When ABC sent out a news release hyping the "Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time" prime-time special that concluded last week, the network included an intriguing fact: Brad Rutter, the highest-winning "Jeopardy!" contestant ever, with more than $4.6 million in prize money over two decades, had never lost to a human opponent.
It's true: Not only had Rutter triumphed in multiple tournaments, but his only loss was to a computer, IBM's Watson, during a special in 2011 with Ken Jennings.
That made it all the more shocking when Rutter ... well, didn't do so hot in the "GOAT" tournament. He never won a game, let alone a match (made up of two games over an hourlong episode), and often finished very far behind Jennings and James Holzhauer. On the last Final Jeopardy on Tuesday night, Rutter didn't even offer a guess in the category, instead simply writing a message to host Alex Trebek: "You're the best, Alex!"
On Wednesday, the day after Jennings claimed the crown and $1 million prize (Rutter and Holzhauer both received $250,000), we called Rutter to ask, among other things: What exactly happened?
"I couldn't get the buzzer mojo going, and that has usually been one of my strengths," said Rutter, a very good sport. "So when you're dealing with a match like this, it can come down to a 100th of a second in terms of timing. Ken and James were able to get that down, and unfortunately I wasn't."
That buzzer! For years, "Jeopardy!" players have said over and over again that so much of the game comes down to simply being able to hit a button. Jennings also confirmed this in a separate interview, telling us that two critical components are the buzzer and luck.
The other key element, particularly in this competition with ultra-aggressive players, was Daily Doubles. Rutter struggled here, as well. He found 10 over the course of four matches, but incorrectly answered six of them. It was often a blow to his overall score, as he would wager all his points and then go back to zero.
"You can't really afford to let yourself get frustrated" by wrong answers, Rutter explained. "One of the reasons I've had success is [being able to] put it behind me and focus on the next clue." However, he acknowledged, it was probably frustrating for viewers to watch at home. "When I was actually up there, I was just worried about what was coming next."
Rutter, of course, also got plenty correct, including a very impressive answer in the insane "triple rhyme time" category in the first match. (Clue: "A sedate date tree that's the subject of a biblical poem." Rutter: "What is a calm psalm palm?") Still, one fellow contestant couldn't help but throw a zinger. In the final match on Tuesday, just after Rutter's incorrect Final Jeopardy in the first game wiped out his score entirely, the contestant scoreboards all reverted to zero as they got ready to start the second game.
"Hey, Brad's score is still on there," Holzhauer said. The studio audience paused and then gasped, as did many viewers at home.
Rutter didn't take it too hard, and he said he only "vaguely" remembered that savage burn from the taping. But he didn't miss a chance to take a shot back, writing on Twitter, "Congrats to James Holzhauer, as well. Have the New Orleans Saints been in touch about a job? Because with their tendency to talk a bunch of trash after losing in the playoffs, you'll fit right in."
"I'm not really a trash-talking sort of guy, so it was fun to explore that," Rutter joked.
Overall, Rutter is thrilled that he got to participate in the tournament: He got to hang out with Jennings, a longtime friend, and see Trebek again. He became reacquainted with his fans on social media. ("You expect people on Twitter to be terrible, but there were many more nice people than terrible people.") Plus, $250,000 isn't a bad paycheck for two days of filming. He also had a great time watching the episodes on TV with everyone else.
"It's so hard to remember ... what actually happened. The details kind of blur together in a mix of adrenaline and fatigue," he said. "It's nice to see what actually went on."