The Jeopardy Kid’s Lesson: Life’s Not Fair

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons ImagesLast week a 12-year-old boy from Connecticut was disqualified on Jeopardy Kids Week because he misspelled a word in his question.

The answer he had to create a question for was, “Abraham Lincoln called this document, which took effect in 1863, ‘a fit and necessary war measure.’ “

Thomas Hurley III misspelled a word in his question. Emancipation Proclamation came out “emanciptation.”  Apparently, Jeopardy rules do not allow for spelling errors. Their official site doesn’t spell this out; however, media reports noted the eighth grader had an incorrect response and was, thus, disqualified.

When Hurley gave the correct, but misspelled, response, he was in second place. The first place winner was the all-time money-winner for Kid’s Jeopardy, with more than sixty-thousand dollars.

So …. Jeopardy rules: right or wrong? I know there is tremendous danger in my climbing up on a high horse on any issue, including this one –one can have a hard fall. However, life is not fair.

I am an outlier on this outcome among friends; some believe the young man should not have been disqualified. His take-home money would have been greater had his question been allowed. But I’m an old-fashioned kind of parent, and I think rules are rules. What do we teach our children when the rules are bent for them?

What if the money situation had been different and two of the children gave the same response, with one spelled incorrectly?  How should that have been handled?  As a parent, how would you feel if your child was the one whose word was spelled correctly, and had to share the winnings with the child who spelled incorrectly?

Growing up as the daughter of two teachers, a good score on a spelling test was sacrosanct. Knowing my spelling words meant I would someday go to college, which  meant I would have a better life.  I was a good speller, but I was not good at  math after eighth grade. While I made decent grades in other subjects, the consequence of being poor at math meant my college choices were limited. That was an early lesson for me. We all have gifts, but mine were not in mathematics.

When my husband studied for the Graduate Record Exam, I helped him by compiling lists of difficult words. He tackled the spellings and meanings of torpid, turgid and turbid. To get into graduate school, there’s a minimum score and vocabulary words are a part of the test. Had he achieved a low score on the test, he would not have gone to graduate school.

As a parent, I feel  sorry for Hurley.  Anyone who has a child can relate to this feeling. No child wins at everything.

When my son was in the fifth grade he won the school spelling bee. I missed it because I was on a long-haul business trip in New York City.  However, I was home for the county spelling bee.  He placed fourth. When you win fourth, you don’t get a trophy. No one shakes your hand. The three students remaining on stage get pictures in the paper.

I felt horrible that I missed his win, and was present for his defeat.  But a very wise friend said to me at the time, “He needed his mother more for the defeat than for the victory.  Anybody can be a gracious winner.”

Wise words indeed. Hopefully they are ones being discussed in the Hurley household.

Amy McVay Abbott is an independent journalist from the Midwest, who focuses on health and rehabilitation issues.  She is also the author of two books, both available on, A Piece of Her Mind (2013) and The Luxury of Daydreams (2011).  These books are collections from her popular newspaper column, The Raven Lunatic.  Follow her on Twitter @ravenonhealth or visit her website at amyabbottwrites.

  • “Life’s not fair” is one of those lessons that’s as hard on parents as it is on the kids. However, in this particular case, the kid still would have come in second place. He couldn’t have won first place, so the ruling didn’t change the outcome of the game…it just sucked for the kid to get called out for bad spelling by Alex Trebek. The man can be harsh to adults on Jeopardy, seemingly taking delight when people fail, and I think the worst part of this kids episode was that Alex’s sympathy must have sounded fake even to Thomas. How embarrassing.

    • Amy McVay Abbott

      I think the issue for his parents, am speculating, was the money he lost. Thanks for commenting. Alex’s handling of it reminds me of many Little League coaches I’ve seen…..

  • Not only does the “Life’s Not Fair” rule apply, but there is the possibility that a small typo could change the answer. I wasn’t watching the kid’s Jeopardy, so I don’t entirely understand why they were spelling the answers in the first place. The adults don’t spell the answers…

    • Amy McVay Abbott

      Apparently, as it was written on the card. My husband says this rule has never applied before, but I can’t find anything in writing that says other than an “incorrect answer.” The judges ruled this as “incorrect” because it was misspelled on the card.

  • Joan Haskins

    My mother won the city-wide spelling bee in her day, I won the 4th grade spelling bee, and my daughter won 1st place in junior high.
    Spelling came naturally to all of us. I know some highly intelligent people who are just not good spellers.
    When I first heard this, I thought the kid got ripped off. He had the right answer, it just wasn’t spelled correctly. Everyone knew what he meant.
    Then I was told that this was indeed, a long standing Jeopardy rule: That spelling counts.
    You are right. Rules are rules, and our children do need to learn that life is so very often not fair. But this one still bothers me…

    • Amy McVay Abbott

      I lost my fourth grade spelling bee to a future National Merit Scholar, because I spelled TRUCK t-u-r-c-k. Won second place, never got any higher than that in any spelling bee.

  • Spelling is important. Since he had to spell it and he spelled it wrong, then he’s out. Winning is not about almost or close. It’s about right on. I have no conflict with this. It’s too bad but hopefully it will be a lesson he learns and I bet he’ll be more careful with spelling in the future.

    • Amy McVay Abbott

      Thanks for commenting, Lynda.

  • Yep. Our parents taught us the same lessons. Life is tough, use the lessons and move on…and spelling and grammar do count. With you one this one too! Loved the essay…write ON! (Up-raised fist)

    • Amy McVay Abbott

      Thanks for commenting, Rebecca.

  • I watch a fair amount of Jeopardy so I do know that spelling matters in Final Jeopardy. I have seen many adults lose on the final question due to spelling errors. Our oldest son won the school spelling bee twice but lost in his 8th grade year on the word saxophone by inadvertently starting with a ‘c’ rather than an ‘s’. A mere slip of the tongue and he was out. As we used to jokingly say when playing games with the kids when they were younger, ‘no breaks’. I do feel bad for the young man and don’t always enjoy Alex Trebek’s demeanor but everyone knows the rules going in.

    • Amy McVay Abbott

      Thanks for commenting, Rick. I suspect your son never spelled saxophone wrong again!

  • Spelling isn’t morality or philosophy where there can be many sides to a story. It’s SPELLING! Giving an answer and spelling it wrong is like building a house without an open door. It just ain’t right!

    • Amy McVay Abbott

      Thank you for commenting, Roger.

  • Carol Schaefer

    My momma always said…..rules are rules for a reason. If they required correct spelling, then there should be no controversy.

    • Amy McVay Abbott

      Thanks for commenting, Carol.

  • Quick question: Did you mean to say that your son came in 4th in the “County” spelling bee? Or was he in the National Bee? I ask because I assume that you meant “county” but a typo slipped in there. I see typos all the time. And I make them. When you are writing quickly, whether online or under pressure, say, on a timed game show, letters slip in and out. This is precisely why all writers need editors and proofreaders.

    So, yes, I feel very sorry for a kid who lost Jeopardy based on an obvious mistake (he probably is kicking himself) when the answer is right. However, he signed on agreeing to the rules. They are very precise on those rules. A few times, I have thought it was an unfair call, but I would never question the Trebek.

    • Amy McVay Abbott

      Touche! Yes, it was COUNTY! I’m glad I cannot get fired from this job because of that stupid mistake! Thanks for commenting.

      • No worries! I’m one of those people with eyes that pick up every little spelling error. It has destroyed many a good book for me. But, I veer away from correcting every typo I see online (though I appall them in professional writing or businesses) because I never want to be a “grammar-nazi” and I truly understand how easy it is to slip. (That’s why God made Spellcheck 😉 I only asked about that because it seemed fitting.

        It’s true you never forget those small-but-huge mistakes. Mine was “separate” in 5th grade.

  • Addendum: If your son really was in the “country” spelling bee, then I apologize and Kudos! That is not a loss at all 🙂

  • Richard Brown

    When I was in 3rd grade, I was the best speller in my class. One day we had a spelling bee and I expected to win. My first word was “dirt.” Heck, I knew how to spell dirt! Without giving a moment’s thought, I blurted out “d-r-i-t.” As soon as I said the last letter, I knew I had goofed and tried to correct it. The teacher disqualified me and I didn’t complain. So while I’m sympathetic to young Mr. Hurley’s plight, I’m not sympathetic to his sense that he was cheated. Rules are rules.

  • I agree that rules are rules, but I really like the advice you got from a friend “He needed his mother more for the defeat than for the victory.

  • Natalie Reidford

    I can relate to your son, having placed third in the city bee when trophies went to first and second place. It’s a bummer. But even kids can understand that rules are rules…if they are taught that.

  • It seemed more like a typo than a spelling error to me. A tough lesson for the young man to learn. It may haunt him for years to come.

  • Nina Ballerina

    You misunderstand the rules of Jeopardy. The second place winner doesn’t get to keep the money they ‘win’. They get $2000 only. The third place winner gets $1000. So, it’s not about the money, it’s about the fact that even though Thomas Hurley got the answer right, it was rejected due to spelling. Jeopardy often accepts misspelled words. Alex himself has said on several occasions, “Spelling doesn’t count in Final Jeopardy”. Jeopardy is a contest based on general knowledge. Thomas knew the answer, he just misspelled or typo’d. That’s what stings. I think it was a crummy call. They gear down the difficulty of the questions in Kid’s Week Jeopardy, so you ‘d think they’d make allowances for this kind of thing, too. You can’t expect college level spelling from a grade school kid, not when general knowledge is the goal. It’s not a spelling bee. That’s a whole other kettle of fish.

  • Anne Born

    I won all the holy cards in grade school for spelling, but nothing much for general knowledge! I think the kid should learn you win when you win. It would be the same if he called it the Emancipation Presentation. Close is just not a winner.

    I agree though – this was crummy because it was a kid. We need to have higher standards for grownups and the kid just got caught in the crunch.

  • I’m not sure what the rules are on Jeopardy, or what an ‘appropriate’ response to a misspelled answer might be. But it does seem like a teachable moment from the parents was missed, and by a country mile. The takeaway seems to be that it’s ok to scream to the media, and to friends on FB. “I wuz robbed! It’s not fair”

    But hellloooo, life isn’t fair. Sometimes decisions by those in authority are purely arbitrary. Employers and co-workers can be harsh, cruel and unfair. It’s the way it is. And it’s a hard lesson for anyone, young or old. But it’s a good lesson to learn at any age, and IMHO the sooner the better. I know people who still haven’t gotten the message.

    Good on Alex for making it that far in the spelling bee. I never made it to our school’s finals. I learned how to spell ‘judgment’ the hard way, and I’ve never forgotten it!

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