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The chroniclers of Jeopardy!

In web 1.0 style, a group of die-hard fans maintains a vast library of answers and questions

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Museum

A holy site where any casual viewer of Jeopardy! can appreciate the profound weight of the program’s 36-year history. A dissertation-level study on how the show’s nightly trivia affected the ambient knowledge of the American mind. An exacting catalog of the countless number of times that Alex Trebek has shepherded us through categories of potpourri, of arcane word games, of 19th-century novelists whose names begin with the letter E.

What is the J! Archive?

Right you are. On the fan-run J! Archive, a would-be scholar can click on any season, from any year, and bear witness to thousands and thousands of tabulated episodes. During show No. 1,427, which aired on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 1991, Lois Kurowski, a doctoral student from Elkhart, Indiana, identifies the playwright Edward Albee as the answer to the $1,000 clue of “20th Century Personalities.” She also knows that Irma Rombauer printed The Joy of Cooking for $300, and that Zeus seduced Leda in the form of a swan for $600. Kurowski wins the day’s show, bringing her two-day earnings to $29,400.

Jeopardy!, now in its 36th season, celebrates the brain’s limitless capacity to carry inessential insight. The archive is of the same breed. Those breezy interviews that Trebek conducts with the contestants after the first commercial break? The site’s moderators transcribe them like they’re court records. There is an incisive mathematical breakdown of the scoring over the course of a given episode. There are running tallies of the money totals after every question. Just as Trekkies can dictate vows in Klingon, and Tolkien adherents can parse Quenya script, a small niche of Jeopardy! obsessives have articulated their exclusive fandom in an extremely on-brand way, ensuring that no Daily Double goes forgotten, and guaranteeing that every Trebekism is accounted for.

There are national congresses that are less comprehensive than the J! Archive, and Robert Schmidt, a 39-year-old patent attorney and the original architect of the website, tells me over email that the full scope of documenting Jeopardy! requires a near-insurmountable amount of work. Still, he doesn’t think he’s doing enough.

“I have hope that someday in my retirement I will be able to devote my days to going back and filling in all the gaps, but a lot of that depends on how well we the community are able to preserve the episodes on video,” he says. “We used to have much better coordinated division of labor, but these days for the most part it’s a very small group of devoted people doing all the entry work.”

the jeopardy archive page for season 12
The J! Archive page for Jeopardy! season 12.
Image: J! Archive

Fifteen years later, a large chunk of the information on the J! Archive is still manually entered by moderators. Mark Barrett, a 56-year-old in San Francisco who contributes to the Archive, writes over email that he watches each episode on his computer with the closed captioning turned on, which ensures that he never loses a word when filling out the questions and answers. “It’s a mouse click back-and-forth to do the data entry from the recording to the Archive input page,” he says. “The closed-captions make it much easier to get the wording for Clue Crew clues when sometimes no text is displayed.”

Episodes from modern seasons of Jeopardy! are the easiest to adapt; they’re all available digitally, and the archivists have a tool that automatically copies and pastes the text directly from the clues into the database’s template. But Barrett remains the most essential to the community: In the 1980s, he taped the Jeopardy! half hours he missed due to college classes and late shifts at work. Today, he sits on a treasure trove of episodes that have never made it to the internet. This has become his sacred burden: slowly whittling through his VHS backlog, filling in the lingering blank spots on the J! Archive map.

“In 2019, I still have not exhausted my supply of games not in the Archive. My rough count is I have about 150 games yet to be archived and after that there will probably be around 1,400 games still missing,” he says. “The dream is that more games turn up through streaming services, or contestants with their own copies who upload them to YouTube and such.”

There’s a sense of solidarity in everyone who contributes to the database. Barrett tells me about a legendary archivist, Robert McIelwain, who didn’t have access to a VCR but still transferred old Jeopardy! episodes to the website using the audio he could salvage off VHS magnetic tape. It takes a special sort of person to find their Zen in the disembodied rattle of decades-old Trebek clues, but the people who do it swear that it’s more fun than it looks. “I’m able to participate in my different ways to hopefully make the show more enjoyable for those who watch,” says Barrett. “Yes, there is an effort and commitment of time involved in being an archivist. To me it is worth it as it can benefit many while if instead I was watching a reality show or playing a video game it would be only for my guilty pleasure.”

jeopardy game board Photo: Sony Pictures Museum

Contributors say the functional purpose of the J! Archive is to serve as a resource for all past and future Jeopardy! champions. That is where the granular attention to detail is at its most necessary. Yes, all the questions and answers are printed on the website, but so are the Daily Double risks, and Final Jeopardy gambits. Pay enough attention, and a metagame coalesces through the countless data points. You and I might enjoy the J! Archive as a digital monument to a very specific compulsion, but there are plenty of Jennings and Holzhauer acolytes grinding away on that information.

“We have an almost completely full dataset of Jeopardy! strategy. We can go back 20 years, and look at that data, and say, ‘Okay, nine leaders out of 10 risk this specific amount in this Final Jeopardy! situation,’” says Andy Saunders, another longtime J! Archive contributor. “You can then make your own strategy by taking that into account.”

Schmidt is most proud of his creation when he hears the J! Archive referenced by players during Trebek’s interviews. During the All-Star Tournament, which reunited the strongest competitors who ever appeared on the show, Sony TV aired video clips of Ken Jennings and David Madden poring over the Archive’s assembled records — still students of the game, and the database, after all these years. “IBM’s Watson would not have been possible without the Archive having already been in place,” Schmidt adds, referencing the AI module that conquered Jeopardy! in three exhibition matches in 2011. “I’ve been told that personally by some of the people behind Watson.”

It’s hard to imagine American television without Jeopardy!, and even harder to imagine Jeopardy! without Alex Trebek. Nobody feels this more than those who have made it their life’s mission to transcribe every word of the host’s career. Last March, Trebek announced that he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Updates since then have been scarce, but the ones we have received are draped with the sort of grave serenity that hints at a future nobody wants to think about. “I’ve lived a good life, a full life, and I’m nearing the end of that life,” Trebek, 79, told CTV News in October. “If it happens, why should I be afraid of that?” And so, the greatest game show host in history refuses to fear death on prime-time TV every weeknight.

“Some people think the show’s core presenter talent can be recast and the show will continue on as normal. I think the show is much more fragile than that, and that finding a suitable replacement for Alex is going to be a Herculean task,” says Schmidt. “If Who Wants to Be a Millionaire can be canceled after 20 years, then Jeopardy! is at risk of losing popularity, too.”

In the mid-2000s, Schmidt believed that he would retire from the J! Archive when Trebek himself called it quits. It’d be poetic: Two giants of competitive minutiae, hanging up their buzzers at the exact same time. He no longer feels that way. The responsibility is too great. Now, Schmidt believes that the Archive will be crucial for the transition into the forthcoming dark waters — a sense of normalcy as a broadcasting institution enters its second chapter after 36 years.

“Jeopardy! is not some magically self-perpetuating entertainment property. It needs to be continually nurtured by people — and particularly a host — who can care about it devotedly,” Schmidt continues. “Alex has brought a set of talents that will never quite be replicated. Viewing audiences are going to need to have a host they can embrace lovingly, and that will require a love for the game on the part of the new host.”

Schmidt remembers the single time a reporter asked Trebek for his thoughts on the J! Archive. His response? “Come on, people, get a life.” Trebek, by nature, is imperiously humble — he wouldn’t want anyone wasting their time documenting all of his clues, and answers, and small talk between podiums. But Schmidt, Barrett, and Saunders trust in the transformative power of Jeopardy! They’ve watched the Archive change lives, including their own, and they believe that everyone deserves the same privilege. The best way to honor Trebek? Make sure the show survives him.

“The J! Archive will stand as a lasting tribute to the man who was nightly viewing in the living rooms of generations of Americans,” says Schmidt. “A century from now, no one will remember what it meant to have Alex Trebek hosting a game for them every night of the week. But they’ll at least be able to look up some small part of the experience online.”

Luke Winkie is a writer from San Diego. In addition to Polygon, his work has been published in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

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