Ray Lalonde qualified for the "Jeopardy!" Tournament of Champions by winning $386,400 over 13 games, the second-longest winning streak of the season. He was eager to head back to the Los Angeles area in a few months to pick up the buzzer once more, this time to go head-to-head with the best of the best for a chance to win $250,000 - and a whole lot of bragging rights.
"The opportunity to participate in the Tournament of Champions is beyond a dream come true for me," Lalonde told The Washington Post.
But he won't be going - at least as it stands.
On Friday, Lalonde, 61, sent an email to the show's producers. He told them he wouldn't participate out of concern that the questions would have to be recycled after "Jeopardy!" writers joined other members of the Writers Guild of America to strike for better pay and guarantees that their work won't be replaced by artificial intelligence technology. Lalonde, a longtime union member who builds and paints sets for TV shows and movies, explained his decision in identical posts published in "Jeopardy!"-related groups on Facebook and Reddit. Several other top contestants quickly committed to joining Lalonde's boycott of the tournament, putting its future in doubt.
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"Ray really stuck his neck out there by being the first one," said Hannah Wilson, who won $229,801 during an eight-game winning streak in May. "But then there's kind of an avalanche ... and I'm like, 'Well, now they probably can't do the tournament.'"
Like Lalonde, she has decided to eschew the annual event.
Sony Pictures Entertainment - which owns "Jeopardy!" - did not respond Monday to a request for comment from The Post.
Lalonde, who lives in Toronto, said that, based on past schedules, contestants were anticipating the tournament to be taped in late August or early September. Lalonde said he wanted to give producers a heads up that he would not participate before champions' flights and hotel rooms were booked. So he sent the email.
"It has come to my attention that the producers of Jeopardy are making contingency plans to continue making the show without the writers if the WGA strike remains unresolved," he wrote. "I think it only fair that I should inform you ahead of time that I cannot be part of such an action. In the event the show goes forward with taping ... I will not cross the WGA picket line to participate."
Figuring that some of his fellow "Jeopardy!" champions might be wrestling with a similar decision, Lalonde published identical posts in the Facebook and Reddit groups explaining that "as a supporter of the trade union movement, a union member's son and a proud union member myself," he had informed the show's producers that he wouldn't cross a picket line to play.
"My hope in saying this publicly now is to perhaps influence some future decision to proceed without the writers and to encourage any others in the community who feel the same way to speak out as well," he wrote at the end of his post. "A few small voices may not change any minds but we can try."
Wilson, a 35-year-old data scientist from Chicago, saw the post within hours. In the preceding weeks, she'd been preparing for the tournament, which she described as "a dream beyond a dream," by brushing up on classic "Jeopardy!" categories: Shakespeare and U.S. presidents. Lalonde's post helped her crystallize her thinking around the WGA strike, which she already didn't "feel good" about.
She replied immediately.
"I'll stand with you, Ray!" she wrote in a reply to his Reddit post.
In an interview with The Post, Wilson called the decision "a no-brainer." As the writers strike continues, she said she also worried about the possibility of recycled or AI-generated clues. But even if that wasn't the case, she said she wouldn't cross a picket line.
"I don't want to be in a scab tournament," she said.
Other champions followed. Cris Pannullo, who won $748,286 during a 21-game winning streak, wrote on Reddit that he "fully" agreed with Lalonde's stance.
So did Troy Meyer, who won six games in January, and Ben Chan, a nine-game winner.
"Ray, thank you for taking this stand," Chan wrote in his Reddit reply. "If you are out, I am out."
Lalonde said that he's disappointed about the prospect of missing the Tournament of Champions, something he never thought he'd qualify for. He still hopes that the writers and studios come to an agreement that would send the writers back to the "Jeopardy!" set, which will allow him to play in good conscience. But if that doesn't happen, Lalonde isn't sure how the producers will host a Tournament of Champions without a good chunk of the champions.
"I don't see how that's going to go forward," he said.