PASADENA, Calif. – The “Jeopardy!” GOAT tourney has been a mix of knowledge, strategy and a bit of emotion for the popular quiz show’s three biggest money winners.
Champs James Holzhauer, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter joined host Alex Trebek and executive producer Harry Friedman at the Television Critics Association Wednesday to discuss ABC’s “Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time,” a rare prime time, broadcast network platform for the popular quiz show.
Jennings won Tuesday’s first match of the potentially best-of-seven tournament, which drew big ratings, with the third scheduled for Thursday (8 EST/PST).
Although the GOAT contestants received their due at the panel, Trebek’s exalted status and his public battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer received the bulk of the attention. That reality wasn’t lost on the players as they competed in the pre-taped matches.
More: ‘Jeopardy!’ recap: Who won Night 1 of the quiz show’s ‘Greatest of All Time’ tournament?
Alex Trebek interacts with “Jeopardy!” legends (from left to right): James Holzhauer, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. (Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC)
“He’s not going to be hosting the show forever. It’s made it that much more special to come and see him and watch him do his thing. He’s absolutely the best who’s ever done it,” Rutter said.
The competitors took issue with Trebek’s self-criticism after the exacting host said he felt his illness had a small effect – “I seemed a little slower in the ad-lib portions” – during the tapings.
“You wonder how he’s doing. You get there – and he’s still Alex Trebek. He never fumbles a word. The last of the great old-school broadcasters,” Jennings said. Trebek’s eventual departure “Is hard for us even to imagine. If anybody’s irreplaceable on TV, it’s this guy right here.”
As for the high-stakes tournament, which features a $1 million grand prize, there’s all sorts of strategizing. Jennings and Rutter, in particular, had to adjust to Holzhauer’s groundbreaking betting style, which features maximum risk with the potential for huge reward.
‘Jeopardy!’ host Alex Trebek talked about the show’s ‘Greatest of All Time’ tourney, his health and his tenure on the show during a Television Critics Association panel Wednesday. (Photo: Stewart Cook/ABC)
“The good thing about this tournament is we all knew going in who the finalists were going to be, so we can look at tape. I feel like an offensive coordinator watching James in slow-motion, because you want to figure out how he did that. It’s the most remarkable thing I’ve ever seen on the show,” Jennings said. “My strategy in regular play worked fine for me, a lower-risk style of play …”
“Wimpy,” Holzhauer interjected.
“Wimpy, some would say,” Jennings continued, “but playing against that, when somebody breaks the glass on doubling up, you’ve got to do it as well. … Brad and I have to take big chances, play like James, or we risk getting steamrolled.”
They got into nitty-gritty tactics, too, explaining clue-picking strategy when one questioner complained that players now jump around between clues, no longer choosing sequentially.
“The middle of the board is where the Daily Doubles are,” giving competitors a chance to establish leads, Rutter said. “People often say, ‘I wish you’d go back to the way you used to play, going down the categories,’ but that boat sailed years ago.”
Maintaining control of the board is vital, because the player choosing the clues gets the Daily Doubles, Holzhauer said after the panel.
“If you don’t find them, it’s going to be really, really hard to win. So, there were times when if there were a Daily Double or two still on the board in Double Jeopardy!, I would fire away even if I wasn’t really sure if my answer was correct, because getting control of that board, getting the first shot at it, was really that important,” he said.
Contestants, who aren’t allowed to buzz in until after Trebek finishes reading the clue, sometimes have to jump in even though they haven’t fully formed an answer.
“There are times, particularly in difficult wordplay categories, (where) you don’t have time to figure it all out,” Holzhauer said. “You get, like, one or two pieces, you figure, ‘OK, I can get the rest of it maybe in the five seconds I have.’ Take your best shot.”
The stakes are high as the three champs are playing for big money and even bigger bragging rights, but there are lighter moments, too, Trebek said.
“There’s tension that begins to operate, but after the first match, they relaxed and their personalities came out and that’s what’s so important to a television program like ours,” said Trebek, doing his host best to promote upcoming episodes.
In the spirit of the show, each champ was asked to describe what they admire most about Trebek in the “Jeopardy!” form of a question.
“What is his absolute professionalism?” Rutter replied. “I know how much work it takes to make it look effortless.”
Jennings offered: “What is the way I see kids react to ‘Jeopardy!’ and Alex? Little kids who love the show and get excited when they know the answer. He symbolizes learning and knowledge to, now, a second and third generation of North Americans.”
“What is goodness?” Holzhauer said. “Can you name someone who’s been in Hollywood for 60 years and has never had even a minor scandal about them?”
“There’s still time,” Trebek joked, playing with his tie. What was that about being slow on the ad-libs?
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