Like many “Jeopardy!" fans, I watched rapt each night of the Greatest of All Time tournament in January.
It wasn’t just the competition I loved — though as a “Jeopardy!” fan-girl, Ken Jennings vs. “Jeopardy James” Holzhauer vs. Brad Rutter in a best-of-seven tournament was my World Series.
It was the joy. The joking between them, the levity on stage. I loved following the ribbing on Twitter. (There were some scorching burns.) That grin-inducing moment when Holzhauer and Rutter hoisted Jennings as a conquering hero.
So when I heard that “Jeopardy!” was replaying the GOAT tournament, I was pumped: Such awesomeness during such an anxious time.
“It’s comfort food,” Jennings, 45, told me recently, on a phone call from his Seattle home.
“It was the one good thing about being home sick from school: You get to watch daytime game shows. And now we’ve got a whole country home sick from school.”
“America relies on ‘Jeopardy!’ being ‘Jeopardy!’, down to the second. Every night,” he said. “It’s part of the fabric of people’s lives.”
And now, “Jeopardy!” it seems, is celebrating Jennings for half of May:
The reruns kick off May 4, with a replay of Jennings’ first-ever ’04 Jeopardy appearance.
From May 5-14, “Jeopardy!” replays the GOAT tournament, which saw Jennings win the title and $1 million. And on May 15, they’ll re-air Jennings final ’04 game, the last of his record-breaking 74-game streak.
I called the Quiz King to talk all things “Jeopardy!” — from host Alex Trebek’s health (he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last March) to the possibility of defending his title in another GOAT tournament.
Q: You guys looked like you were having so much fun out there.
A: Yeah, it’s interesting how into that element people got — that the players were enjoying the game. Because you don’t see it much. On your average “Jeopardy!” everybody’s doing it for the first time, and you’re just scared out of your mind. But in this particular case, I figured it was my last time ever playing, and even more likely, my last time playing with Alex. I thought: You should just have a really good time.
Q: How did you prepare for the tournament? You said you watched James’s episodes.
A: Yeah, there was a ton of watching James. Brad’s game I know — he’s a remarkable Final Jeopardy player, and if he gets his buzzer timer going, I don’t know how you beat him. But James had such an unusual strategy.
It really struck me how much of James’s impact is just psychological. The notion that he puts the game away before the first commercial, [and competitors] just check out. It’s just so demoralizing.
I realized two things: One, there will be games where he does that and I just need to keep my cool. Two, his strategy is so effective, particularly with big wagers. The only way to beat someone doing that is to do it yourself.
Q: Was there a sense of how Alex was doing?
A: It’s hard to say because even when he’s not having a great day — he was in chemo at the time — when the music comes on and Johnny [Gilbert] says his name, he can just stride out there. I’ve seen him do it. He turns into Alex Trebek, and it’s remarkable. On the week we taped those shows, he seemed to be doing really well, health-wise. And I honestly think at this point, “Jeopardy!” is keeping Alex with us. It’s a job he loves.
Q: How did the tournament come together?
A: I heard very soon after James’s [initial] run. Brad and I had just been on earlier that year for a team tournament, so I thought I was off for a while, or maybe forever. They called me and said: We want to have you, Brad and James [play] in prime time. And I told them no.
I was having the “Flowers for Algernon” experience, being in my 40s, and not feeling as good at trivia as I did when I was young and sharp. I said I think I’m past my prime. They called back and said, We really would love you to do this. And [I realized] when the chips are down, I’m not going to turn down a chance to play “Jeopardy!” during the Alex Trebek years.
Q: Have you ever thought about what your life would be like if you had never tried out for “Jeopardy”?
A: I think about it all the time. It changed everything. Them calling me in 2004 and saying, “Hey, you’re going to be on ‘Jeopardy!’,” at that point, I could’ve died happy. Then winning that first game, nothing — not even the GOAT — compares with that. Because you realize no matter what happens, they can’t take this away. I’m a “Jeopardy!” champion to the grave.
Q: Do you think there will be another GOAT championship where they’d have you defend your title?
A: Like Apollo Creed says: Ain’t gonna be no rematch. “Jeopardy!” can retire my jersey as far as I’m concerned.
This interview has been edited and condensed.