Ben Chan is the First Jeopardy! Player to Win His First Five Games in Runaways Since 2001
Ben returned Monday to handily defeat reigning champion Hannah Wilson and then won again on Tuesday, after not being able to initially return for his run last month.
Ben Chan’s Initial Streak & Hiatus
What is “a return-to-form?” Or better yet, a return-to-form and beyond? Ben Chan, a philosophy professor from Green Bay, Wisconsin, came back to Jeopardy! this week after having to pause his run early due to succumbing to illness right before he could play his 4th game.
On April 12th, 2023, Ben first appeared on the show, where he played against 1-time champion Kat Jepson, an artist from Virginia Beach, and challenger Laura Caton, a Pittsburgh nonprofit arts administrator. Early marks of his brilliance were already notable, as he dominated both of the main rounds, even with a massive Daily Double miss of $7,000 in the first round. He rebounded quickly to hold the lead after the first round, and then capitalized $3,800 on both Daily Doubles in the second round, as well as getting the last $400 clue to secure the runaway against Laura, who was one correct response away from preventing Ben from locking the game. The scores going into Final Jeopardy! were $5,400 for champion Kat, $8,000 for Laura, and $17,000 for Ben. Since the highest possible score that could be achieved for Laura was no more than $16,000, Ben effectively already won the game. Nonetheless, Kat was the only one to answer correctly as Ben dropped $999 to win his first game with $16,001. Ben had 30 correct responses this game, and a Coryat (score excluding DD and FJ!) of $23,400. Immediately, Ben looked like he was going to be tough to unseat.
In his second game, following a rather contentious battle between him and Peter Early, a settlement consultant from Windham, New Hampshire, in the first round, Ben managed to find all Daily Doubles again, capitalizing a combined $8,000 to cruise into another runaway at $27,200. Peter struggled to get going, only accumulating $6,400 despite sniping $6,000 in the first round, but Liz Jensen, a New Jersey stay-at-home mom, managed to catch up to Peter in the second round, grabbing $6,000 to deal with for Final Jeopardy! Of course, this didn’t matter as Ben had already put the game out of reach, and he and Liz both answered the final clue correctly, thus granting Liz second place and Ben with a big win of $30,000.
Ben’s dominance continued into his third game, despite only finding one of the three Daily Doubles throughout the game. He was the only one to respond to a respective Daily Double correctly, as Kari Elsila and Greg Czaja both missed their chances, giving Ben a lot more leeway. Ben went into the final round with $20,800, compared to $8,000 for Greg and $7,200 for Kari. With him securing a correct response in the final clue of the game about Machiavelli, Ben added $2,200 to win with $23,000 for a 3-day total of $69,001. He would not return to the show for a month following this victory, as he had gotten sick during taping and was unable to travel for his 4th game, but he came back this week, better than ever before.
The History of Consecutive Runaways
If you aren’t massively into the Jeopardy! fandom, you may be wondering: what the hell is a “runaway” supposed to mean in the game show’s terms? Well let’s not get it confused with any band members of the all-girl rock band The Runaways, even though their bassist Jackie Fuchs (Fox) did actually go on a 4-day Jeopardy! streak of her own, decades after the band broke up. You may have been able to pick up on it upon reading through the recap of Ben’s games, but a runaway is defined as a game in which the leader puts the game out of reach with a score that’s too insurmountable for even the second place player to overcome. In other words, the player in second place can be correct on the Final Jeopardy! clue, wager every dollar possible, and still not have quite enough money to surpass the leader. This happens very frequently on the show, but it’s rare that a player gets four runaways in a row starting from their debut game, let alone five. Just how often has it happened, exactly?
On October 5th, 1984, Elise Beraru (#621 of all time, $53,350) began her 5th game of the week, after winning her first four games in commanding runaways. The show was vastly different back then compared to what it is currently, not just because of the clue values being half of what they are now, but there was a long-standing rule that the show had that dates back as far as the Art Fleming era (1964-1974), of which it states: as soon as you’ve won your 5th game, you would then be retired as undefeated and secure a spot to compete in the annual Tournament of Champions. Elise continued to pummel her competition, securing a runaway at $9,600 ($19,200 in today’s values), and winning her 5th game, despite dropping $6,600 from not knowing the Final Jeopardy! clue. With this win, she became the first undefeated 5-time champion of the post-Fleming Jeopardy! era, and the first to earn five straight wins in runaways, beginning with her debut game.
In the following year, at around the same time, a young finance and marketing student named Mike Day (#516 of all time, $59,500) went on a 5-day streak, becoming one of the last players to qualify for the 1985 Tournament of Champions. His run is famous for being one of several games in the first season to contain a single-player Final Jeopardy! as he was the only player of the three to have any cash after the second round ended. He won an extra $12,000 ($24,000 in today’s values) as his 4th win because of it, and then won his final game just as effortlessly for a 5-day total of $53,500. What’s most notable about his run is that he used a strategy of jiggling and clicking the buzzer repeatedly before Alex Trebek was done reading the clue, resulting in him ringing in first on several clues. This culminated into Jeopardy! innovating the “signaling device lockout system,” which made it to where if you rang in too early the buzzer would prevent you from being able to buzz in for 1.5-2 seconds.
Next, a Michigan student under the name of Chuck Forrest ($252,800, 44th of all time) not only replicated the success of securing all five runaway matches in his initial games, but he also garnered what was, at the time, the biggest regular game payout in Jeopardy! history with $72,800, which translates to $145,600 in modern values. It’s worth noting that in his 5th game he had exactly twice as much as the second place player before the Final Jeopardy! clue, but tiebreakers weren’t taken into account back then, thus it had no real effect on his game being a runaway. He went on to win the 1986 Tournament of Champions, adding $100,000 to his career winnings.
It’s unknown exactly how many players between Chuck Forrest and 2000 Tournament of Champions winner Robin Carroll (#38 of all time, $259,100) were able to replicate this success, as there are still many episodes not accounted for, but Jonathan Groff (#235 of all time, $99,501) has claimed to achieve this same feat back in 1995, and then following Robin Carroll in 2000 was 2001 TOC finalist Rick Knutsen (#228 of all time, $100,501), who became the final undefeated champion to win 5 straight games in runaways in March of 2001. The success of five runaway games in a row was still very hard and rare to come by, however.
The closest person we got to achieve this before the clue amounts were doubled was Rod Sanders, a master control operator at the time, who secured his first four wins in runaways before a shocking loss in his 5th game, which proved fatal to his career as he did not qualify as one of the top 15 players of that season for the 2001 Tournament of Champions. Not much later though, the show executives made a groundbreaking decision that would change the show forever.
On September 8th, 2003, the 5-day limit was officially removed. This meant that even after winning your 5th game, you would still be allowed to defend your title as champion. Sean Ryan (#88 of all time, $155,797) became the first player to win at least 6 games, whereas Tom Walsh (#36 of all time, $259,900) became the first player to win at least 7 games. Despite this upgrade, neither player was able to score five runaways in a row starting from their debut, nor was the next player to win at least 7 games: Ken Jennings (#2 of all time, $4,372,700).
While Ken wasn’t immediately the fearsome crushing force that he would eventually become, having a couple of closer games in his first 20 games, he went on to set the benchmark for all future Jeopardy! contestants, currently holding the records for longest streak (74 consecutive wins) and highest-earning player in regular game winnings ($2,520,700 + $2,000 for second place). From his 21st game to 48th game, he racked up runaway games in every single one, setting and withstanding a long-time record of 28 consecutive runaway games.
Contrary to this tremendous statistic, Ken did not secure a runaway in his debut game, and was actually dangerously close to losing. The last 4-time champion before him, Anne Boyd (#249 of all time, $96,600), was able to score runaways in her first four games before losing her 5th game to Jerry Harvey (#389 of all time, $71,002), who lost to Ken Jennings. Many people have replicated Anne’s success in this statistic since 2004, but despite at least six players accomplishing the feat of five straight runaways pre-doubled values, no one had been able to duplicate five runaways starting from their debut game since the 5-day limit was lifted before this week.
Ben Chan Returns to the Show
After one month of uncertainty about his streak, Ben returned to the show the week of May 15th, defeating a strong 8-time champion in data scientist Hannah Wilson (#46 of all time, $231,801). Not only was this a surprisingly sound defeat from him, but it was also one of the highest payouts of the season, second only to Cris Pannullo’s $71,821, with a whopping $60,000 added to his previous total, giving him a 4-day total of $129,001. This is also the 40th-highest one-day total of all time, including pre-doubled amounts prior to November 26, 2001, which is when the clue values doubled. Hannah Wilson finished in second place with $13,599, earning her a $2,000 consolation prize, a grand total of $231,801, and a secure spot in the 2023 Tournament of Champions, set to take place this fall.
Following this extraordinary win and monumental return for Ben was a task that hadn’t been fulfilled ever since the 5-day limit was eliminated, or even since the clue values were doubled: winning his first five games in runaways. The most recent attempt before Ben was Tampa, Florida music executive Troy Meyer (#51 of all time, 6 wins, $215,802), who will be returning to compete in the TOC this fall. Even with Meyer’s extensive quizzing background and very remarkable run up to that point, however, he ran into a tough opponent in his 5th game against David Maes, though he was still able to eek out a win with a correct Final Jeopardy! response. The runaway streak was broken at that point.
In the first round of Ben’s 5th game, he was neck and neck with Tom Winiarski, his nearest opponent. Near the end though, he found the first Daily Double on the antepenultimate clue of the round, betting it all and getting it correctly. He had twice the total that Tom had after the first round, $13,200 to $6,600. During Double Jeopardy!, Ben capitalized $2,000 on the second Daily Double but then proceeded to lose the buzzer race to Tom a bunch, who eventually found the final Daily Double. With $5,000 at risk, Tom had a lot to hope for but he missed the clue, and then dropped another $2,000 on the next clue, putting Ben at a $13,000+ advantage over his other two opponents. While Lydia-Claire Kerrigan was able to make up some ground in the second half of the round, Ben was already too far from his two opponents, accumulating $26,400 compared to $11,200 for Lydia-Claire and $5,200 for Tom.
With a win of $27,999 and a 5-day total of $157,000, Ben became the first player in 22 years to win his first five games in runaways. He now ranks at 87th of all time and is officially guaranteed a spot in the 2023 Tournament of Champions. How long will Ben be able to keep up his streak before the end of the season, and will he secure another runaway in Wednesday’s game? Should he do so, he’ll become the first ever player to win their first six games in runaways, something that’s never been done in the history of Jeopardy!
For a more direct source of all comprehensive Jeopardy! stats, be sure to check out my all-time Jeopardy! leaderboard, which shows results for all tournaments and players across various spreadsheets!
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