Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Brad Rutter: Ultimate Champion

Congratulations to Brad Rutter on his crushing victory in the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions. "Bad Brad" simply couldn't be stopped, winning all three installments of the final series over fellow legends Ken Jennings and Jerome Vered, who also played with admirable aplomb.

Does this win grant Brad the title of "Best Jeopardy! Player Ever"? Personally, I think such titles are pointless — as I wrote recently on the official Jeopardy! discussion forums, at this level of competition, all of the players are almost equally invincible and vulnerable. It all comes down to three key elements: (1) which player's specific knowledge base is favored by the categories that appear in a particular game; (2) which players locate and successfully solve the three Daily Doubles in each game, on which the player can bet up to his or her entire bankroll; and (3) which player masters the always-tricky signaling device. In this final match, that player was Brad Rutter. Given different material, better Daily Double hunting, and more effective synchronicity with the buzzer, either Ken or Jerome could have emerged as champion.

However, as winner of both this Ultimate Tournament and the Million Dollar Masters event three years ago, if anyone deserves consideration as Jeopardy!'s greatest champion, Brad is The Man. He is certainly the best player I have ever seen play live in the studio, and I've witnessed some of the great ones — Chuck Forrest, Bob Verini, Dave Traini, John Cuthbertson, and Bruce Naegeli — and played against others — Bob Blake, Leslie Frates, Mark Lowenthal, Rachael Schwartz, Grace Veach, and Brian Weikle. And having met Brad during my Round Two taping session in the UTOC, he's a fine ambassador for the game: bright, personable, and a devastating player.

People have been asking me for months who I thought would win the UTOC. Going into the tournament, I had a list of six players I believed would survive to the semifinals and compete for the right to face Ken. Three of my predictions made the semis: Jerome Vered, Brad Rutter, and John Cuthbertson. The fourth was eliminated in the same second round game that marked my exit: Brian Weikle. The other two were eliminated in the first round: Bob Blake and Leszek Pawlowicz. So I batted .500 on my semis picks.

Of those six players, I felt that any two could advance to the finals, given the right combination of the three factors I mentioned earlier. With my feet held to the fire, I'd have probably guessed Brad and Leszek. And I believed either of them had a good chance of beating Ken, who with 74 victories had played more games than any player in J! history, but none against tournament-tested veterans of this caliber. I was actually pleasantly surprised that Ken was as competitive with Brad as he turned out to be. He's every inch the champion his record-shattering run made him appear.

What? you ask. You didn't think you'd go all the way?

In a word, no.

I thought I had a decent chance to catch lightning in a bottle and win my first round game if all the breaks went my way, and they did — I hit two Daily Doubles, bet intelligently, and got the right answers. Had my opponent, Rachael Schwartz, hit either or both of those DDs, she could have mopped the floor with me, the way she was acing me consistently on the buzzer. Going into the second round, I knew that without an extremely favorable contestant draw and board material, I was in for a tough go. I got neither, and my stellar opponents beat me like a redheaded stepchild. (No offense to redheaded stepchildren intended.) I certainly competed as vigorously as I could — I always do — but I couldn't have beaten Grace Veach and Brian Weikle on my best day in my mid-20s (I was 26 when I became a Jeopardy! champion) without a ton of help from the categories. Out of my knowledge element (19th Century American Art? NASCAR? Puh-leeze.) and with the reflexes of a 43-year-old, I didn't stand a ghost of a chance.

That, really, is the fallacy of setting up the UTOC winner — whether Brad Rutter or any of the other 144 of us who participated — as the "best ever." Many of the legends of Jeopardy!'s 21 seasons are now well past their prime as players. Such greats as Chuck Forrest, Bob Blake, Bob Verini, Dave Traini, Eugene Finerman, Mark Born, Tom Nosek, and many others (and I'd include myself in this bunch) showed the effects of age in this tournament. (I was extremely impressed with those post-40 players from the early seasons of the Trebek era — especially Jerome Vered, John Cuthbertson, and Frank Spangenberg, plus Dan Melia, who came along somewhat later but is around 60 today — who still possessed most, if not all, of the talents that made them stars.) If you could put us all in Mr. Peabody's Wayback Machine and play us against one another at our peak of prowess, the results of the UTOC would have been dramatically different throughout the field. I guarantee that the Chuck Forrest of 1986, the Bob Blake of 1990, and the Verini-Finerman-Traini triumvirate of 1987 would have done serious damage in such a field.

But you can't undo time. It is what it is.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn today that my UTOC winnings ranked 23rd overall in the field of 145. Not too shabby for a guy who got his hat handed to him in the second round. I'm pleased to note that in the 21-year history of the current version of Jeopardy!, only about 60 players have career winnings totaling more than $100,000, and I'm one of them. (Barely -- my overall total is a shade over $103,000. But hey, I won 60% of that between 1988 and 1990, back when $62,000 was real money.) And, in a bizarre but very real distinction, I'm still Jeopardy!'s all-time leading champion of African-American heritage. (Okay, I only half-qualify, but you take these little honors where you find them. I keep hoping that one day the Jeopardy! Powers That Be will stage an Ultimate Tournament of Ethnic Champions — perhaps during National Brotherhood Week — just so I can get another chance to play.)

Can I complain even one iota about any of the above? Not on your sweet life, bucko. I have been blessed beyond belief, and certainly far beyond what I deserve.

So congrats to Brad, and kudos to Ken and Jerome as well. The best man, on that day at least, won.

0 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Post a Comment

<< Home