This week, Americans are watching network television again, waiting to see who will emerge as the greatest Jeopardy! player of all time.
It could be James Holzhauer, whose unconventional and aggressive style upended the show last year and won him 32 consecutive games. Or Brad Rutter, who has won the most money collectively over the years — more than $4 million. Or Ken Jennings, who once won 74 consecutive games and is easily the most recognizable player in the show’s history.
To put a local spin on it, this is like watching St. Louis Cardinals baseball greats Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby and Albert Pujols bat 1-2-3 in an inning.
And then there’s Alex Trebek, who announced last year he was battling pancreatic cancer but still shows up to work, teaching us all how to answer the worst possible question life can throw at you. What is courage? Alex Trebek, that’s what.
“Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time,” began Tuesday on ABC and will run three to seven nights until one of the contestants wins three games. The Times went to press after Jennings won the first night in an intense, two-game match, but I’m hopeful we’ll get to see more next week. Who knows when we’ll see the likes of this again?
On Tuesday, the questions were more challenging than usual and we were playing along at home like we always do — if we manage to be there by the 4:30 p.m. air time. (Sometimes I leave work early enough to make sure I do.) I like to think I know about 75-80% of the questions on any given day, but it’s one thing to know the answers; it’s quite another to manage buzzer timing, wagering and thinking under pressure.
Twice, I’ve had an opportunity to try out for Jeopardy! and I flamed out each time. The first was in the summer of 1985, when I rotary-dialed my way to a timed, written test in a Chase Park Plaza ballroom with maybe a thousand others, noting the folks in line who were reading encyclopedias and almanacs up to the last minute. They were among the handful who passed.
In 2015, I passed an online test and was invited to a tryout in Kansas City. In the small group of contest-wannabes to which I was assigned, I got to play a simulated game with a handheld buzzer. My opponents were two young guys who started with “21st Century Pop Music” and ran the table. When I finally rang in on a sports question, I froze, and then never got in a groove. Panic, apparently, does not look good on television.
That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying. Another online test is available at Jeopardy.com at the end of the month. I may be reading a few wikipedias and online almanacs before then.