The greatest Jeopardy players of all time play to win

January 24, 2020

So, recently I came across this little-known game show, maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s called “Jeopardy!” That was a joke; you don’t have to have been a contestant to know the immense pop-cultural relevance the show has had over the last 56 years. Anyway, throughout the show’s long and illustrious run, there have been winners who have gone on crazy streaks, racking up ridiculous cash prizes. Recently, Sony Pictures Television decided to air a “Greatest of All Time” variation of the show, pitting three of the game’s titans against one another.

Brad Rutter, born Bradford Gates Rutter (no, that is not a joke), had never lost a match of Jeopardy! to a human opponent. He holds the second highest game-show earnings of all time, and is a healthy six feet tall. Even still, for the other two contestants on the GOAT edition of Jeopardy!, he was easy pickings, so he won’t really be considered here.

James Holzhauer maintained an impressive 32-game win streak, racking up several records for single-day winnings along the way. Apparently he has been nicknamed “Jeopardy James,” but, having never heard that, I will defer to Wikipedia and assume that this is true.

Finally, Ken Jennings: A man whose name is synonymous with game show prestige. He has the single highest winnings of any person in game show history, and boasts a record 74-day win streak on Jeopardy! 

Even though Ken ended up ultimately winning the GOAT episode (spoiler alert, but not really, because if you cared enough to get angry about that, you almost certainly should have already watched the episode), there are still those who swear by James, touting him as the game’s true paragon.

Here is why those people are wrong.

Jeopardy! brought, and continues to bring trivia into the mainstream. The whole point of the show is to pit self-proclaimed intellectuals against each other in a battle of wits. Money is secondary. The number that appears in front of each contestant’s podium to indicate their current cash winnings might as well not have a dollar sign, as it is purely a score value. This is corroborated by Sony’s 2002 decision to give the non-winners consolation prizes of two thousand dollars and one thousand dollars rather than the amount that appears on their display. So, when someone tries to tell me, “James won more money on average per game than Ken, his competition was just harder on that day he lost,” all I hear is, “James couldn’t keep his streak.”

So why do I care? I care because James fundamentally broke the game of Jeopardy!, morphing it into some twisted, money-focused version of what it once was. James is literally a gambler in occupation, but is also one on the show. James is a gamesman, Ken is a trivia master. 

Ken’s strategy consisted of maintaining board control by answering as many lower-value questions as possible, securing an early lead. James’ strategy consisted of using decades worth of metadata to hunt down the Daily Doubles, skyrocketing his winnings. Sure, this was entertaining, but it degraded the show. No longer was it a battle of wits. Instead, it was a guessing game of where the coveted daily double lay hidden. When Ken ended up more than doubling James’ final score on the GOAT episode, I wasn’t surprised, but I was happy that traditional trivia prowess outshined gamesmanship. 

James, you have sports betting, leave trivia to the nerds.

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