks not knowing the standard for spelling.

      And I agree with you about being a good loser – in fact that may be even more important than being a good winner (because it’s harder!).


  2. Grant says:

    I didn’t watch Jeopardy in the 15 years leading up to my appearance on it, so my personal statement that I wasn’t going to watch it after I lost on it wasn’t all that rash. For me, it was nothing but fun to lose on Jeopardy, but I am thankful I didn’t lose in a way that could have embittered me. On the other topic, while Jeopardy! is consistent in applying their rules of spelling, I do think they wouldn’t be wrong to consider amending them to include trivial (as it were) misspellings.


    • Well, I certainly had fun watching you on Jeopardy! there at Jillys.

      It would be tough, I think, to come up with a rule that defines which misspellings are trivial, besides the one they have now determined by whether the pronunciation is affected. In the first game of last season’s Teachers Tournament (which will be repeated tonight), an FJ response of “Waitin for Godot” is disallowed. I would agree that is trivial . . . but where do you “draw the line” so that it is not a judgement call that will make NO ONE happy?

      Thanks for reading and responding!


      • Grant says:

        In my current trivia job, here is where we draw the line (acknowledging that we have FAR lower stakes than J! does):
        We allow misspellings that do not alter a word so as to transform it into another word that is wrong. For instance, if emanciptation were a word, it would be wrong, but because it is not, it is an acceptable misspelling.

        Your point is a good one though. While I feel that what we do is more equitable than what J! does, it still isn’t air-tight. But it does feel like J! has chosen a draconian path, even if it is defensible and consistently applied.


  3. Reha O. says:

    Very well said Pastor Dave. By graciously admitting or accepting you were wrong, will take you a whole lot further in life and in relationships.


  4. Yes , there are bigger lessons to learn here. I’m sad to see that he is still hung up on this. Things like this…maybe not to this extent…will happen throughout life….some even worse than this. It’s good to learn young how to deal with it in a healthy manner.
    Thanks for a great post!


    • You’re welcome! And thanks for reading and commenting. I agree that admitting you are wrong is easier the younger you are. And easier when you’re older if it’s something you’ve “practiced.”


  5. Keith says:

    Nice post. It’s not easy to shake off something that embarrassing – for example, it took me six months to fully recover from my own FJ blunder in the UTOC. Then pile on all of the pressures of middle school. Still, a teachable moment for anyone with kids of a similar age.

    Your call for the producers to be more open about the rules reminds me of a favorite anecdote: the one about the guy who complained that the show was biased toward Catholics, because “Popery” kept showing up as a category.


    • Thanks, Keith. I had to look up your UTOC game on J Archive, but remembered the FJ after I saw it. You were close enough, right? Where were the internet protests??Seriously, that must have been tough. I’m glad my two FJ misses were way off the mark.

      “Popery” . . . that’s funny. It couldn’t have helped the gentleman’s confusion when a category on my second or third game was actually “Pope-pouri,” actual questions about popes.


  6. Mike Lonesky says:

    Thanks for sticking up for Jeopardy on this case. As a one-day Jeopardy champion (10/5/12), who got derailed by the Stephanie Jass express, i’ve had a ton of people forward that article to me who haven’t been on the show, or hadn’t had the rules explained in detail like we were before the show. Does it suck for the kid? Yes and no. Even though I would like to have been on more, and may have if I didn’t run into a buzz saw, still just being ON the show is awesome, much less to win once. I think the correct message here is “Hey kid, it’s awesome that you are on one of the most popular shows of all-time, and that you did as well as you did” rather than “Yo dude, you got screwed”. Being gracious, even in defeat, is a lesson we all could learn from. As Stephanie will tell you, as soon as she won, I said to her “Feels good, doesn’t it?”. I could have been upset I lost, stormed off after the show as other contestants did, but that diminishes the INCREDIBLE achievement that just being on the show is. Granted, knowing that I was going to Disneyland the next 3 days was a salve for the wound, but still ….. Thanks for being the voice of reason!


    • Congrats on your win and especially your sportsmanship! And thanks for reading and sharing good stuff based on your experience.

      Disneyland is almost like a required part of the J! experience, isn’t it? We went the day before I was on and had a blast.


  7. That’s fascinating! Definitely something worth considering and thinking about!


  8. Josh Woo says:

    Speaking as a former Kids’ Week contestant myself (aired Sept. 26, 2003), I can fondly look back on the fact that I played a great game, was leading going into Final (which is not something every Jeopardy! contestant can say they did!), and went down in a blaze of…well, certainly not glory at the time! Ten years later (jeez, I feel old saying that) I look back on it and think, ‘wow, we were all a bunch of geeky kids back then–oh wait, we still are!’ I look back on the experience fondly, even though I was definitely kicking myself for saying “What is the Beanie Baby?” in Final.

    Incidentally, something along the same lines as this incident (but much more obvious) happened in my game–the third-place challenger, who was well out of contention at that point, responded “What is Mr. Potato?” for “What is Mr. Potato HEAD?” Close? Yes. Right? No, because he left off one word.

    Add me to the list of people amused at all the outraged folks who complain about misspellings…and then promptly misspell either Trebek’s name or the word “misspell” itself. C’mon folks, it’s just a game show.


    • Good stuff from a valuable perspective. Thanks, Josh.

      You know, since J! usually lets you just say the last names of correct responses, I wonder what would have happened if that third place challenger had responded, “Who is Mr. Head.” I guess still would’ve been wrong, but maybe Alex would have prompted “Be more specific”? Guess we’ll never know.


      • Josh Woo says:

        Still wouldn’t have mattered a lick. Pre-Final scores were $12,200/$11,200/$3,400. Second place and third place bet the farm save a buck, I bet just $401.

        Scores aside, that *is* an interesting point…although considering the name of the toy is pretty well-known, I doubt they would’ve counted it.

        One more thing, too–I still keep in touch with most of the kids from my week via Facebook (one even wound up going to USC with me!), and we all agree that though we were mortal enemies then (ha ha), but we wouldn’t think twice about having lunch with each other if the opportunity presented itself. I hope this ends up being the case with these kids.


  9. Well Pastor Dave, you would be the one in the know on this subject after your broad experience on the show. After reading your writing, I’ve changed my mind to your way of thinking. Thanks. Ann


  10. Pingback: ON THE END OF THE SABBATICAL | The Unexpected Pastor

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