James Holzhauer just won the “Jeopardy!” Tournament of Champions, but you haven’t seen the last of him.
Holzhauer and the long-running quiz show’s two other biggest winners, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, will face off in a prime-time Greatest of All Time tournament on ABC in January, marking the first network airing of the original “Jeopardy!” in 30 years. (“Jeopardy” is syndicated to local stations, but airs on ABC outlets in many top markets.)
“When James had his run last year, a lot of people were wondering, well how would he do against Ken Jennings? How would he do against Brad Rutter? (They’re) our two most successful players in “Jeopardy!” history,” says host Alex Trebek in an exclusive interview. “These three players have won close to $10 million in ‘Jeopardy!’ prize money and over 100 games among them, so it was logical.”
But the GOAT tournament will be anything but typical: It consists of a series of two back-to-back games, airing weeknights (8 EST/PST) beginning Jan. 7. The player with the most combined winnings from the two games wins the “match,” and the play continues on successive nights (except Monday) until one of them has won three matches and takes home a $1 million prize. (The other finishers get $250,000 apiece). That means the tournament can last anywhere from three to seven days.
ABC reality programming chief Rob Mills came up with the idea for his “favorite show” and calls it “my dream project” that’s destined to succeed in an uncertain TV world. “I don’t know how this doesn’t become an event.”
Rutter and Jennings had faced off against IBM’s Watson computer in 2011 and in an All-Stars match in March. But it took Holzhauer’s impressive streak to provide a third, captivating player and seal the deal. “The fact that it took somebody to play it like a riverboat gambler … we had never seen anyone like this,” he says. “We had to make this happen.”
Holzhauer, 35, set the single-game winnings record on April 17, with more than $131,127, and amassed $2.46 million during his 32-game streak last spring. (He added another $250,000 from last week’s tournament.) His quirky demeanor and aggressive betting style won fans and racked up winnings far more quickly than Jennings, 45, who won $2.52 million during 72 games in 2004. Rutter, 41, never cracked the top 10 in regular season play; he first appeared in 2000, when the show limited players to five consecutive games. But he’s the biggest overall money winner on an American game show with $4.68 million, mostly from tournaments.
Big winners are ratings magnets: “Jeopardy!” is averaging 8.8 million viewers this season (well ahead of many prime-time shows), but spiked to 14 million at the peak of Holzhauer’s run.
Trebek, who’s bravely battling Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, won’t predict the outcome of the new tournament, scheduled to be taped early next month. But “you have to realize, I think, that Ken and Brad are going to be at a slight disadvantage,” he says. “They won the majority of their monies 10, 15 years ago, so they’ve aged a bit. And are their reflexes going to be as good as James Holzhauer’s? Who knows? But we’re going to find out in this tournament. It’s going to be a blast, we’re all excited about it.”
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One lasting change – and a key to Holzhauer’s success – is his penchant for picking the highest-value clues first, a tactic mimicked by many other players since. “Ken and Brad are familiar with James’ strategy of picking the bottom clues first and picking up some funds to capitalize on the Daily Double if he hits it. Knowing that’s his strategy, they might preempt it by doing it themselves,” Trebek says. But “you have to be confident in your knowledge.”
The last time “Jeopardy!” aired on a major network in prime time? “Super Jeopardy!,” a special edition of the show that featured four players, aired on Saturday nights in the summer of 1990.