Jeopardy: Paradox of Skill

Michael Mauboussin introduced the Paradox of Skill as a condition where as skills improve luck becomes more important to determine who succeeds. For example, combine many very talented basketball players and you get something like Kawhi’s shot.

The simplest way to think about the spectrum of luck to skill is to ask, ‘can I lose on purpose?’ If so, it’s more skill and the chance for the paradox.

So what about Jeopardy? Ken Jennings spoke with Nate Silver (of 538) about what his original run was like, what the GOAT challenge was like, and some of the logistics of playing.

Jennings explained that there were four aspects of Jeopardy that made him become the GOAT.

  1. Trivia knowledge.
  2. Buzzer skills.
  3. Game board strategy.
  4. Luck.

Let’s go through those and see where the Paradox of Skill exists and where it doesn’t. Given Mauboussin’s theory, we’d expect it to be present less often given Jennings long run of success.

Trivia knowledge. Ken Jennings is smart in Jeopardy question terms but so is everyone else in Jeopardy question terms. Everyone on the show has self-selected to be there and has passed a quiz to demonstrate their acumen.

“Most of the players know most of the answers most of the time,” Jennings told Silver.

Buzzer skills. The biggest advantage is winning because it means you’ve experienced the game. Unless there is a break to check an answer, Jeopardy is filmed in nearly real-time. Each game is followed by a break to change clothes and onboard new contestants before filming immediately begins again.

Like a basketball player getting into a rhythm, Jennings synced his buzzer cadence with Alex Trebek’s voice. When the buzz-in window opened, Jennings was first in line. (This is also the reason he attributes to Watson’s success).

Game board strategy. It was James Holzhauer who took strategy to its ultimate mathematical end. Jeopardy James figured that if he had the most experience buzzing in, but his competition probably also knew the answer, his best chance was ‘shock and awe’. That meant going for large clues and finding Daily Doubles.

Which are not quite randomly hidden. Jennings said, “The Daily Doubles are not placed randomly. A human physically looks at the gameboard, reads through some clues, and sees what type of clue might be Daily Double friendly. They try to scatter them but pseudorandomness is not actually randomness.” This same thing occurred with Spotify, Ben Cohen told Barry Ritholtz (22:25).

Luck. Ken admits he got lucky. There were probably dozens of categories he could have gotten bounced on. But they didn’t come up or didn’t come up at a bad time.

Ok, so is Jeopardy a game of mostly luck or mostly skill?

Trivia knowledge is a wash with similar competition. Buzzing is a hard skill (once Jennings really got going new contestants were offered longer training sessions to find the rhythm). Strategy is a wash too, now at least. Luck, is, well, just luck.

When Jennings was asked if Jeopardy is a sport, he pauses. It doesn’t really seem like a sport, but it’s the coverage by sport writers that feels the most accurate to him.

Like Jeopardy? We’ve written more about James Holzhauer and Watson. There’s also my ebooks.

Edit, the first version of this post had goofed up formatting. Have fixed. 

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