In a surprisingly thrilling hour of television on Tuesday night, Ken Jennings squeaked past James Holzhauer and thoroughly crushed Brad Rutter to win the first night of ABC's prime-time competition "Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time."
The multiple-night event, which pits the show's three most successful players against each other, will continue until one player wins three matches. In this series, a "match" means two consecutive games in one hour-long episode, and the person with the highest total winnings is the victor. The winner gets $1 million and will be crowned the "greatest of all time"; the two runners-up receive $250,000.
For the first night, a wildly entertaining battle of the buzzer that went by at lightning-speed, Jennings won with a combined total of $63,400; Holzhauer was just behind him with $63,200. And poor Rutter, who lost all his money multiple times in Double Jeopardy situations, bet everything and got the Final Jeopardy question wrong in the last game, which left him with only $10,400 from the previous game.
The series could end quickly if Jennings keeps winning - although ABC has set aside the 8 p.m. hour for the rest of this week and next Tuesday through Thursday to air episodes, if necessary. After his performance on Tuesday, it wouldn't be a surprise if Jennings took home the prize.
Jennings, who holds the longest winning streak in "Jeopardy!" history with 74 games after a stunning run in 2004, answered the most questions correctly of any player throughout the two games. Jennings has become a beloved online celebrity since his playing days, and his name became a worldwide trending topic on Twitter.
Still, Holzhauer and Rutter will prove tough competition. Holzhauer was the phenom who helped launch "Jeopardy!" back into the headlines last year by raking up an astonishing number of money over 33 games; he averaged about $77,000 a night, and currently holds all 15 of the top single-day winnings records. (His highest was $131,127.) Jennings holds the record for most money won in regular-season games with $2,520,700, and Holzhauer came this close to leaping over that amount, but fell about $58,000 shy when he finally lost a game last June.
Holzhauer's aggressive game play was on display again Tuesday, going for the highest clue amounts and wagering everything in Final Jeopardy. He had more money than Jennings at the end of the second game, though of course he landed just short of winning it all.
At the beginning of the episode, Jennings joked that he has plenty of experience losing to Rutter in tournaments. Rutter first competed in 2000, when there was a five-night cap on winning streaks. He quickly made up for that by dominating tournaments and is currently the highest-earning player ever, with more than $4 million in prize money. In fact, before Tuesday, he had never lost a game to a human opponent - his only loss came in 2011, when he and Jennings competed (and were defeated by) a computer, Watson.
However, this time, Rutter struggled to find his rhythm until the Double Jeopardy round of the second game, when he correctly answered the most questions of anyone. But Daily Doubles ultimately brought him down. Rutter landed on the first Daily Double on his first question in the jazz category, and bet $3,800, everything he had. The clue: "Born in New Orleans, Louis Armstrong performed songs named for two local 'B' streets."
Rutter paused for a long time. "What are Bourbon and Beale?" he asked.
"I thought you'd say that," host Alex Trebek said sadly. "That's incorrect. It's basin. 'Basin Street Blues.'"
A few minutes later, the Daily Double tripped him up again, as he wagered all his money on the philosophers category, but didn't know "the double first-name philosopher born in 1842″ who said "the value of a concept is in its practical consequences."
"It's not Jean-Paul Sartre, but I'll say who is Jean-Paul Sartre?" Rutter offered. Nope - it was William James.
Meanwhile, we must pay respect to all three contestants for the delightful and insane "Triple Rhyme Time" category in the first round of the second game, as they immediately answered every single one correctly:
"A congenial game bird under glass given as a gift." Jennings: "What is a pleasant pheasant present?"
"A flexible and enormous customer." Jennings: "What is a pliant giant client?"
"In Papeete and the rest of the isle, a signed agreement to quit spray painting." Holzhauer: "What is a Tahiti graffiti treaty?"
"A sedate date tree that's the subject of a biblical poem." Rutter: "What is a calm psalm palm?"
"Sacred place for your most exceptional bottle of Bordeaux." Jennings: "What is a fine wine shrine?"