Ken Jennings is the GOAT

How the ‘Jeopardy!’ Greatest Of All Time Tournament Was Won

The answer to who would win the Jeopardy! Greatest of All Time tournament was hiding in plain sight if you knew where to look.

In an ESPN article that ran the night before the tournament premiered, BetOnline representative Dave Mason noted that the sudden surge of bets on “Contestant X” “raised concern and seemed strange, as previously most money was on [Contestant Y].” A glance at the historical line movements for the tournament quickly revealed that while Brad Rutter’s and James Holzhauer’s lines had shifted back and forth before they taped, the line on Ken Jennings–almost assuredly Contestant X–had drifted all the way to +225. Nobody was betting on Jennings, in other words, until he’d pulled off a stunning victory, winning the best-of-seven series in four matches. Nobody saw this coming.

Ken Jennings did it with a nervy performance unlike any games he’d ever played before, routinely making huge Daily Double and Final Jeopardy bets. As many observers predicted, Holzhauer’s gamble-happy presence meant that Daily Doubles were essentially all-or-nothing affairs for all three players, but the added format wrinkle of the two-game total match meant that the first game’s Final Jeopardy effectively functioned as a Daily Double itself.

Given the chance to double his score (and/or keep pace with Holzhauer if he attempted to double his own), Jennings made enormous Final Jeopardy wagers in the first games of his matches: the full $25,200 in match 3, the full $32,800 in match 4. Holzhauer kept the pressure on Jennings the entire time, effectively forcing him to play his own all-or-nothing style. There wasn’t much to separate the two players in the end except a missed Daily Double here and there. It was a fascinating pivot by Jennings, a player known for generally conservative betting. His command of trivia was never in doubt, but his aggression and buzzer speed were first-rate and absolutely necessary to win some of the most competitive Jeopardy! ever played.

(Spare a thought for Brad Rutter, who never quite found his groove on the buzzer and endured a run of truly lousy luck with Daily Doubles. $250,000 is a nice consolation prize, but the highlight of the tournament for him may have been his $4133 Final Jeopardy bet in Jennings’s runaway win in match 3, a wager which referenced the score of the Eagles’ Super Bowl LII win in a moment of Delaware Valley pride worthy of Philly Boy Roy himself. It even impressed Lenny Dykstra.)

The deciding Final Jeopardy: “He has 272 speeches, the most of any non-title character in a Shakespeare tragedy.” The answer was Iago; Ken Jennings got it right and Holzhauer guessed Horatio. QED.

A question on Shakespeare’s greatest villain made for a fitting end for Holzhauer, who is clearly intent on developing a pro wrestling-esque heel persona. He’s spent the last couple weeks mercilessly trolling Jennings and Rutter on social media, all the while hinting that his standard Jeopardy! non-compete agreement will expire soon. He’s certainly a divisive figure–what was up with the taunting, anyway?–but you could do a lot worse for yourself than be a memorable TV character.

Whether this portends a new golden era of quiz shows or just a lot of forthcoming sweeps-week Jeopardy! specials, it stands to reason that nobody associated with the Greatest of All Time tournament is going to fade into obscurity anytime soon. With an average of nearly 15 million same-day viewers over the first three games, the tournament was an unqualified success, but the high ratings weren’t entirely surprising. By the end of Holzhauer’s run in June 2019, the syndicated version of the show was pulling in ratings unseen since Ken Jennings was on the show for the first time in 2004. Last week, ABC’s head of alternative programming even described the GOAT trio as “the biggest stars in primetime right now.” Stay tuned for the inevitable rematch.

Daniel Cohen

Daniel Cohen is a software developer who lives in Syracuse, New York. He has written for Yard Work, The Guardian, and Maura Magazine.

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