Sports

Ken Jennings Won The ‘Jeopardy!’ GOAT Tournament Because He Had The Stomach To Play Like James Holzhauer

Ken Jennings is officially the greatest Jeopardy! player in history. His 74 consecutive wins in 2004 already put him in that conversation, but beating James Holzhauer and Brad Rutter in the Jeopardy! GOAT tournament on Tuesday night ended the debate once and for all.

Jennings was brilliant through the tournament’s four matches, showing a command of the signaling device and the wide breadth of knowledge necessary to compete against two other legendary players. But what made him a champion was betting big, something he admitted he might not have the “stomach” for in the months leading up to the tournament.

As Holzhauer racked up big paydays and went on the second-longest win streak in show history, Jeopardy! fans somewhat obsessively compared Holzhauer and Jennings. The strength of the newcomer was clear: not only was he extremely knowledgable, he also wasn’t afraid to bet big. It’s something Jennings told Wired he simply wasn’t ready to do when he was playing Jeopardy!

I would never have had the stomach for those kinds of bets. You’re going to have to be comfortable with losing the average American income on a single trivia question a lot of the time, and then have to come back five minutes later and play another game with that in the back of your mind. Psychologically, my peace of mind was built on just playing my game—a lot lower stakes, fun game, let’s pretend we’re all here to have fun. James is under no such illusion.

That certainly shows in the numbers Jeopardy! fans obsessively compared as Holzhauer’s run stretched through 2019. Andy Saunders kept track of both players through their first 33 games to compare and, while some numbers are remarkably similar, the two differ sharply on Daily Double wagering and their success in Final Jeopardy. While Jennings’ average Daily Double was worth $3,265, Holzhauer’s averaged nearly three times that at $8,984. Holzhauer also dominated Final Jeopardy, getting 96.97 percent of his questions correct and averaging a wager of $27,891. Jennings, meanwhile, got 2/3 of his Final Jeopardy questions right and wagered an average of just $7,292. Yes, Jennings had many runaway victories during his reign, but Holzhauer would use brute force to get there by amassing huge totals then doubling them so he could bet big again in Final Jeopardy to win even more.

The looming threat of big plays like that made the stakes in the GOAT tournament clear. Holzhauer could not be allowed to find Daily Doubles, especially with the chance to take big leaps ahead of the competition. And so the strategy was clear as the tournament progressed: every Daily Double had to be a true Daily Double, either to keep pace with Holzhauer or try to mimic his own strategy and pull away before he does.

Holzhauer changed the way people play Jeopardy!, but playing against him basically offers three paths forward. You can play your own top-down Jeopardy! game and almost certainly lose. You can attempt to copy his style and — like Rutter — struggle to keep pace. Or you can do what he does: come up with big Daily Double bets of your own, get a bit lucky, and limit Holzhauer’s ability to play out his own strategy. It’s something Emma Boettcher did to end Holzhauer’s first Jeopardy! run, and Jennings replicated it perfectly in the GOAT Tournament.

Only in the second match of the tournament was Holzhauer able to play his game and blow his competition away. During the first night he didn’t get any Daily Doubles, while Rutter squandered his and Jennings won because he answered correctly in big moments. And it took those big bets to win, as Holzhauer dominated the board elsewhere and ended up just 200 points shy of Jenning’s winning score. On night three, Rutter played spoiler again by limiting Holzhauer’s ability to catch up after another series of big bets, and the more Daily Doubles Jennings got right brought him closer to $1 million.

Jennings once wrote that Holzhauer plays with “insane confidence” but it was a level of play he found himself operating at successfully. That it took competing against an aggressive gambler to unlock that version of Ken Jennings certainly makes sense, but Jennings won the trophy because he evolved, taking the best parts of his opponent’s game and applying them to his own. Rutter’s tragically snakebit performance shouldn’t tarnish his reputation as one of Jeopardy’s best players. Rather, it should do two things: highlight just how good Holzhauer is at what he does, and how good Jennings was through four matches cribbing Holzhauer’s style.

Tuesday night’s final match was perhaps the best of the tournament because it showed just how smart all three players were. After stepping on another trivia rake early on, Rutter knew to essentially stay out of the way and let Holzhauer mount a comeback after Jennings bet it all on a huge first Final Jeopardy. Jennings did the best he could to limit Holzhauer’s comeback, but an all-in wager and some clutch answers down the stretch got Holzhauer within striking distance. All he had to do was bet big and get the Final Jeopardy question right to extend the GOAT tournament another day. But for the first time all tournament, Ken Jennings didn’t bet on himself in Final Jeopardy. Instead, he reverted to form: playing it safe and betting that Holzhauer would make a rare mistake in Final Jeopardy.

He won that bet, too.

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