The Jeopardy! GOAT: As if it could’ve been anyone else

It took just four nights out of a possible seven, but the long-awaited answer was finally given its question: the Greatest Of All Time Jeopardy! Contestant?

Who is Ken Jennings?

Ultimately, I’ll admit that I was rooting for Jeopardy James Holzhauer to win it, partially because of likely recency bias, but also because he’s a known baseball stat geek, and he plays the game with such reckless abandon that a known gambler should play, that it’s hard to not become a fan.  But I do also remember the summer of 2004 when Ken Jennings emerged on the scene and it seemed like every single day after work, he was at the podium with a $15,000+ lead.  He would end up winning 74 games in a row and raking in over a million dollars in the process, and I’m pretty sure it was decided then that he was, at least unofficially, the greatest of all time.

But unofficial doesn’t ever count in the grand spectrum of things, plus not to mention that in several of the follow-up specials and tournaments, Jennings often times fell short of winning some major crowns, and was dually humbled when IBM’s Watson AI wiped the floor against him (and Brad Rutter).

Regardless, as most people know the narrative, the emergence of Jeopardy James meant that Jeopardy! finally had a third worthy contender, and with the declining health of legendary host Alex Trebek, there was no better time than the present to embark on the long awaited matchup to decide, who is the GOAT of Jeopardy?

Frankly, with no real disrespect to Brad Rutter, but he didn’t belong in this.  His run as a Jeopardy champ was nearly 20 years ago, and despite the $4 million+ he’s raked in through repeated tournaments and follow-up appearances, there was no way he was going to hold a candle against a savant like Jennings or a gunslinger like Holzhauer.  It was no more evident than through the four episodes of the GOAT shows, where Rutter finished last in every single match, and repeatedly wiped out and finished with 0 points after Final Jeopardy; if he was even allowed to play, as in, not being in the negatives.

Although he was a class act the whole time, gracefully singing the praises of his competition as well as honoring Alex Trebek, when the day was over, his presence made the entire GOAT tournament a two-man race.  I would’ve seen someone like Arthur Chu or Julia Collins in the third spot; I know they don’t stack up in terms of wins or earnings, but based on the way Rutter performed, it’s hard to imagine that they’d have been any less inconsequential.

If anything at all, the GOAT tournament really reinforced one major aspect of Jeopardy!: just how luck-based the game is capable of being, based on a contestant’s ability to find the Daily Doubles, which basically are the only things capable seriously deciding a game, short of running the entire board.  Brad Rutter located more Daily Doubles than anyone throughout four nights of games, by virtue of the fact that he was always last and always got first pick in Double Jeopardy, and basically cockblocked Jennings or James from being able to get to them to blast their scores to the moon.  Subsequently, I’m pretty sure he got almost all of them wrong, which led to him wiping out repeatedly, but the more important thing was that he was denying the others from being able to use them.

As a result, Jeopardy James got maybe a total of like 3-4 Daily Doubles out of the possible 24 over four nights of double matches, and it completely crippled his ability to blow the competition away like he had been doing during his original run against pleeb competition.  Adding to the irony is that because Holzhauer literally changed the way the game is played, when other competent competition starts playing like him, it effectively turns the whole game into a game of luck. 

It was no more evident than the seemingly meek and quirky Ken Jennings adopting the Jeopardy James method of Jeopardy! and starting from the high-dollar values, and in almost every Daily Double he revealed and Final Jeopardy, he went all-in, knowing that building massive leads was the only way to possibly hold off Holzhauer.  And in the deciding game, it was like watching Michael Jordan realizing that he had the opposition on the ropes and went for the jugular, the way he all-in’d in both games and made huge plays to try and put the championship on ice.

I’m also convinced that someone tried to pull an audible, whether it was the network or Jennings himself; when Jennings bet zero on the Final Jeopardy of the second game, to me that was a sign that someone was trying to throw the game in order for another night of Jeopardy GOAT to happen.  Unfortunately, Holzahuer missed the final question, and when he naturally bet everything, and wiped out, the end became inevitable.

And in the end, it was Ken Jennings on top, winning 3-1-0 against the competition.  As if there could possibly have been anyone else, in the grand history of the game.  Sure, Rutter won a ton of money over the last two decades, sure Holzhauer broke every single record for single-game earnings.  Jennings may have not fared well in promotional tournaments or single-game challenges, but in the aggregate, he’s by now won over 80 games of Jeopardy! and basically has put himself into a Cal Ripken, Jr. stratosphere with a benchmark that may never be reached.

Earnings are dynamic and earnings are flexible, but those W’s at the end of each episode are concrete and indisputable.  Ken Jennings has more wins than anyone else in the history of the game, and that alone is what always made him the GOAT, but now it’s stamped in gold and made official.

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