Geek Trivia: Pitching a perfect game(show)

What is the maximum prize a one-day contestant on <i>Jeopardy!</i> can earn, and what are the odds of it occurring?

Editor's note: The Trivia Geek is on extended leave, but he did get off his slacker butt long enough to pull this Classic Geek, which originally ran on March 29, 2005, from the archives.

It's time to pay homage to that World Series of minutia mastery, the television game show Jeopardy!, which hit the airwaves for the first time more than 42 years ago. Conceived by television legend Merv Griffin, who also produced the equally successful Wheel of Fortune game show, Jeopardy! has become not only an indelible part of pop culture, but one of the most enduring and popular syndicated television programs of all time.

Of course, most of those accolades belong to the current version of Jeopardy!—hosted by Alex Trebek with announcer Johnny Gilbert—which began its TV run on Sept. 17, 1984. This is actually the third incarnation of the program.

In fact, March 30 will mark the 43rd anniversary of the original Jeopardy! Hosted by Art Fleming, this version ran on NBC until Jan. 3, 1975. In between these two runs, NBC attempted a short-lived revival. Also hosted by Fleming, The All-New Jeopardy! survived for only five months (from Oct. 2, 1978 to March 2, 1979).

The Trebek-hosted Jeopardy! has been on the air for more than two decades. For most fans, it has served as the definitive version of the show, as well as the greatest source for Jeopardy!-related spoofs and parodies.

According to the Internet Movie Database, only one major parody has ever originated from the Art Fleming version, appearing in the 1982 movie comedy Airplane II: The Sequel. On the other hand, dozens of Trebek-era Jeopardy! spoofs have emerged, including a series of notable skits on Saturday Night Live.

The most famous parody is arguably the "What is… Cliff Clavin?" episode of the long-running sitcom Cheers. Airing on Jan. 18, 1990, the episode featured resident know-it-all Cliff Clavin (played by John Ratzenberger) as a Jeopardy! contestant.

In the episode, Clavin does quite well, carrying an insurmountable lead in the final round of the show, assuring his victory as long as he doesn't wager his entire winnings on the last question. Of course, Clavin does just that—and ends up so stumped by the question that he replies with the Jeopardy!-style answer: "Who are three people who have never been in my kitchen?"

Ever since, Jeopardy enthusiasts—and occasionally Trebek himself—have referred to stupidly over-wagering on the Final Jeopardy! question as "pulling a Clavin."

However, there is one situation in which you might reasonably want to "pull a Clavin"—attempting to earn the maximum amount of winnings possible for a one-day Jeopardy! appearance. Unfortunately, the odds of that opportunity presenting itself are pretty astronomical.

WHAT IS THE MAXIMUM PRIZE A ONE-DAY CONTESTANT ON JEOPARDY! CAN EARN, AND WHAT ARE THE ODDS OF IT OCCURRING?

What are the maximum single-day earnings possible for a Jeopardy! contestant, and what are the odds for this opportunity presenting itself?

In theory, under the current rules, a one-day Jeopardy! contestant could walk away with $566,400. However, this would require an incredible string of skill, luck, and bravery.

As to skill, the contestant would have to answer every question in every round correctly, allowing no other competitor to score. As to luck, the Daily Double questions—which allow respondents to wager their winnings rather than earning a set amount—must appear behind only the lowest-value questions, so as not to take the high-dollar questions off the board. As to bravery, the contestant must willingly "pull a Clavin" in the final round, wagering the once-in-a-lifetime winnings of $283,200 on the all-or-nothing Final Jeopardy! question.

The odds of the Daily Double questions falling into the low-dollar positions are 3,288,600 to 1. If the Daily Doubles fall in the worst possible locations, a contestant could still answer every question correctly and walk away with $208,000. That's a "loss" of up to $358,400, simply based on where the Daily Doubles are hidden.

Moreover, the odds stated above assume that the Daily Double placement is random, which it isn't. The show's producers select which questions will hide Daily Doubles, and you can be sure that they aren't going to lay them out to accommodate a perfect game. History bears this out, because no one has ever even come close to pulling off the feat.

Ken Jennings, who made international headlines with his 74-game winning streak on Jeopardy! in 2004, also set the record for one-day winnings on the show: $75,000. If that seems a paltry sum next to the "possible" $566,400, you can rest easy knowing that Jennings pocketed a cool $2,522,700 for his complete run on the show.

Of course, if he were able to pull a perfect game, he could have earned that figure in just five games, rather than 74. Given the fact that Jennings—who holds virtually every Jeopardy! and game-show-related prize record in the book—couldn't even approach the minimum perfect game score, one can safely assume that such a performance is possible only in the realms of fantasy—and Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia—namely, when the Trivia Geek gets back from his extended leave. (To read the original quibble from this article, see Listing A.)

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.