Television

Is It Any Fun to Watch Three Perfect Jeopardy! Champions Compete?

The Greatest of All Time tournament started off as a bloodless dunk contest.

James Holzhauer, Ken Jennings, and Brad Rutter standing side by side in a hallway.
James Holzhauer, Ken Jennings, and Brad Rutter.
ABC Entertainment/CBS Television Distribution

Jeopardy!’s “Greatest of All Time” tournament, which opened on Tuesday night with an hourlong primetime match, is in many ways the venerable trivia show in its purest form. The tournament features the show’s all-time best players: James Holzhauer, Ken Jennings, and Brad Rutter. The questions are harder than usual, the stakes higher, the time slot better. The winner of the multinight showdown will take home $1 million and bragging rights as the GOAT.

Heading into the much-hyped tournament, all three men had a good claim to that title. Rutter, who first appeared on the show in 2000, is Jeopardy!’s all-time earnings winner with $4,688,436. Jennings has won the most games in a row (74), and Holzhauer, whose 32-game streak took place last year, has won the most money in a single game ($131,127).

The rules of the tournament are straightforward. Each night, this same trio will play two games back to back, and whoever has the highest combined winnings in a night wins that “match.” A player must win three matches to win the tournament, which means the series could end as early as Thursday, Jan. 9, or last as long as seven nights.

Based on Tuesday night’s opening match, the only problem with the tournament may be that its entrants are too good. These men buzz in seamlessly, answer briskly, react calmly. Collectively, I don’t believe the group missed a single question all night. In the first game, all three of them aced the Final Jeopardy question. It was like watching three Watsons competing against each other.

But is that really what the home Jeopardy! viewer wants? Does an NBA fan want to watch Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James take turns trotting down the court and sinking perfect threes? Well, sure, maybe for a night or two. But last night’s bloodless dunk contest was a distinctly different experience from a regular night of syndicated Jeopardy. On a typical night, there’s usually at least one moment where the home viewer gets to sneer, “Oh, come on, I would have gotten that one.” Meanwhile, part of the fun of a game show is the possibility of getting to watch someone win a life-changing amount of money. The GOAT competitors are three men who have already been made millionaires by the game.

To be fair, there were some small moments of fun and drama along the way. The would-be GOATs swung for “true” Daily Doubles, betting all their money in hopes of doubling it. Holzhauer taunted Rutter once, though the moment was so fast and friendly it was easily missed. Katy Perry and Bryan Cranston were among the celebrities drafted to read questions (er, answers). And there was the end, where Jennings drew a genuine gasp from the studio audience as he defeated Holzhauer, $63,400 to $63,200, eking out victory by a mere $200. Good ending!

Rutter, who came in a distant third, might be the tournament’s best hope for a little juice. Rutter is Jeopardy’s bad boy—or what passes for a bad boy in the trivia world. Vanity Fair once called him “a men’s magazine–worthy style plate,” with his flashy pocket squares and slim-cut suits. He used some of his Jeopardy! winnings to buy a Porsche, and his Twitter bio reads, “tell your sister to stop calling me.” While Holzhauer sketched two little playing cards in his podium label and Jennings doodled his “K” into a precise Space Needle, Rutter wrote “BRAD.”

Rutter flamed out on Tuesday night, but he has beaten Jennings in each of their four previous matchups, so he’s hardly out of the running. (Holzhauer, who became a Jeopardy! star just last year, hasn’t faced either of them previously.) He has a brash, jangly energy behind the podium. He blanks out, loses it all, and then (often) comes roaring back. He’s unpredictable, which is just what this battle of flawless champions could use.