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‘Jeopardy!’ GOAT Ken Jennings on Trebek, Trash Talk and Why He’s Hanging Up His Buzzer

Well, that argument’s settled: Ken Jennings may now be hailed as the best “Jeopardy!” player in history, having earned the coveted GOAT title – and a cool million dollars, to boot – this week after defeating James Holzhauer and Brad Rutter at the show’s “Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time” multi-part tournament. But their spectacular matchup almost never happened at all.

The way Jennings tells it, “Jeopardy!” producers had called him up last fall, not too long after Holzhauer’s 32-game run on the show ended, in an attempt to entice him back to the buzzer. They angled for a tournament ahead of Christmas. He was resistant.

“This is the part of the story that makes me look like an idiot,” says Jennings with a laugh. “I’d suspected this would be coming down the pipe one of these years. After James made such a splash, I knew people were going to want to see a showdown, but I was not prepared for it so soon… I thought I was a little past my prime and it was maybe time for me to hang up my buzzer.”

That might seem like a curious thing to say about an activity that requires the kind of knowledge that takes years to accumulate, and an even curiouser thing for someone of Jennings’ “Jeopardy!” stature – famous for his 74-game streak in the mid-aughts – to say of himself. But even trivia is, in some ways, a young person’s game.

“It’s not like how running backs pretty much have to retire at 29 because their bodies fall apart,” he explains. “But in this case I had noticed myself slowing down – mostly [in the way of] recall, no longer automatically quick to remember names and facts like I used to. And I notice it every day; it’s like living inside ‘Flowers for Algernon’ – you feel a tiny bit dumber every day, as I move into my 40s. And I think there’s a reason why all the big ‘Jeopardy!’ champs are men and women around 30.”

The producers managed to cajole him into returning anyway, something he’s (now obviously) very glad he did.

Prior to the tourney, filmed in December, Jennings had never played against “bad boy of ‘Jeopardy!'” Holzhauer, and the latter’s aggressive wagering and big risks forced both his opponents to adopt his style of gameplay. Jennings has gone head-to-head a number of times against Rutter, however. Until this past week’s airing, Jennings has always come in second to Rutter, who went into the tournament as the most moneyed “Jeopardy!” winner of all time, earning $4.69 million across his appearances. (Jennings entered the GOAT cage match having won a lifetime $3.37 million; Holzhauer with $2.71 million.)

“Always a Brads-maid, never a Brad, that’s what I always say,” Jennings recalls of past match-ups versus Rutter. “Really, all you can do against Brad is just hope for a good day on the buzzer. So [to prepare to compete with] Brad, I watched a ton of ‘Jeopardy!’ and just tried to immerse myself in the cadence of Alex’s voice, which is crucial to ‘Jeopardy!’ timing. You have to be in a real rhythm so you can find the right millisecond on that buzzer without even thinking about it. That’s really all you can do with Brad. He’s the most tenacious ‘Jeopardy!’ player I’ve ever played. [He’s] so fast and knows so many answers, it’s a little daunting.”

Anyone tuning in to see Rutter compete for the first time these past two weeks, however, were introduced to a player that never quite found his stride, dropping Daily Doubles and failing to win a single game.

“That’s a shame,” says Jennings, “because real ‘Jeopardy!’ fans know he’s the man. He was undefeated. He was Rocky Marciano. And I wish primetime fans had gotten to see a little flash of that Brad, because that’s something to behold.”

Fans have noted that even while duking it out on stage, Jennings, Holzhauer and Rutter all seemed to be having quite a bit of fun up there.

“I was very stressed going into it and then it all melted away when I got back on that stage,” says Jennings. “I think it’s true for all three of us. We have such good memories there, we have so many hours of buzzer time under our belts, that – while keeping a laser-like focus on the game – we can enjoy the thrill of the moment. It’s a rare thing. And you want to enjoy every moment of that.”

Thrust onto the stage anew every night, new contestants rarely have the poise of the three returning champs. Holzhauer’s occasional good-natured swipe at his opponents seemed to loosen their tongues, engaging in some delightfully punchy trash talk on air, and later, during the airing, on Twitter.

“Normally there’s no place for that on ‘Jeopardy!’, so I never got to exercise those muscles,” he says. “James is a sports gambler, so he knows the kind of trash talk that goes on at a poker table, and he’s a pro-wrestling fan, so he enjoys kind of the kayfabe, the bluster and talking and rivalries. So that was kind of fun to play with on air and on Twitter.”

Now that he’s taken home the trophy, will Jennings ever return to the “Jeopardy!” podium?

“I don’t see how I can top it,” he says. “The win was great. It’s a great punctuation mark, and I absolutely mean what I said about not wanting to play past my prime. And at some point Alex is going to retire, I assume, and it just wouldn’t feel right to play with a different host. It’d be like cheating on Alex. I think this is a perfect time to go out on top.”

Trebek, a beloved television and trivia institution, last year announced that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He said at the Television Critics Assn. winter press tour last week that he doesn’t expect to retire anytime soon.

When asked about his favorite interaction with Trebek, Jennings points to a moment that happened off-stage, away from the board and buzzer.

“It was probably right after his pancreatic cancer diagnosis,” says Jennings. “I’d stopped by a taping to wish him well, and I spoke to him for a minute in his dressing room, where I’d never been. I felt like I was sneaking past security at the airport or something. And it was very sweet. He’d really appreciated some things I’d written about him, and clearly was just bewildered by the outpouring of love – just hundreds of thousands of messages. And he said, ‘Most people don’t get to hear this stuff about themselves until after they’re gone.’ And he felt very lucky that he got to hear some of those things while he was still here. I was very touched.”

That was about six months ago, he says, and Trebek continues to host the show.

“I was delighted to see that that was not his swan song and that he’s going to keep going,” he says.

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