This may be the best week ever for fans of the TV game show Jeopardy! Beginning tonight, for three nights through Thursday (Jan. 9) on ABC at 8 p.m. ET, Alex Trebek, 79, hosts Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time, a tournament in which the three top-earning contestants return to battle for the greatest title — plus $1.5 million. Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time, tournament could beat the record set last year, when the show hit a 14-year ratings high, with 14.5 million viewers. At its peak, 8.3 percent of U.S. households tuned in, and this week there could be more.
Here is who's competing:
Ken Jennings, 45. Winnings so far: $3,370,700
Jennings has scored the show's longest winning streak at 74 games, which enabled him to buy a house in Seattle. “There's no way I could've afforded a house in Seattle, period,” he told the local ABC station. An unhappy computer programmer who “wasn't really good at it,” his life was utterly changed by Jeopardy! He was born for it. As a child, he slept with a world atlas by his pillow, and regaled classmates with facts from The Guinness Book of World Records. In elementary school, he told the Hollywood Reporter that he realized “socially it's kind of a problem to be a know-it-all. It's not a hit with girls to know Captain Kirk's middle name. And so I did go in the trivia closet for many years.” Today, he says, “I'm really glad that I got to embrace that trivia nerd part of myself.” He loves not being ashamed to know things — like the fact that Florence Lawrence, the first movie star, invented the electric windshield wiper.
Brad Rutter, 41. Winnings so far: $4,688,436
A Johns Hopkins University dropout and former record-store worker who calls himself “a slacker” with a short attention span and “a flypaper memory,” Rutter is also “the best I've ever seen” on Jeopardy! , according to rival Jennings, whom Rutter beat by naming the two 1962 astronauts whose surnames denote occupations (Scott Carpenter and Gordon Cooper). Rutter won, which improved the quality of his relatives’ Christmas presents, but he kept his record-store job even when Jeopardy! money started rolling in. He told the Baltimore Sun — which compared his appearance and demeanor to Doonesbury 's Zonker — “I'm not ambitious and I don't need to work for The Man.”
James Holzhauer, 35. Winnings so far: $2,712,216
Though he, like Rutter, was educated in a gifted-children program, Holzhauer was a C student in math, because he skipped school to play online poker, where he made money. He dutifully went to college and took a dull job as an actuary, then became a professional sports bettor in Las Vegas — but not the kind who bets emotionally. “I think my work is similar to an investment bank, except that I'm the analyst, trader, fund manager and day trader all into one,” he told ESPN. Marketwatch compared him to Billy Beane, the hero of the movie Moneyball , who revolutionized baseball by replacing the gut instincts of old-school talent scouts with sophisticated statistical analysis. Holzhauer found a geeky website that put years of Jeopardy! answers on a database, and revealed that the hidden Daily Double questions — which doubles one's cash — are often in the fourth row. Holzhauer pushes the button to answer the questions faster than most contestants (except possibly Rutter and Jennings), which would be risky unless you guess right about 98 percent of the time, like Holzhauer. He has given about a third of $1 million to local charities, and told the Las Vegas Sun , “I was raised pretty frugally, so I don't think I could spend [all of] this money even if I had to."
Age could be a factor in this week's competition. “Age matters on Jeopardy! ,” Jennings told Seattle Refined journalist Jenna Luthman. “I am 15 years older than when I first played, [a] little slower on coming up with names, and my rhythm isn't that great on the buzzer.” Holzhauer teases Jennings by calling him “Jeopardy Grandpa” (and the less-famous Rutter he calls “Who?").
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Even so, Jennings threw down a challenge to his rivals via Luthman's column. “James and Brad, I just want to put you guys on notice. I may be a little older. I was playing during the first Bush presidency. But I'm not old and dried up yet. I can still play this game. Watch out."
Jeopardy! fans, and others, can enter the upcoming Jeopardy!(R) for AARP Tournament, which starts Monday, Jan. 13. Enter online to win $500.
AARP critic Tim Appelo was Amazon’s entertainment editor and a critic for The Nation, Hollywood Reporter, EW, People, MTV, LA Weekly, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times.