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John Beck has always considered himself a "solid B-plus" when it comes to trivia, so he was absolutely thrilled when he won $117,099 over five consecutive games of "Jeopardy!" in 2003. The show had a five-win limit at the time, and it felt like the ultimate victory. But as he sat in the studio audience and watched the next trio of contestants play, he couldn't help but think: "I'm pretty sure I would have won that game, too."
Of course, the concept was a non-starter. Until a few months later, when it suddenly wasn't. The show kicked off its 20th season by instituting a new "sky's the limit" rule - "a deliberate ploy by the show to beef up ratings," Claire McNear wrote in her "Jeopardy!" history book "Answers in the Form of Questions" - allowing contestants to win as many games as possible. Soon, a mild-mannered computer engineer named Ken Jennings arrived on the scene and stayed put, steamrolling contestants week after week after week, causing some to complain that he was holding the show "hostage" until he finally lost and walked away with 74 wins and $2.5 million.
While anything close to Jennings's level of success remains rare, a number of contestants have enjoyed lengthy winning streaks - and remarkably, two in this past year, as Matt Amodio and Amy Schneider have crushed the competition with 30-plus wins and over $1 million each in earnings. (Schneider just won her 37th consecutive game on Thursday night.) Other recent streaks include James Holzhauer (32), Jason Zuffranieri (19), Jonathan Fisher (11), and in winter 2020, when Jennifer Quail, Karen Farrell and MacKenzie Jones all won eight games within three months.
But as these phenoms help breathe life into the long-running franchise and have indeed resulted in ratings spikes, these winning streaks have also led to some complicated feelings among mildly jealous former five-day champions who can't help but wonder: "What if?"
"Yeah," Beck sighed when asked if he felt any envy watching such competitors. "It's hard not to think about the 'What coulda, shoulda, woulda' happened. I don't think I would have gone 50 games, 30 games or even 20 games. But who knows? To have the opportunity would have been cool."
It's not something he dwells on - but he was so close to being able to compete without limitations. When Beck walked away with a Jaguar in addition to six-figure winnings (in some seasons, producers awarded new cars to five-day champions), he affixed the car with a vanity license plate: LST5TMR.
"Some people thought it was a jerk move," Beck said, but joked it was "nice for one's ego" to remember his minor spot in show history as the last winner who retired after five games. "I wish I could have gone on longer. But the way it worked out was great."
That sums up the attitude of most five-day "Jeopardy!" winners: Even if they feel envious, they emphasize they're grateful for the amount they won, and that they enjoy rooting for the super-champions. After all, they certainly don't want to complain when they know thousands of hopefuls would give anything just to be on the show - and as with most successes in life, it partly comes down to timing and luck.
"It's kind of a First World problem - you get $75,000 for pressing a button instead of maybe $150,000 for pressing a button," said Babu Srinivasan, who won the former amount over five games in 2001. "Big picture, I've never been mad about getting $75,000." If there's anything to be jealous of, he said, it's that modern super-champs can segue from winning streaks to being household names with other opportunities post-"Jeopardy!"
At the same time, it's only natural to think about what could have happened with the chance for a life-changing amount of money.
"You're always going to be a little resentful," said Chuck Forrest, who noted it was a "much different time" for the show back when he competed in the second season, and theorized that producers didn't want contestants to become bigger than the competition itself.
"I was more jealous, I think, when they doubled the point values," said Grace Veach, recalling that when she was a contestant in 1997, it was several years before producers increased the clue values on the board in 2001. "I was like, 'I could have made twice as much!' "
"If you had asked me 15 years ago, I would have said I was mad because I would have liked the opportunity to go beyond five games," said Sandra Gore. However, she said, that emotion has faded as she's retired and lives very comfortably. Plus, her $53,507 earnings in 1987 enabled her to move from New York to California.
That's another common feeling among the 15 contestants interviewed for this article - just wishing they had the chance to see how far their quiz skills could take them. Elise Beraru, the very first contestant to ever win five games on the first season in 1984, purchased a color television set, VCR and stereo with her winnings. Now, she no longer watches the show; the last time she tuned in, she said, was Alex Trebek's final episode last January. While it's difficult to watch anyone else host, that's not entirely why she's still skipping episodes with Amodio and Schneider.
"I think that part of the reason I don't watch these long streaks is because I'm jealous. Just a little bit," she admitted. "God knows I wouldn't have minded winning, you know, $700,000 instead of $37,000. I can speculate ... I don't know that I would have had the kind of extended roll that contestants are having now. But I would have loved to have the chance."
Michael Rooney, who won $50,201 in 1999, said "certainly there was a little smidgen of envy" watching new players triumph - but he, along with other five-game winners, was invited back to play in tournaments to rack up even more money, which took the edge off any disappointment.
"I just love the game," Rooney said. "If current executive producer Michael Davies invited me back to play a game in an abandoned parking lot for a plate of nachos from the Sony commissary, I would come back just for the thrill."
As a practical matter, some former champions admire the endurance of contestants who can stand onstage, day after day, and keep racking up victories and money. There has been much speculation about the surprising number of recent winning streaks, from grumblings that the clues are easier (producers scoff at this idea) to the fact that with countless online "Jeopardy!" resources to study ahead of time, such as the in-depth J! Archive site, players are simply more prepared than ever.
"People who have made these multi-show runs have constitutions, in my opinion, that can handle that," said Leah Greenwald, a 1988 five-day winner. "I do not feel that I could have been a contender. I do not have any illusions in that respect ... and I have complete peace in my life."
Dan Melia, who won $75,600 in 1997, isn't sure how he would have done if his streak continued, but does remember he tried to call his parents between games and forgot their area code. "My brain was really fried ... to me, that's the amazing thing about people who do these multiple games. To focus that long is really mentally tiring."
He has no regrets about his length of time on the show: "It's like lengthening the baseball season, and then people start hitting more home runs than Babe Ruth," he said. "It's whatever the conditions are when you're there."
Even those like Beraru, from the first season, who confess it's difficult to watch others triumph so spectacularly, are still comforted by the fact that they have a place in "Jeopardy!" lore.
"Like I tell people," she said, "there are some who won more money and won for longer, but no one else will ever be the first. That, nobody can take away from me."