With some nervy swagger and limitless good humor, Ken Jennings beat James Holzhauer at his own game to win the “Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time” tournament on Tuesday night, coming out on top against two of the other best contestants to play the long-running game show.
It was a highly entertaining run for Jennings, who earned another $1 million to bring his lifetime total “Jeopardy!” winnings to more than $3.5 million. He beat Holzhauer, the viral phenomenon, three matches to one, with Brad Rutter finishing a distant third with no victories during the four-night tournament.
“It’s just a testament to how dominant a player he is and how much he changed the game that Brad and I just knew immediately we were going to have to play his game,” Jennings said of Holzhauer during a phone interview on Wednesday afternoon. “We were going to have to hunt aggressively for Daily Doubles and swing for the fences on every single one. It was clear that whoever won that tournament was going to be the player who did that best James Holzhauer impression because that’s just how smart his strategy is.”
By right, the shiny trophy with the words “The Greatest of All Time” emblazoned across it should have gone to Jennings long ago. Host Alex Trebek noted the Seattle author’s good-natured pursuit of the title as the questions ticked down Tuesday night.
His 74 straight wins on the syndicated game show from June to November 2004 were nothing short of remarkable. Like the 11 straight national championships won by UCLA or the Boston Celtics’ eight consecutive NBA titles, the run was so dominating, it’s viewed as an aberration and almost dismissed out of hand when talk starts about legacy.
And like the debate about LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, Jennings gets slighted because his run happened way back when, as if age makes you dumber or something. Over the years, the 45-year-old has answered every challenge, only struggling to best Rutter and the IBM computer Watson in occasional made-for-ratings events.
When Holzhauer won 32 straight games in 2018, it ripped the Band-Aid off the debate again. Surely Jennings wouldn’t be able to hold up to the 35-year-old Las Vegas gambler’s analytics-based strategy and robotic efficiency, they argued. Jennings’ age would surely be the deciding factor, wouldn’t it?
Holzhauer is a chaos agent when it comes to “Jeopardy!” He shook the game up during his run with an interesting approach. Over the years, it had become rote for contestants to start with lower-dollar questions and work their way up. Holzhauer tossed out that idea and began with high-value questions in an attempt to build up a large amount of cash while searching for Daily Doubles, which allow contestants to as much as double their money.
The strategy worked very well during Holzhauer’s run, and Jennings and Rutter smartly adopted it in the tournament. That decision pushed Jennings to victory and proved disastrous for Rutter. After winning Match 1 on Jan. 7, then losing to Holzhauer the next night, Jennings made a few bold choices at key moments to earn victories in Matches 3 and 4.
He bet his entire 9,200 points during the Daily Double early in Match 3 to take a lead on Holzhauer, then bet his entire 25,600 in a successful final “Jeopardy!” bid that put him out of reach the rest of the way that day.
Holzhauer shouted “Oh, no!” when Jennings revealed his gambit, but offered Jennings double high-fives nonetheless. Holzhauer mounted a furious rally, but Jennings held on to take a 2-1 lead.
And he did the same thing in Tuesday night’s Match 4, parlaying a Daily Double into 15,200 points and adding another 5,000 points on his third straight Daily Double. He clinched it when Holzhauer and Rutter failed to come up with Iago on a final “Jeopardy!” question about the Shakespearean character.
How important were those decisions? Absolutely critical.
Let’s take a closer look: Overall, Holzhauer and Jennings were amazingly efficient and dueled back and forth often during the four-day event, while also reeling off long runs occasionally (Holzhauer answered eight straight questions at one point, Jennings six).
Jennings correctly answered 179 of the 192 questions he buzzed in on, or 93.23 percent. Holzhauer answered 188 of 202, or 93.07 percent. Rutter logged in at 81 of 96, or 84.4 percent.
Jennings and Rutter effectively corralled Holzhauer when it came to Daily Doubles. Not only were they searching for them strategically, but luck also played a huge factor. Rutter hit three Daily Doubles on the first pick of a round, which turned out to be catastrophic, because he had such a small amount of points to play with and because he missed many of the questions. He picked a total of 10 Daily Doubles, but answered only four correctly and lost 11,200 points.
What was detrimental for Rutter was a boon for Jennings. He didn’t hit as many Daily Doubles as Rutter, but he got more than Holzhauer, earning 51,600 points while answering seven of eight questions correctly. His main challenger answered five of six correctly for 39,600 points. But more than 20,000 of that came way too late after Jennings had pulled away to win Match 4.
“I think what you saw in the tournament is just how much luck there is in a game of ‘Jeopardy!’,” Jennings said. “Brad had weirdly good luck finding those Daily Doubles, but it was a double-edged sword because he had the bad luck of finding very difficult Daily Doubles. That’s not something a player has any control over. I’ve been in past tournaments where a lot of breaks went against me and I guess I had finally accumulated enough good karma, good ‘Jeopardy!’ karma with the ‘Jeopardy!’ gods that this time a few breaks went my way at exactly the right time. I feel fortunate (more than) anything else. Like I kind of escaped with the win there.”
Jennings also dominated his opponents in second-chance points. He correctly answered 11 of 12 questions that his opponents beat him to the buzzer on but got wrong. He earned three second-chance answers in a game twice during the tournament, most impressively converting 4,800 points worth of misses by Holzhauer in Match 3 into 4,800 for himself, a 9,600-point swing.
Jennings was so hot he was able to gamble, pulling answers like Imhotep, Arcadia and “The Faerie Queene” out of the ether. At one point, Trebek stopped the game to make note of a run of seeming guesses that ultimately helped decide things.
“I hope you will not take offense, Ken, but so often when you respond in a questioning manner as if you’re not sure, and then you delight in the moment,” Trebek said. “It’s wonderful to see.”
Jennings said there’s no vamping when he’s hyperventilating at the lectern.
“I’m not putting on a show when I exhale in relief,” Jennings said with a laugh. “That’s all real. There’s the thing where you’ve buzzed in and then have to scrounge up the answer. … Or sometimes it’s just that you’re having an intuition flash into your head and then you press the button and then you have to reconsider that intuition. Am I about to say something incredibly stupid? Because the game just goes lightning fast and you’re just going off first impressions and hunches right and left.”
It just so happens that Jennings’ and guesses are a lot better than yours and mine.