'Jeopardy!' Champ Ken Jennings on His Big Win and How He Beat Close Friend James Holzhauer

Jeopardy! star Ken Jennings opens up about being the "Greatest Of All Time" champion, and how being on the show changed his life

Earlier this month, Jeopardy! contestant Ken Jennings was crowned the “Greatest Of All Time” champion after besting fellow competitors “Jeopardy James” Holzhauer and Brad Rutter — and he says it wasn’t at all easy keeping the big win a secret.

“I told my wife, but nobody else knew,” Jennings, a former computer programmer that lives in Seattle with his wife and kids, tells PEOPLE about the tournament, which had actually taped a month prior to airing. “I knew it was going to be a thrilling series, so I wanted people to watch on TV. My kids in particular were a little annoyed. My son was like two years old when I was first on Jeopardy!, but now he’s 17 and did not like being kept in the dark.”

As for besting former champs Holzhauer and Rutter, he says they were fierce competitors. “Brad is the most tenacious Jeopardy! player I’ve ever seen — best I’ve ever played. He just never got his footing. It may be just as simple as the fact that he found a ton of very hard Daily Doubles. Like, I would have missed a lot of those too. He just happened to be the one to who took the bullet.”

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(When Rutter landed yet another Daily Double on the third episode, keeping it safe from high-stakes better Holzhauer, he turned to Jennings, 45, and said, “You’re welcome!”)

As for challenging professional gambler Holzhauer, who rose to fame last April by betting big (and winning nearly $2.5 million) during his 32-game winning streak, Jennings says he had to study his method closely before this tournament.

Carol Kaelson/ Sony Pictures Entertainment

“You have to bet big,” he says. “That’s the only way to beat him. I watched so many James Holzhauer tapes, just to prep for this. It’s a tribute to how he’s changed the game, his dominance. … Brad and I just knew intuitively that whoever would win was going to do it by doing their best James Holzhauer impression.”

Still, despite the friendly competitiveness, he says he and Holzhauer have actually become close friends. “We actually met briefly in Seattle, when I hosted a trivia night at a local music festival, although I didn’t remember,” Jennings says. “But he reached our after his show and had some questions about Jeopardy! fame. And yeah, we’ve actually become very good friends, even though we have very different Jeopardy! styles.”

Jennings does think that the show will start seeing plenty more Holzhauer imitators in the near future — but isn’t sure they’ll be able to pull off big wins like he did.

“You’re definitely going to see a lot of cocky, young, would-be stars. The problem is his strategy is very high risk. So I think it’s going to backfire on a lot of people. But it’s going to be really entertaining TV,” he says. “People have definitely been betting too small on Daily Doubles all these years.” He adds with a laugh, “I could be a Jeopardy! life coach I think. There’s my new job.”

jeopardy! the greatest of all time
Alex Trebek and Ken Jennings. Eric McCandless/ABC

Jokes aside, Jennings does talk about how being on the Alex Trebek-hosted show 17 years ago changed his life forever — and for the better.

“I was kind of a borderline unhappy, unskilled computer programmer before I went on the show, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Thanks to Jeopardy!, I turned it around,” he says. “I’m now a freelance writer, which I love, and speak on a podcast twice a week.”

Most importantly, he got to be there to watch his kids (son Dylan, 17, and daughter Katie, 14) grow up.

“I got to be home with my kids the whole time they were growing up, which is utterly priceless,” Jennings says. “I mean, that means more to me than any Jeopardy! check, honestly.”

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