The Jeopardy “Greatest of All Time” tournament is the contest America needs right now

There can only be one winner.
There can only be one winner.
Image: Getty/David Becker
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Jordan or LeBron? Montana or Brady? Jennings, Rutter, or Holzhauer? Some debates about the greatest ever will never be answered definitively. But the greatest Jeopardy! player of all time will be settled in a television event for the ages. 

ABC announced yesterday that former Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter, and James Holzhauer will compete in a series of “Greatest of all Time” matches to determine which one of them is truly the quiz show’s best player ever. The first to win three matches will be awarded $1 million and the title of Jeopardy! G.O.A.T. The matches start Jan. 7 at 8pm eastern on ABC, and will continue on consecutive weeknights until one of them emerges victorious, which could take up to seven games.

All three have a legitimate claim to the Jeopardy! throne. Rutter, a Johns Hopkins University dropout, is the winningest TV game show contestant of all time, with nearly $5 million in earnings (all from Jeopardy!). In 21 career matches, he’s never officially lost to a human opponent. (Rutter finished third behind Jennings and IBM’s Watson supercomputer in a match deemed an exhibition.)

Jennings, meanwhile, is the second-highest earner in game show history and owns the longest streak of Jeopardy! wins of all time. In 2004, he won 74 matches in a row, earning $2.5 million, and was credited with helping boost the game show’s TV ratings by more than 20% over the previous year.

Holzhauer is the newcomer, but no less formidable. A professional gambler, he leveraged his knowledge of sports betting principles to win 32 consecutive games in a run earlier this year, during which he amassed multiple record-breaking single-game totals. In April, Holzhauer won more than $130,000 in a single match. He’s known for his aggressive wagers—especially on Daily Doubles.

If Jennings is more of a precise body puncher who wears you down over time with his blows, Holzhauer is a knockout king who tries to send opponents to the mat with no hope of getting back in the fight. Rutter is considered by some to be the most well-rounded of the three competitors.

The contrast in styles is fitting, because ABC is marketing the TV event like it’s the new “Fight of the Century“:

“We can’t wait to deliver this epic and fiercely competitive showdown—with these unprecedented contestants—to ABC viewers and loyal fans everywhere,” Karey Burke, president of ABC Entertainment, told the Hollywood Reporter. “I don’t know how this doesn’t become an event,” Rob Mills, ABC’s head of reality TV, added in a statement to USA Today.

Adding to the drama is the unfortunate reality that the show’s beloved longtime host, Alex Trebek, is fighting late-stage pancreatic cancer. Trebek, the host of Jeopardy! since 1984, has maintained his role despite undergoing several rounds of chemotherapy and immunotherapy. The large but tight-knit Jeopardy! community has rallied around Trebek, including last week, when a contestant wrote in, “We love you Alex,” as his answer to Final Jeopardy, bringing the normally deadpan Trebek to tears.

At a time when so much of American television is empty spectacle, the Jeopardy! Greatest of all Time tournament will be a refreshing, wholesome competition viewers can get behind. The old-fashioned game show has hardly changed in its 50-year history, and has long been a light-hearted, safe space for trivia nerds who value real knowledge, rather than the gimmicks you’d typically see on reality TV.

Some of the contestants are already getting into the spirit of competition. Holzhauer and Jennings took to Twitter for some extremely nerdy trash talk:

American betting firm Bovada has set odds for the tournament. They change every day as more bettors make their wagers, but as of this writing, Holzhauer and Rutter are narrow co-favorites at 7/5 odds to win. Jennings isn’t far behind at 9/5.

The playful sense of community surrounding Jeopardy! is part of the reason it’s stayed so popular throughout the decades. (It averaged more than 12 million total viewers per episode during much of Holzhauer’s winning streak this year.) As boxing dies out, the Jeopardy! Greatest of all Time special will offer a much safer, but equally entertaining, television event for Americans to invest in.