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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

The 'Jeopardy!: Greatest of All Time' Tournament Is a Singular Event

The Jeopardy! GOAT tournament—or Jeopardy!: The Greatest of All Time, as the chirpy official title has it—could end tonight. In a race between three masters of the game to win three matches first, Ken Jennings needs just one more over James Holzhauer and Brad Rutter to take the million-dollar prize. If the tournament doesn't end tonight, it’ll likely end this week. Either way, you’re running perilously short on chances to see it, which you should, because you’ll never have another chance to witness this particular alchemy again—in Jeopardy! or any other contest.

I’ll take HYPERBOLE for $800, you might be thinking. Fair. Every sport has an All-Star game. TV competitions like Survivor bring back favorites every few years. Even Jeopardy! held an All-Stars team tournament recently, its first ever, featuring not only GOAT competitors Jennings and Rutter but 16 fan favorites from the past few decades. The format's been done.

Except not like this. If you follow Jeopardy! even casually, you’ve heard of Holzhauer and Jennings. After a barnstorming run last year, Holzhauer holds every consequential single-game Jeopardy! record in the books, and reshaped how future generations will play it. Jennings' 74-game win streak, meanwhile, has proven unapproachable, and he still holds the record for single-season Jeopardy! earnings. Rutter may be less familiar to the uninitiated, but he’s won more money playing Jeopardy! than anyone alive, despite first appearing in the days when the show imposed a five-game cap on winners.

Mount Rushmore makes for an easy comparison here, those three lumped together with Alex Trebek as their adjacent Lincoln. Baseball might be more instructive, though. Between his unbreakable streak and his consistency, think of Jennings as a hybrid of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. Holzhauer’s run last year wasn’t unlike Babe Ruth roaring through the 20s with record home run seasons. And Rutter has been every bit as efficient and unbeatable as Greg Maddux in his prime. Respect to all the other Jeopardy! greats—and there are plenty—but these really are the three undisputed best to have played the game.

And now they can play one another, a rare opportunity in the world of elite competition. Think of every debate over which great athlete is truly the greatest of all time: Jordan vs. LeBron, Woods vs. Nicklaus. Because time is cruel and physically degrading, the best athletes of different eras can’t compete directly in a meaningful way. (When asked in 1960 how well he would bat against that generation’s pitchers, .366 lifetime average hitter Ty Cobb suggested .300. “You’ve got to remember,” he said, “I’m 73.”) Comparing statistics of athletes at their prime doesn't always provide an easy answer, either, whether that's due to teammates or rule changes or simply disagreements over which statistic means more.

Those fights will remain forever hypothetical. The Jeopardy! GOAT plays it out in real time. Yes, age is still potentially a factor, at least according to Jennings. “It’s kind of a young person’s game,” he told WIRED in an interview during Holzhauer’s run. “I’m 45. At some point, I’m just a generation behind the new crop of players, and they’re going to be a little bit sharper, a little bit faster than me, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

And yet Jennings leads the GOAT so far, with two wins to Holzhauer’s one. (Rutter has uncharacteristically stumbled out of the gate.) Even if he doesn’t take the title, Jennings clearly hasn’t aged out of contention.

He has, though, adapted his game. If the individual player matchups don’t appeal to you—if you never cared what might happen if Koufax pitched to Bonds—know that in these Jeopardy! GOAT games you can also find the strategic evolution of a decades-old competition.

WIRED took a deeper dive into Holzhauer’s Jeopardy! game theory during his initial run, but it centers around a few core principles: Start at the bottom of the game board to stockpile cash. Bounce around categories in search of Daily Doubles, to put that money to work. And always, always bet big.

Holzhauer readily admits that he didn’t invent that playbook. “I think most people who bother to study Jeopardy! game theory are going to arrive at similar conclusions about how to best play the game,” he told WIRED last spring. “Not everyone is going to take that step, of course.”

In the GOAT tournament, Jennings and Rutter have taken that step. During their initial runs years ago, each man largely played like, well, you might if you were there: working from the easiest clues to the hardest, clearing out one category before moving to the next, and wagering a portion of their total on Daily Doubles rather than going all in every time. “I was playing a game show like I had on my couch,” Jennings told WIRED last year. “My top priority wasn’t maximizing winnings; it was to feel comfortable and have fun yelling answers at Alex [Trebek], like I do at home.”

Now all three players are maxing out their Daily Double wagers, and darting around the board like hummingbirds in search of more. In fairness, you could see this play out in last fall’s All-Stars team tournament, as well. (Again, Holzhauer wasn’t the first to do it, just the best.) But the GOAT tournament shows what happens when this style of play unfolds at the highest level. It’s as much a celebration of the future of Jeopardy! as it is the past.

Not to get sentimental, but that future will be markedly different in more ways than just strategy. Alex Trebek has hosted the show since 1984. He’s now 79, fighting stage 4 pancreatic cancer since early 2019. He says he has no immediate plans to step down, but it’s uncertain whether he’ll have an opportunity to take the podium in such grand fashion—primetime, to an audience of millions, guiding contestants that by now “feel like family”—before he settles into a well-deserved retirement.

It’s not just Trebek, though. Harry Friedman has produced both Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune for a quarter of a century. He’ll leave both shows when his contract runs out in March. Trebek has been the face and heart of Jeopardy!, but Friedman has spent the last 25 years as the connective tissue, making critical changes—lifting the five-game cap, increasing clue values—while keeping the show true to its original vision. Friedman is producing the GOAT tournament, and came up with its format. You’ll never see him onscreen, but you’re watching a legend go out on top.

And if all that still doesn’t convince you, will you at least trust the wisdom of crowds? Around 15 million people on average watched the first three installments, more than any show this year other than the Golden Globes. More people watched the first three games of Jeopardy! GOAT than did the first three games of both the NBA Finals and the World Series.

Yes, next year could bring a primetime rematch. Or maybe another Jeopardy! champion will emerge who puts Jennings, Holzhauer, and Rutter to shame. (This is … not likely.) But don’t settle for the rerun. There’s never been anything like the Jeopardy! GOAT. There never will be again.

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