this! is! jeopardy!

Everything You Need to Know About Jeopardy!’s Ultimate VIP Tournament

James Holzhauer, Brad Rutter, and Ken Jennings will compete head-to-head-to-head this week to determine who is the true Jeopardy! GOAT. Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC via Getty Images

Change into your all-blue onesie and start phrasing every sentence like a question, because this! Is! Intellectual battle-royal time! Jeopardy! will begin airing its “Greatest of All Time” tournament on Tuesday, January 7, which will reunite the three best players to ever compete on the show — Ken Jennings, James Holzhauer, and Brad Rutter — so they can duke it out quiz-bowl style to become the ultimate Jeopardy! GOAT. The tournament also comes at a poignant time for longtime host Alex Trebek, as he continues to fight his stage 4 pancreatic-cancer diagnosis and contemplate retirement.

Since the rules of the tournament aren’t exactly the easiest to understand at first glance, Vulture is here to answer some questions you may have about what to expect over the next few days, as well as unpack the history of our trio of smarties. Let the games, and those super-quick buzzer fingers, begin.

How many days do I have to block out for this? And how exactly is it structured?

First up, programming note: This Jeopardy! tournament won’t be airing in its normally scheduled pre-Wheel of Fortune slot on ABC. Instead, it’ll be taking up a full hour from 8 p.m.-9 p.m. ET each night it airs.

Each tournament episode will consist of a set of two back-to-back games, hence the hour-long running time. The player with the most combined winnings from these two games wins the “match.” The play will then continue on each successive night until either Jennings, Holzhauer, or Rutter wins three matches — that means the tournament could end as quickly as three days or last as long as seven. So, we could potentially see the winner crowned on Thursday, January 9, or, if things really heat up, it could continue on into the subsequent week. Just keep in mind that the tournament will not be airing on Friday, January 10, so enjoy that night for yourself.

Why were Jennings, Holzhauer, and Rutter chosen specifically?

Because, as the tournament name suggests, they really are the greatest of all time in the show’s history. This trio of gents hold the top-three spots for Jeopardy!’s all-time winnings, with Rutter ($4,688,436), Jennings ($3,370,700), and Holzhauer ($2,712,216) in first, second, and third place, respectively. Holzhauer and Jennings also hold a significant amount of other titles in the show’s Hall of Fame, which include: winnings in regular-season play for Jennings ($2,520,700), consecutive games won for Jennings (72), and single-game winnings for Holzhauer ($131,127).

Is it bad that I … kind of don’t know who Rutter is?

Not really, but you should definitely know his history now, given that he is the show’s all-time greatest winner. The likely reason you’re not too well versed in his Jeopardy! tenure is that he competed back in 2000, during an era of the show when there was a strict five-game cap on how long a winner could stay. (The rules were changed in 2003, which allowed Jennings’s legendary winning streak.) Rutter proceeded to compete in six tournaments — most recently the team-centric All-Star Games — and won all of them, except the IBM challenge (a.k.a. that time when he competed against Watson). So, the vast majority of his $4,688,436 came from tournaments as opposed to regular game play.

Do these three guys have a history?

As Holzhauer’s historic run of games began last spring, he hasn’t competed against Jennings and Rutter in any capacity until now. (The only tournament Holzhauer participated in was 2019’s Tournament of Champions, which he formidably won.) Jennings and Rutter, meanwhile, have competed against each other in four different tournaments through the years: 2011’s IBM challenge, 2019’s All-Star Games, 2014’s Battle of the Decades, and 2005’s Ultimate Tournament of Champions. Rutter won in all of these meetups except for the IBM challenge, where he finished third to Watson and Jennings, respectively. Also important: They’re buddies!

Why is this tournament happening now?

The official reason is to celebrate the show’s 30th anniversary on ABC, with the network’s reality programming chief, Robert Mills, also saying it was his “dream project,” and that he had been waiting for years to find a formidable player to compete against Rutter and Jennings in a tournament setting. But with the severity of Trebek’s pancreatic cancer seemingly increasing every month, well, this could be a very fitting farewell to a very honorable host.

Is there a cash prize in addition to GOAT bragging rights?

$1 million for the winner and a cool $250,000 for both runners-up.

So, can the trio’s all-time standings change?

With Rutter holding such a formidable all-time winnings lead over both Jennings and Holzhauer, there’s only one scenario where the standings can change: If Holzhauer comes in first place in the tournament, winning $1 million, he’ll surpass Jennings to become the second greatest all-time winner in the show’s history. Jennings will then drop to third.

Everything You Need to Know About Jeopardy!’s Big Tournament