The most popular game show in America has had many great players compete in its long history. Just like most professional competitions, there has never been a consensus greatest player, though. Fans have spent much time debating the age-old question, but most of these discussions were based on conjecture. Until now, that is. Last week, the three greatest minds in the history of Jeopardy! competed in a seven-game series to try to settle this debate.
First, some background on the three contestants. In 2004, Ken Jennings won 74 consecutive Jeopardy! regular season games. The second-longest win streak ever is 32 games, which pales in comparison. This record may never be broken. Jennings won $2,520,700 in this streak, which is also a regular season record.
Let’s go back to the length of that streak, though: 74 consecutive wins. It’s hard to conceptualize just how incredible this accomplishment is. According to FiveThirtyEight, Jennings’ stats during his run suggested that he had a 97.9% chance of winning any given game.1 That’s incredibly high — yet the expected streak length for that win probability is “just” 47 games.2
Luck was undoubtedly a significant factor, which is why the record is unlikely to ever be broken. The stars have to align perfectly. However, this doesn’t diminish Ken’s achievements. You have to perform at an astounding level to even have a shot at 74 straight wins, and Ken’s expected win streak of 47 games would still be an all-time record. But winning 74 games just adds to his lore.
However, when it came to tournaments, Jennings underperformed relative to the high expectations established by his regular-season play.
Brad Rutter competed on the show in 2000. At the time, a player could not win more than five games. After a player’s fifth victory, they were automatically retired, a limitation that was obviously lifted before Ken Jennings appeared on the show. Brad won these five games and earned $55,102 (and two Chevrolet Camaros). Of course, these regular season achievements aren’t quite as jaw-dropping as Jennings’. He wasn’t the only five-day champion at the time, after all. Rutter’s claim to fame was his performance in Jeopardy!‘s tournaments.
A month after the end of Ken’s streak, the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions was announced. It was a 15-week, 75-show competition between 145 players with a prize of $2,000,000 for the winner. It would provide another chance for five-time champions (from before the rule change) to shine. Rutter took that chance. He decisively defeated Jennings in the final round of the tournament and took home $2,000,000. Rutter also won the Million Dollar Masters, the Battle of the Decades, the All-Star Games, and a Tournament of Champions.. Going into the GOAT tournament, Rutter had never lost to a human on the show. His only losses came against the IBM Watson robot.
In total, Rutter has accumulated $4,688,436 in all-time winnings from regular-season play and tournaments, the most ever. Jennings comes in at second with $3,370,700.
And then there’s the new kid: James Holzhauer.
James won 32 straight games in 2019 in which he won a total of $2,462,216 in regular-season winnings. That’s $74,612 per game, far greater than Ken’s average of $33,609 during his record-breaking streak.
In 2010, Roger Craig set the record for the highest single-game total on the show with $77,000. James topped this 16 times in his streak, peaking at $131,127. James also won the recent Tournament of Champions to put his all-time winnings at $2,712,216.
All things considered, these are by far the three highest earning players in the history of the show.
A matchup between the three juggernauts quickly became the most anticipated event in game show history.
The format was simple: every day of the tournament, there would be two matches. The points scored in the two matches will be combined for each player and the player with the most points in a day is given the win for that day. The first player to reach three wins takes home $1,000,000 and, most importantly, the title of the greatest Jeopardy! player of all-time.
Jennings won Day One and Day Three while James Holzhauer won Day Two. Ken took care of business on Tuesday, winning Day Four and ending the tournament with a 3-1-0 lead over Holzhauer and Rutter respectively. Fifteen years after his legendary 74 game win streak, Ken solidified his status as Jeopardy!’s greatest player of all-time.
Let’s take a look at each contestant’s Coryat score3 in each day of the tournament. By using Coryat score, we can eliminate some of the luck involved in finding Daily Doubles.
One of the first things that pops out to me is Jennings’ remarkable consistency. The range of his Coryat scores is just 1,800 points. Ken’s combined Coryat score over all four days was 146,000, higher than James’ 141,800 and significantly higher than Brad’s 61,400. Furthermore, his average Coryat score of 36,500 is higher than every single day Coryat scores of his opponents save for James’ Day Four performance.
James was really good on the fourth and final day of the tournament. James answered 23 questions correctly and zero incorrectly in this first match, while Ken went 22/24 and Brad went 4/4. Unfortunately, James couldn’t find any Daily Doubles so he finished the first match down by 31,419 points to Ken.
In the second match of the fourth day, James kept up his performance by answering 30 questions correctly and just one incorrectly. More importantly, James won a wager of 20,200 points on a Daily Double which otherwise would’ve effectively clinched the tournament for Ken. Instead, James went into Final Jeopardy! with a chance to win Day Four with a correct response. He had only missed one FJ question during his 32-game regular season win streak, so the odds were looking pretty good. As we all know, though, James answered “Who is Horatio?” instead of “Who is Iago?” on the Shakespeare-related question, and Ken was crowned the Jeopardy! GOAT.
One of the storylines leading up to the game was how fast Jennings and Rutter would be with the buzzer compared to the younger Holzhauer. Here are the day-by-day percentages of clues in which a player was the first to buzz in on.
James appeared to be the fastest with the buzzer, although Ken wasn’t too far behind. The way Brad holds the buzzer makes it difficult to tell when he’s actually trying to buzz in. Was he first to buzz so rarely because he didn’t know as much as the other contestants, or was he just slow? Or both? Historically, Ken was the first to buzz in on almost 59% of the clues in games he played in, versus 56% for James and just 41% for Brad. Maybe Brad was never quite as good with the buzzer as his two opponents.
Side note: Brad’s extremely lower percentage on the fourth day can be partially explained by strategy. He was out of contention in the second match, so it was in his best interest to put the buzzer down and hope James would come out with the win and prolong the tournament (obviously giving Brad another chance to stage a comeback).
Finally, let’s wrap things up by taking a look at the total correct and incorrect answers for each contestant.
As the stats on buzzing implied, James answered more clues than Ken. Ken was slightly more accurate (but the difference is marginal), but his higher Coryat score suggests that he was answering questions of greater value (and presumably greater difficulty).
And then there’s Brad. The highest earning player in Jeopardy! history struggled immensely throughout the tournament. While 93.2% of Ken’s answers and 93.1% of James’ answers were correct, Brad hit on just 85.3% of his buzz-ins. Despite buzzing in on 107 less clues than James, Brad provided the same number of incorrect answers.
Despite Brad’s disappointing performance, the GOAT Tournament was excellent. If this is the last hurrah for legendary host Alex Trebek and the final appearance for Ken Jennings, it’s the perfect farewell. It’s obviously not an ideal way to see Brad’s career potentially come to an end, so we can only hope that he’ll get a chance at redemption. All three contestants have left a lasting legacy on the show and they will hopefully not be the last dominant players the game has to offer.
- Check the second footnote on their article for an explanation on how they arrived at this figure.
- The r/(1-r) formula yields a predicted streak length based on r, a player’s probability of winning one game. When r=0.979, r/(1-r) = 46.6.
- noun: a player’s score if all wagering is disregarded. In the Coryat score, there is no penalty for forced incorrect responses on Daily Doubles, but correct responses on Daily Doubles earn only the natural values of the clues, and any gain or loss from the Final Jeopardy! Round is ignored.