Alright, now, about the Watson teaser match…

Alex Trebek in an episode from 1979.

Oh hot damn. (Image via Wikipedia.)


So they had a big ol’ gathering in upstate New York for a preview of the Super-Match of Jeopardy!, the IBM Challenge, featuring Ken Jennings (74-game champion, Super Tournament of Champions first runner-up, and current title-holder for most money won on game shows), Brad Rutter (winner of the 2001 Tournament of Champions, Million Dollar Masters Tournament, the Super Tournament of Champions, undefeated in all Jeopardy! games he has played, and current title-holder for most money won on Jeopardy!), and IBM supercomputer Watson. And there’s been a lot of kerfuffle of the ‘teaser match’, or more specifically, the first half of the Jeopardy round, and rightly so – this is a big match-up in one of the greatest game shows in television history with a million bucks on the line, a NOVA documentary on the way, and the supposed fate of human existence at stake.

But in all the bluster of the beginning of Skynet spawning from this one-half of one-third of a warm-up match, there’s really been no analysis of what we’re seeing. So here’s my analysis: Brad and Ken are in okay shape. First things first: the score at the end of the clip we see has Watson leading with $4,400 with Ken just behind with $3400 and Brad with $1200 – still a very close game. A big part of that is the handicap put on Watson – that the computer has to mechanically buzz in rather than digitally in some form – but still, Ken’s still in that game. But there’s a few other things to note that shows that humanity’s got more than a fighting chance:

  • First, it’s not Alex Trebek reading the clues – it’s Jimmy McGuire of the Clue Crew. (Jimmy, by the way, I met when the Brain Bus was last in New York City back in 2005 – really nice guy, signed my long-out-of-print copy of The Jeopardy! Book along with the New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge I won that day.) That change in cadence may have thrown our human heroes off at the start, considering that the last time they played it was Trebek reading the clues.
  • And that’s another thing to note: the last time these two guys played on Jeopardy!‘s stage was in 2005 in the UToC. The last time Rutter appeared on a game show of any kind was on Grand Slam, along with Jennings, in 2007; Jennings last appeared on a game show, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, in 2008. They’re invariably going to be rusty (no mechanical puns intended) and I assume that this warm-up session was a way to shake the rust off. After Watson almost runs the category “Chicks Dig Me”, Ken seemed to have found the groove we saw him set in during most of the matches of his reign in 2004.
  • And that’s the thing – this warm-up match (taping for the actual shows, by the way, is tomorrow) will invariably allow Brad and Ken to regain the muscle memory of buzzing in, which is so crucial when playing. Hell, we didn’t even see the rest of this game, so they may have done that already – though if one reads into the tea leaves of Engadget saying that Watson “destroyed all humans” (a dubious matter, considering that is probably hyperbolic), Watson may have won the whole game.

2 thoughts on “Alright, now, about the Watson teaser match…

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