Monday evening, just as I filed a column about former “Jeopardy!” champion James Holzhauer, I noticed an email from another “Jeopardy!” legend: Seattle’s own Ken Jennings.
I had reached out to Ken back in mid-April, just as Holzhauer was rising to fame, hoping to get his thoughts on the man that would redefine everything we thought we knew about the game. Turns out, myriad other outlets had the same idea, and I got lost in Jennings’ shuffle.
But when Holzhauer’s 32-game winning streak came to an end on Monday — leaving him less than $60,000 short of the $2,520,700 Jennings amassed over 74 games — Ken reached out. And though it didn’t really fit in with the column I had already written, there was no way I was going to pass up chatting with the original “Jeopardy!” phenom. Here’s a transcript of our conversation.
Matt Calkins: So what was your reaction to James losing? Did you know this was coming?
Ken Jennings: “I knew the broad strokes of what was going to happen. I had been to a ‘Jeopardy!’ taping recently and everyone was buzzing about it. Monday, ‘Jeopardy!’ gave me a heads up and said, ‘Your phone is going to be busy.’ But I was delighted to see someone put together a streak like that. I like watching someone play the game well. I still get bothered when someone makes a bad wager or something. I just like watching the game well-played. I would have loved to see him keep going. I don’t really have any ego in that way.”
MC: It kind of seemed like he was going to go forever the way he was dominating.
KJ: “He looked so unbeatable. I was like, ‘This guy is going to be playing until the year 2100, when we’re all just heads in jars.’ But a ‘Jeopardy!’ game is such a fragile thing. You never know which one is going to have your name on it. Two things go right for you, it can change everything. Same if two things go right for the other person. That’s what happened.”
MC: “The all-time high for a game before he started playing was $77,000. Then he came along and was averaging $77,000. (Jennings averaged about $34,000) What is that the sports equivalent to?
KJ: “Before James, you’d get a score like that maybe every five years, if even that often. So I think what he was doing was kind of like hitting for the cycle every game of a baseball season. Or in basketball — it’s way weirder than averaging a triple- double for a season, it’s more like a season where you score 70 points every game.”
MC: What did you most admire about his game?
KJ: “I lock in on the confidence. I loved the whole pushing the chips in thing (the motion he’d make when he was betting it all). From the very first game, he walked in there thinking, ‘Thousands of people have played this game and I think they have all done it wrong.’ But it’s what we all should have been doing. It was like coming up with the forward pass. Yeah, he can kick the bottom row out (start with all the hardest clues from different categories). And he had the confidence to do that in his one at-bat.”
MC: Do you think more people are going to start playing that way?
KJ: “I’ve been thinking about that. I don’t think everyone is going to try it. A lot of people have been watching ‘Jeopardy!’ on their couches their whole lives, but there’s a small group of people who can kick some butt in those game. Those people might use a Holzhauer-like strategy. Some of them are going to do great. It makes it more exciting on those big-dollar questions.”
MC: So with you, James and Brad Rutter (who is undefeated and has beaten Jennings twice), ‘Jeopardy!’ kind of has a holy trinity right now. Is that dream game going to happen?
KJ: “Yeah, the last few tournaments it’s been me, plus Brad and a player to be named later. Now, you know the ‘Jeopardy!’ people have to love it. Suddenly now they’ve got their three people. I’ve had dozens of people telling me that it would be great to have us three play. That’s what I’m hearing in my social media bubble.”
MC: So you look at the stats between you and James through 33 games, and he seems to have a little bit of an edge. He got 97 percent of his answers right, you got 92. He’s 95 percent on his Daily Doubles, you were 85. He’s 97 percent on Final Jeopardy, you’re at 68. I know you’ve said 29-year-old Ken would fare better than 44-year-old Ken, but how do you think you would do against him today?
KJ: “In my defense, Final Jeopardy has gotten easier. But you’re right, head-to-head, he is a little better in almost every category. It really comes down to — because I’ve held up better than I thought I would — so it’s the kind of thing where it’s whoever gets the breaks that day, who misses a Final Jeopardy or something. But I would need some breaks to beat that guy.”
MC: Thanks, Ken. Really appreciate your time. My dad’s gonna think this is so cool.
KJ: Thanks. Give him my best.