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Spoiler alert: This story contains details from Wednesday’s match in ABC’s “Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time” tournament.

James Holzhauer took his turn on the top of the “Jeopardy!” pile Wednesday, as ABC’s “Greatest of All Time” tournament kicked into high gear.

When the competition kicked-off Tuesday, Ken Jennings was the first to advance a step toward becoming “Jeopardy!” GOAT.

In Game 2, Holzhauer was the victor as the players worked to – as Jennings put it – “leave something in the tank” to get through an hour of play.

The tournament pits the three biggest money winners in the syndicated quiz show’s history – Jennings, Brad Rutter and Holzhauer – for its first network prime time airing since 1990. The pre-taped competition continues Thursday (8 EST/PST).

The players and venerable host Alex Trebek return each weeknight, except for Monday, until one wins three nights, or matches. Each match consists of two traditional, half-hour “Jeopardy!” games, with the night’s highest total points winner (scores are measured in points, not dollars, in the special format) getting the victory. 

The contest could end as early as Friday if Jennings or Holzhauer sweeps the rest of week (it could also stretch out until a three-way, winner-take-all match on Jan. 16). The winner gets $1 million, with the other two competitors each receiving $250,000.

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The friendly ribbing was freer Wednesday, as the players settled in and got to work.

Early on, Jennings told Trebek, “I like to play a lower-stakes game. You know, have fun, be comfortable, come out and do it again. And then I saw James show you what he could really do on this show. And against that kind of competition, you have to be more aggressive.”

“I hate fun,” Holzhauer deadpanned, drawing laughs. 

In the first game, the scores were fairly high, with Holzhauer going into Final Jeopardy! in the lead at 32,400, followed by Jennings (22,000) and Rutter (7,200).

All three knew the “Influential writing” question to the answer: “Its second line is, ‘All the powers of Old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: pope & czar, Metternich & Guizot …”

But Jennings’ “What is the Communist Manifesto?” got the best response, since he even had time to draw a hammer and sickle. “How do you do that?” Rutter wondered, while Holzhauer pointed out the doodle was “pointing the wrong way.”

Still, they were all correct. Rutter bet all of his points and wound up with 14,400. Jennings landed with a total of 40,000 and Holzhauer chose one of his special “date” bets of 11 9 14 to come out on top with 44,314. 

In the second game, it seemed Rutter hadn’t paid heed to Jennings’ warning. He wagered all of his 1,800 points on the first Daily Double of Double Jeopardy!, but answered incorrectly, going down to zero. He was never able to dig himself out of the hole, and ended the second game at -3,600. 

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Holzhauer and Jennings competed in the second Final Jeopardy category of 19th century leaders: “Tall, lanky Joel Barlow was an ambassador carrying messages between these 2 world leaders, both mocked for being short.”

Jennings answered, “Who are Napoleon and Monroe?,” which was incorrect. He’d wagered 3,800 points, taking him down to 17,400 for the game. 

Holzhauer correctly answered, “Who are Napoleon & Madison?” He’d bet 15,300, taking him to 38,100 for Game 2. 

When the scores were combined, Holzhauer took the day with a total of 82,414. Jennings ended up with 57,400, and Rutter was left with just the 14,400 from Game 1. 

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“Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek (Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC)

The tournament highlights how Jennings and Rutter had to adjust to Holzhauer’s betting style, which features maximum risk with the potential for huge reward – or huge loss. It also put a focus on the clue-picking strategy of jumping around between categories.

Maintaining control of the board is vitally important, because the player choosing the clues gets the Daily Doubles, Holzhauer said after the Television Critics Association panel Wednesday afternoon.

Holzhauer’s headline-grabbing success last year inspired the GOAT concept, Trebek told USA TODAY in an exclusive interview when the contest was announced in November.

“When James had his run last year, a lot of people were wondering, ‘Well, how would he do against Ken Jennings? How would he do against Brad Rutter?’ (They’re) our two most successful players in ‘Jeopardy!’ history,” he says. “These three players have won close to $10 million in ‘Jeopardy!’ prize money and over 100 games among them, so it was logical.”

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Fans are for Trebek, 79, as well as the players. The host, who has helmed the syndicated hit since it launched in 1984, revealed his stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis in March and has updated the public about his treatments and status as he continues to conduct the show. 

He said at TCA that he felt his illness had a small effect – “I seemed a little slower in the ad-lib portions” – during the tapings. The competitors disagreed.

“You wonder how he’s doing. You get there – and he’s still Alex Trebek. He never fumbles a word. The last of the great old-school broadcasters,” Jennings said.

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Alex Trebek interacts with “Jeopardy!” legends (from left to right): James Holzhauer, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. (Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC)

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Contributing: Gary Levin

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