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Friday, May 18, 2012

Jeopardy!: DC Power Players Week

If this week’s contests pitting media insiders, newsmakers, and political figures against each other proved anything, it’s that the Beltway is an insular world, and those who make their way to prominence within it often do with a single-mindedness that precludes the wide knowledge base that makes a true Jeopardy champion.

Night after night figures like MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, and former Obama Administration Press Secretary Robert Gibbs performed adequately, if not always as well as you might expect, in categories pertaining to politics, government, and recent history. Matthews, who was otherwise an abject failure at the game, managed to do quite well in a category that involved naming the cabinet position a given individual had held.

When the categories pertained to typical Jeopardy fare like TV and movies, sports, wordplay, or geography, the lack of breadth to the contestants knowledge bases was exposed. Anderson Cooper, who won Friday night, reacted to a question that featured a synopsis of the movie “From Here to Eternity” as though it were written in hieroglyphics. A panel of CNBC’s David Faber, Bush Press Secretary Dana Perino, and NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar performed miserably in a category about bestselling authors, with none of the three being able to identify Tom Clancy as the author of the Jack Ryan thrillers or name Jurassic Park as Michael Crichton’s bestseller about dinosaurs.

The most galling mistakes involved a bewildering inability to remember or follow the most basic rules and structure of the game. In Friday’s game Thomas Friedman consistently forgot to answer in the form of a question. Chris Matthews had the opposite problem, asking for categories in question form and clearly confusing himself in the process. Matthews, who I am picking on deliberately because he was that bad, and because he once poked fun at Sarah Palin’s intelligence specifically by saying that she would be horrible on Jeopardy, also rang in on a question in the category of “6-Letter World Capitals” asking for the location of St. Basil’s Cathedral with the answer: “Istanbul.” Now, Istanbul is seven letters, is not the capital of Turkey or anywhere else, and at any rate, St. Basil’s Cathedral is in Moscow.

There were also many instances of candidates failing to read into the language of the clues for the keys to getting the answer. To me this displayed an alarming lack of genuine intuitiveness and critical thinking. Maybe there is something to all the criticism that the media are in front of the camera for their looks and not their brains. Hell, many of them messed up the math. Tonight Anderson Cooper caught the Daily Double in Double Jeopardy on what was pretty clearly going to be the last clue of the night. If he’d risked $2200 and gotten the answer right, he would have assured himself the win going into Final and secured $50,000 for his charity. Instead he limply bet $800, and was saved when neither of the other contestants (a horrifically bad Kelly O’Donnell and an underwhelming Thomas Friedman) could name Eli Whitney as the inventor of the cotton gin. Of course, Cooper got it wrong too.

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