Professional Sports Bettor James Holzhauer Falls to Ken Jennings in Jeopardy! GOAT Tournament

It is always exciting for game show fans when Jeopardy! has a special event different than its regular, daily episodes. But the one that began last week and ended this week was truly different. The “Greatest of All Time” competition pitted the three biggest winner’s in the show’s history against each other in a series of matches. The poker world’s eyes were squarely on professional sports bettor and former semi-pro poker player James Holzhauer, who captured nationwide attention last spring as he set record after record. Unfortunately for Holzhauer, he was unable to claim the title of GOAT as he fell to the legendary Ken Jennings, who won $1 million for his accomplishment. Holzhauer and Brad Rutter each received $250,000.

James Holzhauer going all-in with Alex Trebek
Photo credit: @James_Holzhauer Twitter

Holzhauer was a destroyer last year

Holzhauer dropped jaws with his Jeopardy! prowess in 2019, racking up 32 consecutive victories, second-most all time to Jennings’ astonishing 74. What was perhaps more amazing, though, was how he won. He didn’t give his opponents a chance, setting 20 Jeopardy! records in the process.

Holzhauer was ultra-aggressive. He started with the highest-value clues to try to build up money for when a Daily Double showed up. He simultaneously hunted Daily Doubles to build his stack and to keep his opponents from having the chance to double-up themselves. When he did find one, he frequently bet it all, hearkening back to his poker roots with an “all-in” gesture.

By the time Final Jeopardy rolled around, Holzhauer was often too far ahead to be caught.

Prior to Holzhauer’s appearance on the show, Roger Craig (also a poker enthusiast), had the record for most single-day winnings with $77,000. Holzhauer beat that mark 16 times, breaking the $100,000 mark six times.

He won $2,464,216 during his run, just shy of Ken Jennings’ record of $2,520,700, but he did it in far fewer episodes. His $75,362 average per episode was just about the same as the previous single-day record.

One reason Holzhauer was able to be so aggressive is that he rarely got an answer (or question, whatever) wrong. He averaged 35.5 correct responses per game and just one incorrect. In the show where he finally lost to Emma Boettcher, he didn’t get any wrong.

Jennings, Rutter second-to-none

The “Greatest of All Time” was certainly an appropriate name for this past week’s competition. Holzhauer we’ve talked about. Jennings became a star in 2004 when he won 74 consecutive episodes, far and away the most ever. The streak was so long that it took half a year to air. As mentioned, he also won the most money ever, not counting special Jeopardy! events.

Brad Rutter put his name in the record books differently than his two opponents. When he was on the show in 2000, players were only allowed to win five games in a row max. But he then proceeded, over the next decade in a half, to win several special Jeopardy! events, including the 2001 Tournament of Champions, the 2002 Million Dollar Masters Tournament, and the 2005 Ultimate Tournament of Champions.

Because of special events, Rutter has the most overall winnings in Jeopardy! history: $4,688,436.

Battle of amazing minds

The GOAT tournament was setup differently than regular Jeopardy! matches. The three men competed in two games per episode, with their points from each game added together to determine that day’s winner. Whoever won three days first was the champ.

James Holzhauer gave a nod to his poker past on the very first episode, incorporating playing cards into how he wrote his name. The “J” was a Jack and the “A” was an Ace. Jennings also honored his fellow champ, borrowing his “all-in” gesture for many of his Daily Doubles.

The matches were interesting. Jennings’ normal style was conservative, hence his much lower average winnings per episode than Holzhauer. But because he knew Holzhauer was going to put the pressure on him, he ramped up his aggression, almost always (or always? – I’d have to go back and check my DVR) betting it all on Daily Doubles and taking big risks on Final Jeopardy.

Jennings won the first episode and Holzhauer took the second one and it looked like it would be a neck-and-neck run. And while the individual matches were extremely competitive, Jennings took the next two to win the tournament and be named the Greatest of All Time.

For his part, Brad Rutter looked a bit overmatched. He never came remotely close to challenging the other two men and you could tell he knew it after a while. He did get fairly unlucky, though, as he hit several Daily Doubles and got them wrong every time. Sometimes those things just happen. He had a wonderful attitude, though, and looked like he was having a blast.

Jennings heaped a ton of credit on Holzhauer, telling Good Morning America:

It’s really just a credit to James, how much he’s changed the game of Jeopardy! that Brad and I both came in realizing we were going to have to play like him if we were going to have any hope of containing him. That’s just how smart and demoralizing his strategy is. You’ve gotta make those big bets even if it scares you because he puts the fear of god into the other two contestants.

And Jennings looked like he was scared to death whenever he had all his points on the line.

He also added that even though he won three matches in four days, it was “not a dominating win at all.”

“I think all three of us are very experienced Jeopardy! players, and if you run this back 10 times, you’re going to get a different winner,” he so graciously said. “You’re never going to get the same winner twice in a row.”


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