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James Holzhauer Broke ‘Jeopardy!,’ But Is Broken So Bad?

Note: This article discusses the results of the June 3, 2019, episode of “Jeopardy!”

James Holzhauer claims not to remember many particulars of how he lost on “Jeopardy!” for the first time, other than that he blanked on a clue about the city of Albany and his opponent quickly took control of the board, landing a game-changing Daily Double. Before long, it was all over. Monday’s episode marked the end of Holzhauer’s two-month reign as one of the winningest, and certainly the most radical, champions in the decades-long history of the trivia game show “Jeopardy!”

Holzhauer finished Monday’s game in second place with $24,799 behind Emma Boettcher’s $46,801. But during his 32-win run, he averaged about $77,000 per game — an average nearly identical to the record for the single richest game ever played before he took the podium in early April. In the process, he laid claim to the entirety of the top 10 highest-scoring games of all time, including one single half-hour haul of $131,127. It was a historic run driven by immaculate trivia knowledge, disciplined strategy and calculated aggression.

But other records will forever remain just out of reach. Holzhauer’s streak ended with total winnings of $2,462,216 — less than $60,000 shy of Ken Jennings’s record $2,520,700 which was amassed over a nearly incomprehensible 74 straight wins in 2004. Holzhauer will sit second on the all-time money list until the arrival of some other great champion. (Or he might sit there forever, which seems more likely.)1

“I played every day exactly according to my game plan, so I have no regrets,” Holzhauer told FiveThirtyEight a few days before the fateful episode aired.

Holzhauer rewrote swaths of the show’s record books. But his biggest contribution may be to “Jeopardy!” strategy. Holzhauer exploited the game’s Daily Doubles to their fullest, hunting them down and betting big on them. Over his 32 wins (and one loss), Holzhauer — a professional sports bettor from Vegas — not only got significantly richer but likely changed how the venerable game show will be played. Holzhauer was such an effective and alien force that opponents began to mimic his style out of desperation, like growling at a hungry lion in hopes of scaring it away. They hopped wildly around the game’s board whenever they could, picking big-dollar clues early, searching madly for the Daily Doubles and betting big when they found them — just the sort of unalloyed aggression that had quickly become Holzhauer’s trademark and the fuel for his success.

“Many of my opponents played like I do, but I’m not sure they would have done so without provocation,” Holzhauer said. “You don’t want to inadvertently make your opponents play a better strategy. In a sense, I may have helped bring about my own downfall.”

Life as a longtime “Jeopardy!” champion is a strange one, chronologically speaking. Holzhauer has been watching the world wonder when his streak will end, all the while knowing exactly when it would happen. On its taping dates, the show records five episodes back-to-back, with just a change of clothes in between. The episodes don’t air until much later. If he could alter time, maybe buy a time machine with that $2,462,216, would he have approached the game any differently?

“The only things I would do differently from the start of my run: never wear a sport coat, which interfered a little with my buzzer form, and use gel insoles in my dress shoes,” Holzhauer said.
“Both were fixed by the second taping day.”

The insoles seem to have worked. Holzhauer has earned a spot in the pantheon of the “Jeopardy!” greats, and he gives himself prominent placement there. “I think there is a nebulous top three of Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter and me,” he said. “Ken’s 74-game streak remains the most impressive achievement in the show’s history.”

Rutter is no slouch, either — he has won more money than any other “Jeopardy!” contestant, and he’s a man who has never lost to a human. Rutter’s initial winning streak was ended by the show’s rules at the time, which limited a defending champion to five appearances. But between those appearances and the show’s Tournament of Champions, Ultimate Tournament of Champions and Million Dollar Masters, Rutter won $4,688,436. (Here’s a free idea for the “Jeopardy!” producers: Holzhauer vs. Jennings vs. Rutter in the Ultimate Tournament of Ultimate Champions.)

A couple of days after we first emailed, however, Holzhauer followed up to amend his initial assessment. “Amidst all the people comparing me to Ken and Brad, I totally forgot about the two greatest Jeopardy champions of all time: Cindy Stowell, who won six games while dying of cancer, and Eddie Timanus, who’s … blind and was an undefeated five-time champ in his initial run. It’s impossible for me to compare myself to them, so perhaps they should be in their own category.”

Holzhauer’s plan for now is a return to normalcy. “The 19-year-old version of James would be thrilled by the opportunities” that the winning streak has brought his way, “but married parent James is hoping to keep his home life settled.”

The game that made him famous, however, has been left unsettled. Lots of esteemed competitive pursuits have been “broken” lately. Baseball. Basketball. Even the spelling bee just last week. An innovative strategy or an outlier talent can deeply alter the games we’ve played for decades. In the process, the cadence or tenor of the game might be rendered unrecognizable for someone who hadn’t seen it in a few years. These innovative strategies are often driven by mathematical analysis, data and statistical rigor — things that a sports bettor from Vegas must embrace in order to eat. I asked Holzhauer if “Jeopardy!” now belonged in this category of sabermetrically altered pursuits.

“I can see the parallels, for sure,” he said. “At its heart, all these shifts are just attempts to increase your chances of winning. Why would anyone not want to maximize their chances?”

Plenty of outlets have written that, thanks to Holzhauer, “Jeopardy!” is now broken. But there’s art in that. While the game may look a bit different than it did before, it may also be closer to perfection — to an ideal expression of trivia game-show strategy. Broken is beautiful.


From ABC News:


Footnotes

  1. These records are for the show’s “regular season” play, ignoring its occasional special tournaments.

Oliver Roeder is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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