#ThrowbackThursday – Greatest Jeopardy! Debuts


Usually, it takes someone a few games for a star Jeopardy! player to get the hang of the Jeopardy! buzzer and rack up a really big total. One example that I like to give is that of Brad Rutter, who had a good-but-not-amazing original run, and then proceeded to win every tournament in sight! Heck, even Ken Jennings barely won his first game! However, here are some players who didn’t need much time to acclimatize at all, the first in a multi-part series looking at great performances!

Ranked by Coryat score, here are the 10 greatest regular-play debuts as recorded thus far by J! Archive:

10. Anne Boyd, May 25, 2004

Her debut: Amazingly, Ken Jennings doesn’t even crack the Top 10 debuts of 2004, ranked by Coryat score. That year saw a number of impressive debuts, with Anne Boyd being only the third-best of Season 20, but still cracking our list. Anne’s debut came against Glenn Fechner and Jeremy Schanck (Jeremy had run up $42,200 over his first two wins), and the three players did not disappoint, combining for over $50,000 in Combined Coryat – and 59 correct responses – amongst the three of them! Of those, Anne picked up 31 on her own en route to a Coryat score of $29,600, running two of the 12 categories, going 4/5 in a third, and 3/5 in two more! Yes, she had a lock game!

And the rest of her run? Anne was the returning champion in the green room when Ken Jennings first showed up to the studio. In her 5th game, two days before Ken’s run began, she faced Jerry Harvey. Late in Double Jeopardy, Anne faced a Daily Double and bet $200. On Jerry’s 2 clues later, he sent $10,000 (of his $10,600) in an attempt to take the lead. It worked for Jerry, both got Final, and Anne went home. In the Tournament of Champions, Anne lost one of the all-time great Tournament of Champions semifinals to Tom Walsh after Anne chose to bet $0 in Final Jeopardy, in which Chris Miller led the both of them going into Final.

9. Chris Miller, April 1, 2004

His debut: Speaking of Chris Miller, I’d say that Chris definitely had David Seminer thinking “The Jeopardy! gods giveth and the Jeopardy! gods taketh away”! Chris watched from the audience as Seminer racked up a Coryat of $29,800, and then after the lunch break, Chris showed David what a $29,800 Coryat felt like! In spite of missing a Daily Double, Chris put up 33 correct, including 3 category runs and 3/5 in 3 more! Yes, Chris had a lock game as well going into Final Jeopardy. He also got Final and finished Day 1 with $36,399.

And the rest of his run? Chris became a 5-time champion, winning $123,597 over those five games. In Game #6, Chris nearly had Scott “Renzo” Renzoni locked out. Unfortunately for Chris, Renzo got Final, Chris did not, and Chris went home. In the Tournament of Champions, Chris would have reached the final had he gotten Final Jeopardy correct in his semifinal. Chris then reached the semifinals of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions, losing in a lock in that semifinal to Brad Rutter.

8. David Abolafia, April 19, 2004

His debut: Going up against Wilson Lee and 1-day champ Geoff Strain, David came out of the blocks like gangbusters, getting an amazing 34 questions correct and racking up a Coryat of $30,200 in his opening game! In spite of dropping $5,000 on a Daily Double, David had a lock game on his debut. Among his 34 correct were 3/5 in 4 categories and 4/5 in another 4 of them – a truly dominating performance across the board, en route to winning $27,000 his first time out.

And the rest of his run? He got 31 correct (among 6 incorrect) in Day 2, and 31 correct on Day 3. However, he ran into Tom Baker on Day 3, who seemed to match David stroke-for-stroke. Tom had a neg-free $19,800 going into Final, and David went home after he fell on the wrong side of Final Jeopardy. He left as a 2-day champion having won $42,000 in those two victories.

7. Larissa Kelly, May 20, 2008

Her debut: Mary Kay Schmidt had a small upper hand over Larissa on Larissa’s debut May 20, 2008 through a rare perfect 30/30 Jeopardy! round, but Larissa found another gear in Double Jeopardy. Over the course of the game, Larissa picked up 29 correct and failed to neg, leading to a Coryat score of $30,400 in her first game. Her score going into Final Jeopardy! was a jaw-dropping $42,200, thanks to Daily Double wagers of $7,000 and $8,000. Another $3,000 in Final (in a recurring theme here, she had a lock game) led to her account opening with $45,200.

And the rest of her run? Larissa was the first female superchampion, going on to win six games. Her winnings of $222,597 over her 6 victories still sits 8th all-time. She was the first player to go 10-for-10 in Final Jeopardy (a record not broken until Ben Ingram went 12-for-his-first-12); unfortunately, she missed her 11th in Game 2 of the ToC final and finished second. In the Battle of the Decades preliminaries, she led Russ Schumacher and Tom Kavanaugh going into Final Jeopardy, but lost there on a Triple Stumper.

6. Sandra Gore, December 8, 1987

Her debut: 2-day champ Alice Cohen occupied the champions’ podium when Sandra Gore made her debut. Alice had $500 going into Final Jeopardy. Sandra? A pre-doubled $17,000. Sandra got 33 clues correct that episode, racking up a pre-doubled Coryat of $15,500. Of those 33, she went 3/5 in 6 categories, 4/5 in a seventh, and ran an eighth in an across-the-board domination. Amazingly still, as often happened at the time, four clues went unplayed! Though she missed Final Jeopardy, she still won $14,000 her first day on the show.

And the rest of her run? Sandra won $53,507 over her 5-game run. In her Tournament of Champions, she became the first female contestant during the Alex Trebek run of the program to reach the finals of a Tournament of Champions. In that final, she finished third to Mark Lowenthal and Bruce Naegeli after leading through Day 1. She led her Super Jeopardy! quarterfinal (the only female contestant to do so) but missed Final Jeopardy! there. In the Ultimate Tournament of Champions, she faced another member of this list — Mike Dupee.


5. Michael Dupee, April 9, 1996

His debut: The day before, Rick Blumenfeld won $4,199. I don’t think he knew what hit him on his title defense. Michael racked up a Coryat of $15,700, buoyed by 34 correct responses! He went 3/5 in 4 categories and 4/5 in 3 more. Unusual for this list, Michael didn’t have a lock game! Ron Jin, after picking up $3,000 on a Daily Double, had $7,900 to Dupee’s $15,800. As ties were still allowed back in 1996, a tie seemed likely, and it happened, as Michael smartly stood pat while Ron doubled up.

And the rest of his run? Michael (barely) disposed of Ron in Game #2, and went on to become a 5-time champ, pocketing $66,401. He then went onto win the Tournament of Champions in November of that year. After nearly locking out Robert Slaven in Round 2 of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions, him and Eugene Finerman fell prey to the famous Sarbanes-Oxley Final Jeopardy (leave it to a Canadian to get the clue about American laws), and lost to Brad Rutter in the Battle of the Decades preliminaries.

4. Jason Richards, October 3, 2005

His debut: Elizabeth Randisi was defending champion at $6,900. Jason rang in on Clues 3 through 11, picking up all 9, en route to $12,800 after the Jeopardy! round. The rout continued in Double Jeopardy!, with Jason going 37-for-37 when ringing in, picking up a Coryat of $31,600! Like Sandra Gore above, it could have been even more, as three clues didn’t see the light of day! Jason had $37,100 going into Final. His first miss of the day came on that Final Jeopardy, but it was still a very productive day of $32,100.

And the rest of his run? Jason won his first four games in locks, but was defeated in Game #5 by Melissa Prepster. He did win $99,200 in his four victories, and reached the semifinals of his Tournament of Champions, where he lost to eventual tournament champion Michael Falk.

3. Jerome Vered, May 18, 1992

His debut: Don Westrich had a very strong $30,201 in his first two victories. Don
and Katie De Pitts
managed to keep Jerome off the buzzer until clue #9. However, Jerome got 15 of the next 21 to have $5,000 at the end of the Jeopardy! round. During Double Jeopardy, Jerome picked up 19 more for a total of 34! Over the course of the entire game, Jerome went 3/5 in 2 categories, 4/5 in four more, and ran a seventh. His Coryat score when the dust had settled? $16,400. He had $17,600 going into Final (yes, a lock!) and $24,000 coming out of it. A great career had begun!

And the rest of his run? In Game #4, Jerome set a one-day record of $34,000 that stood until dollar values were doubled (if you double Jerome’s score that day, it’s only been surpassed by Ken Jennings and Roger Craig.). Over his 5 games, he won $96,801 – second only to Frank Spangenberg. He finished 3rd to Leszek Pawlowicz and Bruce Simmons in the Tournament of Champions. He finished 3rd to Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings in the Ultimate Tournament of Champions. In the Battle of the Decades, Jerome was defeated in the preliminaries by Tom Cubbage.

2. Chris Fleitas, September 29, 2011

His debut:Sergio Llorian picked up $29,201 the day before, but was not prepared for what Chris Fleitas had – especially in Double Jeopardy. Chris got 20 in Double Jeopardy en route to 31 correct overall and a Coryat of $33,000. 3/5 in 3 categories, 4/5 in 2 more, and 5/5 in a sixth! Chris had $32,400 going into Final (in spite of dropping $4,000 on a Daily double) and $38,900 coming out of it!

And the rest of his run?His second game saw Rob Landolfi send $10,800 at a Daily Double, keeping Chris from a lock game – even though Chris got 32 right. His 3rd game: He got to play against Joon Pahk. Joon picked up 31 correct on his own and Chris was one of the few 2-game champions on this list (albeit $84,901 richer)!

1. Wes Ulm, June 4, 1997

His debut: The defending champion was Stephen Heuser ($12,401); Stephen and Ellen Simmons managed to hold Wes to $4,100 (on 16 correct) after the first round. In Double Jeopardy? A mind-boggling TWENTY-THREE correct. By the time the carnage had ended, Wes had 39 correct and a Coryat of $18,000. Over the game, he had run 2 categories, gone 4/5 in 5 more, and 3/5 in an 8th. It still holds up as the best performance by anyone in J! Archive (in terms of Coryat) by anybody not named Ken Jennings. Going into Final, Wes had $19,200. While he lost $2,000 in Final Jeopardy – it was still an incredible performance on debut.

And the rest of his run? Through four games, Wes had picked up $63,201. In his attempt to become a 5-time champion, Wes was unable to lock out Arthur Phillips, falling in Final Jeopardy. In that year’s Tournament of Champions, Wes was eliminated in the quarterfinals after a smaller bet would have kept him above Bob Harris eventual wild-card total.

And there you have it: the top 10 performances in a first appearance in the history of the show. What I find most amazing? Only one of these 10 (Dupee) ever won a Tournament of Champions. Any surprises from you after reading this? Leave a comment!