Call it the ultimate mic drop.
Fresh off his dazzling million-dollar win in the “Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time” tournament on Tuesday night, Seattle’s Ken Jennings said Wednesday that will likely be his last competitive appearance on the iconic game show hosted by Alex Trebek.
“I’m not going to call a press conference or anything, but, yeah, I think I’m hanging up the buzzer,” the 45-year-old Jennings said. “First of all, there’s no way I could top this. And second of all, I don’t want to play past my prime and I’m getting terribly close to that. I know I’m a little slower than I was back in 2004, and that’s only going to get more and more apparent. And finally, I’m sure at some point, Alex is going to retire and I can’t imagine playing ‘Jeopardy!’ with a different host. This seems like the right time to go out on top.”
Jennings has earned more than $3.5 million over 16 years on the show, beginning with a winning streak that lasted from June to November 2004 and culminating with his victory over James Holzhauer and Brad Rutter in this month’s “Greatest of All Time” tournament. Jennings won three matches to Holzhauer’s one, and they combined to shut out Rutter.
The author and podcast host watched the final match — taped in December — at home with his family and a few close friends. He turned down the opportunity to fly to New York for a promotional appearance after the win when he realized that would have meant being away.
The win settled once and for all the seemingly constant debate over who is the quiz show’s grand champion. Though Jennings won 74 straight games in that initial streak and bested just about every challenger since, longtime watchers still argued over who was the game’s top player.
The clamor only intensified when Holzhauer won 32 straight contests in 2018. The “GOAT” tournament settles it once and for all. To lean on a couple of sports metaphors, Michael Jordan just dribbled past Kobe Bryant and dunked on LeBron James. Or, Tom Brady just beat Peyton Manning and Drew Brees with a flurry of Hail Marys.
“It’s been very exciting,” Jennings said. “It’s been a long time coming.
“I feel very lucky. I never know what the lesson that I should tell my kids to take from that is — Don’t quit your job to go on a game show? But definitely the thing that you’re obsessed with, you should find a place for that in your life. I was a huge game-show nerd. You know, why not? Why not try to play to that strength? Obsession is destiny.”
Jennings beat Holzhauer by taking the 35-year-old sports gambler’s audacious strategy and turning it against him. He earned big money in matches 3 and 4 by going all in on bold Daily Double and final “Jeopardy!” answers, and hitting big. And he finished two-tenths of a percentage point ahead of Holzhauer when it came to correct answers.
“That’s not how I traditionally played during my original run,” Jennings said. “I was just kind of focused on keeping an even keel and winning each game one at a time, kind of playing ‘Jeopardy!’ the way I would on my couch. But I knew going in that was not going to work against James Holzhauer.”
The immediate question for most fans is: What will Jennings do with his winnings? His success on “Jeopardy!” and other game shows has allowed Jennings to live a writer’s life. He’s about to turn in his 13th book and generally pursues his own interests, something he knows is an enviable existence.
Fiscal realities do creep in from time to time, though. Even seven figures only go so far in Seattle.
“I think, honestly, the big line item for us right now is we’ve got two teenage kids, so a lot of this money is going to turn into tuition for overpriced colleges,” Jennings said. “And I guess that’s just how America is. But I’d like to do some good with it, too. I mean, on one level, it’s a little odd to see three millionaires on TV competing for $1 million. You know, what’s not to like? But on the other hand, if you’re already set up pretty well, a nice little windfall like this means you can do some good.
“When Alex announced his cancer diagnosis, for example, I can write a check for pancreatic cancer. If my kids are worried about the Malayan tapir being endangered, we can write a check for Malayan tapirs. I really want my kids to see that example, that money’s not to be accumulated in an evil billionaire game, but you can make the world a better place.”
The highly entertaining four-day tournament of champions event was a ratings smash. It was the most-watched entertainment program of the 2019-20 television season so far, averaging 14.9 million same-day viewers, and drew more viewers than all but one of this season’s “Monday Night Football” games. It even got coverage on ESPN and odds from sports books.
The show was also an expression of love for the 79-year-old Trebek, who Jennings believes is the key to the show’s success.
Jennings initially considered turning down the “GOAT” invitation. But, ultimately, he decided it’s “Jeopardy!” — the show he loves.
“Just as a fan of ‘Jeopardy!,’ I was so happy with how it turned out as a TV show and that millions of people got so into it,” Jennings said. “I could not be happier for ‘Jeopardy!’ to be taking a victory lap right now.”