Eric McCandless/ABC / AP
Friday, Jan. 3, 2020 | 9:31 a.m.
LOS ANGELES — The Super Bowl is weeks away, but for “Jeopardy!” addicts the big game is here: All-time top money winners Brad Rutter, Ken Jennings and Las Vegas sports bettor James Holzhauer are facing off for ultimate bragging rights.
“The first person to win three matches will be crowned the greatest of all time,” said executive producer Harry Friedman. The winner gets $1 million, with $250,000 for each runner-up in the contest that airs on consecutive nights beginning 8 p.m. ET Tuesday.
Host Alex Trebek credits the rookie for making “Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time” happen.
The tournament “was a natural because of the appearance of James Holzhauer,” Trebek said. “Prior to that, there wasn’t a contestant who measured up, in the eyes of our viewers, to Ken Jennings or Brad Rutter. And here comes James, and wins more money faster than anybody else had ever done on the show, and really caught America’s fancy.”
Friedman said there had been discussions with ABC about a rare prime-time foray for “Jeopardy!” but the format was proving elusive until professional sports gambler Holzhauer steamrolled his way to glory in 2019 with his smarts, skill and high-roller Daily Double bets.
“There was a lot of online chatter about, ‘Is he the greatest player of all time?’ ‘No, Ken Jennings, because he had that streak,’ or somebody would say, ‘I think it’s Brad Rutter, look at how many times he’s won.’ So it really sort of fell into place,” the producer said.
Trebek, who is being treated for pancreatic cancer as he’s continued hosting regular “Jeopardy!” games, wasn’t asked directly if he was up to handling the championship series as well.
“We discussed the idea of this competition with him because we wanted to make sure that he supported it as a concept, first and foremost. And he said, ‘Oh yeah, let’s do.’ Enthusiastically,” Friedman said.
(“It’s part of my job,” Trebek said. He was “struggling a bit” during the taping, he said, adding, “Well, it comes with the territory.”)
The high-profile contest took place in December. To keep the outcome a mystery, an ABC release has it running through Jan. 16 ”if necessary.”
For Jennings, knowing who he would face was both stressful — “Usually, it’s anybody’s guess who makes the finals” — and helpful.
“I could look at tape of them, and they’re both extremely scary players, one of whom (Rutter) I’ve played before. He usually finds a way to win. So I knew these just going to be the fastest, smartest people I’ve ever seen holding a ‘Jeopardy!’ buzzer,” Jennings said.
Holzhauer also did his homework.
“I studied some more esoteric facts with the expectation that the writers would ramp up the question difficulty, but the big thing I did to prepare was extra reps of buzzer practice, knowing that Brad and Ken are the two best in the history of the show on the signaling device,” he said in an email.
It feels “crazy to be compared to the two best players that ever came before me, but I know I can hang with them,” Holzhauer said. “One nice factor is that the three of us can have fun trash talking without anyone ‘punching down.'”
Rutter considers the players to be evenly matched in their skills.
“It’s really all about buzzer timing and knowledge, and all of us are pretty good at that,” he said. “Personality-wise, I think Ken is probably the jokiest of the three, like he throws little quips in, and I’m a little too focused. … James is also ready with the quips, but he’s got the analytical thing down, too.”
“But we all put a bunch of strategy into it,” Rutter said. Any chance he’d share his? “Tune in to find out.”
Rutter enters the contest as the top winner on any TV game show with $4.69 million in “Jeopardy!” play. Jennings holds the winning-streak record, 74 games, and has collected $3.37 million. Holzhauer set and broke more than a dozen records for the largest single-day winnings, won the 2019 Tournament of Champions and earned $2.7 million in winnings.
Rutter is the veteran player, making his first “Jeopardy!” appearance nearly 20 years ago, in October 2000, when champs were “retired” from regular-season play after five victories. Jennings’ first game was in June 2004, a year after the rules were changed to allow players to rack up unlimited wins.
Subsequent tournament play has seen Rutter consistently triumph. But Jennings can claim a qualified exhibition victory: During a 2011 face-off with IBM’s Watson, the computer won but Jennings topped Rutter to come in second.
The contestants share obvious ability — along with gender. Might a future “Greatest” contest be more inclusive?
“Absolutely,” Friedman replied. The contestant pool is more diverse and has more women since online testing was added to make the initial application process widely available, he said.