On the face of it, the rules of Jeopardy! are simple and finite. There are only five rules by which contestants must abide, not including the dress code and general standards of decorum while behind the podium. According to the official Jeopardy! website, those rules are as follows:
- Contestants can change their responses up until the point of a ruling by the host or judges
- A response can only be deemed correct if it satisfies both the clue and category
- Responses must be in the form of a question
- The minimum wager is $5, except in Final Jeopardy, in which it’s $0
- Responses can be spelled incorrectly as long as they’re phonetically correct
Seems straightforward enough, right? Well, not exactly. In theory, yes, the rules couldn’t be more clear. In practice, however, it’s often a different story. Anyone who’s seen more than a few episodes of the game show knows that the rules aren’t exactly as hard and fast as the official rule book would have you believe.
On Jeopardy!, it’s not uncommon to see the goalposts shift now and then. And sometimes, they shift so far from episode to episode that it sparks outrage among the fanbase. This phenomenon is worsened by the fact that, for the last year, the show has had not one but two regular hosts, whose judgments aren’t always in alignment.
‘Jeopardy!’ Hosts Mayim Bialik and Ken Jennings’ Rulings Often Differ
Inconsistent rulings are frustrating for fans and contestants of any show or game, regardless of the stakes. That said, a seemingly unfair judgment is even worse on Jeopardy!, as there are hundreds if not thousands of dollars on the line.
The occasional misstep is to be expected. Jeopardy! fans would no doubt still point out each and every one of them, but they wouldn’t be as incensed as they have been in recent months. The inconsistent rulings have become such a common occurrence on the show, in fact, that fans are beginning to wonder if it’s deliberate.
For example, Mayim Bialik recently disqualified a contestant’s technically correct response in Final Jeopardy because she “did not finish” writing it out. Rather than “Harriet Tubman,” the contestant appeared to write, “Harriet Tubma.”
Neither fans nor the winner of that night’s game agreed with the ruling. Though the contestant’s penmanship was poor, it was clear what she was trying to say.
Then, just a few weeks later, Ken Jennings accepted a similar, if not even more illegible answer. The correct response was “Waiting for Godot”. What the contestant wrote was “Waiting for [illegible]”. One could certainly argue that the final word was “Godot,” but it was far from clear.
Fans, of course, immediately called Jeopardy! out on its changeable rules. “I think that Harriett Tubman is FAR more legible than whatever Erica has written!” one outraged fan wrote on Twitter.
Many accused the show of accepting the illegible answer to force a rare tiebreaker and add drama to the episode. However, there’s no hard evidence that this occurred.