Jeopardy! GOATs James Holzhauer, Ken Jennings, and Brad Rutter share the lessons they took from the late host.

By Tyler Aquilina
January 07, 2021 at 02:50 PM EST
Credit: Eric McCandless/ABC via Getty Images

Before Thursday's premiere episode of The Chase gets underway, host Sara Haines presents a brief but poignant tribute to the late Alex Trebek. It's a fitting start for a show featuring the three greatest Jeopardy! players of all time — James Holzhauer, Ken Jennings, and Brad Rutter — and there was never really a question that the premiere would begin that way.

"We started to shoot the show within a day or two of Alex's passing," Haines tells EW. "There was no way to go into it without saying [to the audience], 'We recognize this, we feel what you feel.'"

Adds Jennings, "We were speaking for an audience that was grieving. People had Alex in their house every evening for decades. It wasn't just a broadcaster, they felt like he was part of the family. And I think we wanted them to know we felt the same way. We miss him too."

Of course, the trio's connections to Trebek ran deeper than the average viewer's. All three spent extended time with the Jeopardy! host, during their initial winning streaks as well as several subsequent tournaments and special events, which for Jennings and Rutter spanned multiple decades. During that time, they got to observe Trebek doing the job he loved up close, an experience they carried not just to The Chase, but into their everyday life.

"The thing that always impressed me about Alex, watching him work, was that he had extraordinarily high standards for himself, but he was also having a great time every time he stepped out there," says Rutter. "I think that's great advice for anybody in their job: expect a lot out of yourself, pursue excellence, and have a great time, and you can't go wrong. That's what I was trying to do [on The Chase], and that's probably the biggest thing I've taken from Alex generally, in life."

Holzhauer, meanwhile, first appeared on Jeopardy! after Trebek had announced his pancreatic cancer diagnosis, and drew inspiration from the host's persistence in the face of a dire prognosis and difficult treatment regimen.

"So many of the times Alex was hosting when I was on, he was going through chemo or had had a setback in his treatment or something like that," Holzhauer recalls. "You could tell it took all of the energy he had to get through five taping episodes in one day. And that might have been all he was able to do that day, but he poured his heart into what he loved and did not let this prognosis stop him, which I think is just amazing."

"Alex was genuine. You could not do that job just reading answers off a piece of paper," adds Jennings, who recently joined Jeopardy! as a producer and sometime clue presenter, and will serve as the show's first interim host after Trebek's death. "He knew all that stuff, and that was what was always inspiring to me as a kid about him. Jeopardy! was a space where nobody was going to make fun of you for knowing stuff. That's kind of the secret sauce of the game, is that it's cool to know a lot of weird stuff. That really formed me as a person, honestly. A half hour of that a day was a pretty big deal for me. And I think it's nice that maybe The Chase will be that for some kid watching next week."

Indeed, the team behind The Chase also recognized, and wanted to acknowledge, that they were very much playing in the same sandbox as Jeopardy! "We hope [Alex] would love what we're doing here, because we're taking three men that he worked so closely with and kind of carrying a torch," Haines says. "We're not trying to be Jeopardy!, but we are in that trivia game show world, and we hope he'd watch."

The Chase premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on ABC. Trebek's final episode of Jeopardy! will air on Friday.

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