Earlier this week, Commissioner David Stern announced the cancellation of the NBA pre-season. If no agreement between players and owners has been reached by Monday, the Commissioner will also cancel the first two weeks of the regular season. The MLB playoffs are currently underway, and the NFL is currently enjoying yet another ratings bonanza. Yet these sports are failing to capture the brilliance, audacity, and artistry of professional basketball. With a season in jeopardy, one man has set out on a mission to single-handedly fill the void left by the NBA. So why aren’t you watching?
Answer: This man, an unassuming cruciverbalist turned high-stakes showman, is currently undertaking one of the most electrifying runs in recent history.
Question: Who is Joon Pahk?
Joon Pahk is a college physics professor from Somerville, MA. He plays and writes crossword puzzles, having been published in the New York Times. During the contestant interviews, Joon revels in his nerd-dom, describing a fantasy baseball league he created in which he
drafts famous playwrights (including MVP Anton Chekhov). On the surface, Joon appears to be a mild mannered young man of considerable intellect, but as Joon proves over his first 4 days on Jeopardy, he is a true brash American hero.
On Day 1, Joon faces Chris Fleitas, who comes into the match with an absurd two day total of $82,901. Coming through with an array of impressive responses (i.e. A: Hindu Preserver God’s bouillabaisses; Q: What are Vishnu’s fish Stews), Joon wins $28,800 despite losing the lead temporarily to Chris on Final Jeopardy.
As Alex Trebek opens Day 2, he betrays an awe for Joon that few would think possible after only a single day of play. Trebek reflects on Joon’s Day 1 performance, openly wondering whether any man can ever surpass the immortal, Joe Dimaggio-esque streak of Ken Jennings.
As the day unfolds, Joon establishes an early lead. By the start of Double Jeopardy, Joon has roughly double the money of the closest opponent. In Double Jeopardy, aA real threat rears its head in the form of mild mannered Elaine, who closes in after Joon makes a major gaffe by guessing wrong in the category of Ancient Greece. It is at this point- Joon up $13,600 to $9,400, Elaine on a major run, and Joon unable to stem the tide- that one of the most mind-blowing stretches in television history unfolds.
Joon recoups his losses by guessing right on the last question about Ancient Greece. He then moves on to the category “Plus 8,” in which each answer involves adding 8 to a series of computations. Joon guesses too quickly on one, missing an answer that he would have known had he taken more time. He then finds the Daily Double… and all hell breaks loose.
Up $16,400 to $9,400 on Elaine, Joon makes his wager, simply stating “I’ll bet it all.”
Alex is stunned. Usually incredibly loquacious, Trebek musters only a flabbergasted “Whoa…”
As Joon prepares to respond to “Number of Days in a Leap Year times 2, plus 8,” it is obvious he has learned his lesson from the prior miss. He takes his time, the close-up on his face revealing a computer, checking and re-checking and cross referencing just to eliminate any chance of human error.
Yet it is in this moment that Joon is simultaneously at his most human, his most vulnerable. He has wagered everything he has, betting on himself. If he guesses right, he will have put the game out of reach, completely destroyed any momentum Elaine may have had, and secured another massive payday. If not? He goes back down to 0 with only a couple of categories left on the board, boosting the confidence of his opponents. If Joon doesn’t have anything else, he has faith in himself.
Moments like this perfectly encapsulate the legend of Joon Pahk. Joon is not the supercomputer Watson. The tournament between man and computer left audiences feeling cold, but not out of fear that man can be displaced by machines. It was simply uninspired television. When a contestant wins merely by knowing all the answers, it’s just a matter of how fast he can press the buzzer. It is in this way that Joon is unlike Watson, Ken Jennings, and other Jeopardy winners. While others win by knowing more answers than their opponents and not making major mistakes on their wagers, Joon utilizes every aspect of the game’s format. He does not know every answer. He makes major missteps, and does so in nearly every episode. He will derail a run with an ill-advised guess. He’s kind of like Kobe Bryant, going 6-24, but he makes the biggest, highest stakes shots of the game. He shows time and again a complete willingness to put it all on the line, risking complete ruin by betting on his own ability to come through in the clutch.
What makes him a truly compelling Jeopardy player is his embrace of the ideals of the very word “jeopardy.” The other contestants are playing Trivia. Joon plays Jeopardy.
If Day 2 appeared an anomaly or temporary loss of good sense, on Day 3 Joon firmly entrenches himself in the milieu of the American cowboy- a lone gunslinger with nothing to lose. After setting the tone early, Joon once again comes out flat in the second half, letting his opponents back into the mix. Joon starts to play desperately, guessing on answers he clearly does not know. Final Jeopardy is an obvious one (“Who is Don Quixote”), and Katie (his plucky opponent and nearest competition) nails it and takes a brief lead. Not that it ultimately will matter, but Katie underestimates how much of a gambler Joon Pahk really is. Joon gets it right, wagering $16,500 of his $16,600. Showing no fear or willingness to step back from a challenge, Joon ups his 3 day total to $112,700.
As Day 4 opens, Alex Trebek warns the contestants about Joon Pahk’s wild ways. He’s a renegade. An outlaw. Don’t mess with Joon Pahk unless you’re ready to draw pistols at dawn.
Joon comes out ice cold. He can’t buy a bucket. Somehow, he manages to pull within $5,000 of Franny, who has pretty much controlled the board from the outset, especially after breezing through an entertainment category on musicals. Joon goes all in on a wild guess, falling behind $17,600 to $8,600 with fewer than 2 full categories left to play. Somehow, facing the real possibility of falling to far behind to catch back up, Joon is right where he wants to be. He goes on a mini-tear, nailing just enough of the remaining questions to stay in the mix on Final Jeopardy. Score: Franny $17,600, Joon $14,200.
For the first time Joon is down going into Final Jeopardy. The category, Oscar Nominations, is right in Franny’s wheelhouse. Per Trebek’s warning earlier in the show, she knows Joon, the madman genius of his generation of Jeopardy players, is willing to go all-in. The smart money is on Joon to wager it all in the hope that Franny doesn’t match.
Yet Joon pulls the rope-a-dope. Joon hammers home Final Jeopardy (Answer: The only time 3 actors from the same movie were nominated for Best Actor was for this High Seas film, Question: What is Mutiny on the Bounty), but in a shocking twist that not even M. Night Shyamalan would be able to imagine, Joon bets only $2,500, taking him to $16,700 (still shy of Franny).
At this point, all the pressure is on Franny. If she knows the answer, her wager is irrelevant and she wins. While she dominated the musicals category, does she know about a 1930s manly adventure tale of life on the high seas? If she gets it wrong, will she have wagered too much in the expectation that Joon would go for broke once again?
Franny makes an incorrect guess. Naturally, Franny placed a large bet ($12,400), costing herself the game and placing herself on the receiving end of the single greatest shock twist ending in television since the revelation of who shot Mr. Burns.
(it wasn’t Homer)
And so the legend of Joon Pahk continues. While conspiracy theories may abound in the coming days (Did Trebek help to “Inception” Franny with his comments at the opening of the show? Was it an inside job?), I for one will look past the noise and forward to the exploits of young Joon. With his reckless style of play, Joon might not make it past Friday, but he has forever carved out a place in the American cultural tapestry as a modern day nerd-cowboy- as well as a place in our hearts.
Joon Watch 2011
Day 5 was a breeze for Joon. At no point did he ever face any real competition. This is not to say the other contestants were bad, it was just the case that Joon strung together what was one of his most balanced and well-played games from a pure knowledge standpoint. Seemingly in direct response to this article, Joon has decided to let his inner robot take over.
On Day 6, Robo-Joon appeared to be on the verge of permanently displacing Cowboy Joon. Having built up a quality lead going into the beginning of the Double Jeopardy segment, Joon once again found the Daily Double. Joon ($14,200) led Hannah ($3,200) and Jared ($3,000) by a comfortable margin, but once again had a math question. Whereas the last time he went for a 5 digit true Daily Double he was trying to pull away from stiff competition, Joon decided to go full rock star and double up just for kicks. Of course, he delivered on his cockiness, forever abandoning his cowboy status in favor of a Mick Jagger-esque strutting and preening rock star persona.
See below for footage of Joon from the last five minutes of the show after his audacious true Daily Double.