James Holzhauer’s Reign of Terror

His Jeopardy! Dream is Every Other Player’s Nightmare

Over the past couple of weeks, James Holzhauer, a professional sports gambler from Las Vegas, has annihilated nearly every single Jeopardy! record on the books. He’s done so ruthlessly and mercilessly, amassing a half-million-dollar fortune along the way. Holzhauer has also shattered the idea of what and who a Jeopardy! contestant should be, and has changed The Most Beautiful Game forever.

First off, Holzhauer is not an intellectual. The baseline Jeopardy! contestant has been obsessively reading since childhood. Most of the super-successful ones, as Ken Jennings pointed out in a recent Slate piece, participated in Quiz Bowl in high school and college. They train their whole lives for the big trivia stage. Holzhauer, on the other hand, admitted on the show that he hated school. In an interview, he said he fell asleep the first time he tried to read a Dickens novel. He said he goes to the library and reads fact books for children to shore up gaps in his trivia knowledge.

Now, that may be slightly disingenuous. As far as I know, no books exist to teach kids the names of plays by Strindberg and Edward Albee. But it does make some sense. Holzhauer’s intelligence lies elsewhere.

The baseline Jeopardy! contestant knows all, or at least most, of the answers. A few players appear who are clearly better than the pack. An even smaller handful get on the show and either freeze up or just obviously weren’t ready for the big stage. But the vast majority of contestants could win at least a couple of games if they play the right way. Holzhauer has taken knowledge out of the equation, revealing that Jeopardy!, at its dark core, is actually a gambling game, every bit as ruthless as baccarat or Texas Hold ‘Em.

No contestant had ever won $100,000 in a day before. Holzhauer has done it twice. That didn’t happen because he knows more than his opponents. Maybe he knows a little bit more, but that’s a small margin. Instead, he analyzed where the Daily Doubles will most likely appear on the board. They pop up all over. But most often, they appear in the third and fourth clue of a category, and rarely in a category about pop culture or sports. Everyone who plays Jeopardy! knows pop culture. The wedge categories tend to be Science, Literature, History, and Geography, the core undergraduate curriculum.

He works through the high-value clues to amass a bankroll. Then he pokes around until he finds the Daily Doubles. When he hits them, he bets all or most of his money. And when he gets the answer right, no one can stop him.

Holzhauer identified two major flaws in game play. Contestants don’t seek out the big money opportunities. And when stumble upon one, they often bet too small, giving their opponents a chance to catch up. Even if you bet everything on a Daily Double and whiff, you’re still making the right play.

It’s no accident that the two best Jeopardy! players of recent years–Holzhauer and Alex Jacob–are both professional gamblers. When Jacob clanked a Pulp Fiction question during the recent Jeopardy! All-Stars Tournament, losing something like $14,000, people gasped, but he made the right play. Getting that question right would have earned him and his team the right to play for a million dollars. Betting less, but still getting it right, maybe would have won him the tournament. But he, like Holzhauer, was working his edge, and playing to win.

 

That doesn’t mean all professional gamblers are going to get onto Jeopardy! and clean up. Most of them are hyper-specialized. You need to start obsessing about trivia as a child even to have a shot at passing the online Jeopardy! test, the first barrier to entry. Holzhauer has been regarded as a top-tier trivia talent for years, and it still took five years after he cleaned house on The Chase for him to appear before the Almighty Trebek.

So where does that leave the game going forward? First, Holzhauer is still going, though I suspect that he’s about to blow a tire. Twice, he’s zeroed out his scoreboard by missing a Daily Double in the first round, and he even missed one Final Jeopardy! clue. He could keep winning for a couple more weeks, but Ken Jennings’ streak of 74 winning games is as safe as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. This will end. A few weeks of post-Holzhauer games, where no player is particularly aware of what just occurred, will follow. But then people need to reckon with what he’s done.

Holzhauer isn’t particularly well-liked in the trivia community. A fan site appeared before his run even began. It referred to him as the “King” and to the hapless (but often very talented) contestants who he crushed as “the humbled.” This created a lot of suspicious grumbling within a very tiny subset of humanity. But he’s not a character like Arthur Chu, who after a great run on the show alienated the entire world with his obnoxious Salon columns and Twitter presence. Holzhauer quietly has become the GOAT, or at least one of them. And those of us who played the game and lost, or even won a little, will have to ponder what could have been.

Holzhauer has ended the deadball era of Jeopardy!. His run gives rise to a new era of big money and wild swings. When it comes to the greatest game show that ever was and ever will be, fortune, as this kinda smug anti-intellectual sports gambler from Las Vegas has shown, favors the bold.

Alex Trebek and James Holzhauer, the stars of Jeopardy!

Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of ten semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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