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The Man Who Solved ‘Jeopardy!’

UPDATE (April 26, 2019, 2:45 p.m.): James Holzhauer has won 16 consecutive “Jeopardy!” games, including eight of the 10 richest games in the show’s history.


On the April 9 episode of the trivia game show “Jeopardy!,” James Holzhauer, 34, a Las Vegas-based sports bettor, entered the Final Jeopardy round with, yet again, an insurmountable lead. And yet he still wagered a staggering $38,314.

The Final Jeopardy category that day: “physics terms.” The clue: “Ironically, it’s a metaphor meaning a huge step forward, but this two-word process only occurs on a subatomic scale.”

What is a quantum leap?

Oh, indeed.

[Related: FiveThirtyEight’s latest math and logic puzzles]

Upon answering correctly, Holzhauer brought his total haul that day to $110,914 — a single-show “Jeopardy!” record and a carefully calculated tribute to his young daughter.1 And then just a week later, he broke his own one-day record, winning $131,127 on April 17. On Tuesday, he added a cool $118,816. He now is the winner of the seven richest games in “Jeopardy!” history.

Holzhauer has played this game like no one has ever played it before — large bets coupled with expert navigation of the game board. He has now played 14 games with his total winnings sitting above $1,000,000 and counting, and he is well on his way to surpassing the $2,520,700 won by the most famous “Jeopardy!” record-holder of all, Ken Jennings. One difference? It took Jennings 74 straight victorious shows to bring in that haul, and if he maintains his current pace, Holzhauer is on track to break that record in as few as 34.

But perhaps Holzhauer’s success is the natural evolutionary destination of the show — a final, full realization of the strategic potential locked within its giant board.

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Yes, Holzhauer, like other “Jeopardy!” greats before him, is fast on the buzzer. After all, nothing is more important to “Jeopardy!” success than fast-twitch fingers. Ring in too slowly, and someone will beat you to it; ring in too quickly, and you get locked out for a crucial split second. To practice, Holzhauer crafted a dummy buzzer by wrapping masking tape around a mechanical pencil, and he told me in an email that he credits former contestant Fritz Holznagel — and his book “Secrets of the Buzzer” — for his prodigious digital skill.2 But buzzer prowess is just one aspect of Holzhauer’s success.

The other, more extreme aspect to Holzhauer’s exploits is one hiding within the board: the Daily Doubles. Each of the three Daily Doubles in a game of “Jeopardy!” gives the player who uncovers it the chance to respond to a clue and the opportunity to wager whatever he or she may have on the answer. Aside from the buzzer, they are the game’s most powerful weapons and key to Holzhauer’s staggering success. And as I write this on Tuesday evening, Holzhauer has found over 83 percent of his games’ Daily Doubles, including at least one in every game in his 14 appearances thus far on the show. He has answered over 91 percent of them correctly.

But Holzhauer’s strategy of prioritizing the Daily Doubles isn’t unique, although his accuracy is enviable. Players have been wagering more and more on their Daily Doubles over the past 20 years or so, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of “Jeopardy!” games from J! Archive, a fan-maintained archive of the show.3 Our analysis covers games from Nov. 26, 2001, the date that “Jeopardy!” increased the clue dollar values to their current levels, through June 6, 2018, near the end of last season.4 On average, a player last season bet about $200 more than her counterpart did in 2001,5 although the percentage of Daily Doubles correctly answered has remained around 65 percent.

But Holzhauer’s Daily Double strategy cannot be contained by the chart above. And that’s because, on average, he finds the clues faster and his wagers are much, much higher. Before this season, the highest amount ever wagered on a Daily Double was $19,000, in 2016. Holzhauer has already wagered $25,000 — twice. On average, he has bet $9,879;6 the average wager on Daily Doubles since 2001 was less than $2,500. Also, the Daily Double clues that Holzhauer has found have been, on average, the 12th clue of a round; the average clue order for other contestants is around 16, however.

James Holzhauer goes all in

Every Daily Double clue Holzhauer has uncovered, April 4 to April 23

Show Nth clue of round Wager Correct?
1 15th $5,000
10 9,812
2 14 11,914
3 5 10,000
13 8,615
4 2 1,000
3 14,600
27 25,000
5 6 3,000
5 9,200
6 20 5,000
4 9,800
7 20 9,812
8 11,914
11 11,022
8 18 8,400
7 7,200
9 8,615
9 8 5,800
15 11,381
22 17,000
10 20 25,000
14 11,914
11 9 3,000
5 6,013
8 9,812
12 8 1,800
4 8,200
25 15,000
13 1 1,000
3 9,812
13 11,914
14 17 8,200
19 10,016
23 20,000

One Daily Double is available in the Jeopardy round, and two in the Double Jeopardy round.

Source: J! Archive

Holzhauer, of course, has forebears in his revolution of both betting big and targeting the board strategically — albeit former contestants have perhaps not been as willing to risk so much money.

Arthur Chu, a divisive “Jeopardy!” megastar in 2014, also employed a Daily Doubles heavy strategy of trying to uncover the clues earlier in the game. During his initial run on the show, Chu put together an 11-win streak and $297,200 in winnings, the third-best ever in both categories at the time. “When Arthur Chu bobs and weaves around the board, he’s chasing those game-changing Daily Doubles,” Jennings wrote of Chu’s strategy. “More recently,” Jennings added, “skipping around the board has evolved into an art form.” Two other Jeopardy champions, David Madden and Roger Craig, also famously hopped their way around the board to big paydays.

What this has meant practically is that Daily Doubles have been found earlier and earlier, down from the 17th clue in a round in 2001, on average, to the 16th in 2019.

One possible explanation for the increased likelihood that respondents will pick a Daily Double earlier is that the placement of the clues aren’t random, which informs this hopping strategy. (Below is a map of where all 11,000-plus Daily Doubles have been uncovered on the “Jeopardy!” game board since 2001 — a patchwork treasure map to modern “Jeopardy!” success.) Only eight Daily Doubles have appeared on the top row of the board, while 866 have appeared in a single box in the fourth row of the left-hand column. In fact, that first column is a pretty big hotspot, along with the other boxes in the fourth row.

But even given his keen ability to discover Daily Doubles, Holzhauer is careful not to find the Daily Doubles too quickly, lest he be unable to exploit the other half of his strategy: heavy wagering. “I’ve never talked with anyone else about how to approach the Jeopardy board. I’m definitely not the first player to aggressively attack the Daily Doubles, but I may be the first to consciously try and build a stack before hitting one,” he said, referring to his cash total during the game. “The Daily Double can only help you so much if you’re sitting on $1,000 or less.” If you want to bet big, it’s good to have a big bankroll.

And what does Holzhauer make of analyses like those above? Holzhauer agreed with what our data set showed us: “It seems quite clear that players are putting more effort into hunting for Daily Doubles than they did 15 years ago,” Holzhauer said. “The rise in prominence of the Jeopardy Archive, as well as the general growth of data science, likely contributed to this.” As with the sabermetric, “Moneyballrevolutions across sports, perhaps the nerds — and on “Jeopardy!” that’s saying something — have won.

Footnotes

  1. Her birthday is 11/09/14.

  2. “The buzzer is your friend,” Holznagel writes. “It is not a venomous rattlesnake, a downed power line, or a horrifying object cursed by the ghosts of Howard Carter, King Tut and 1922.”

  3. And Jacob Bovee’s J-Archive-Parser.

  4. This was the most recent data Bovee had made available via his J-Archive-Parser script.

  5. The real data is, of course, dense and wide-ranging with over 10,000 wagers between $5 and $19,000, so I’ve used a Loess smoother and a confidence interval to help illustrate the trend.

  6. The specific wager of $9,812, found a few times in the table below, is the date of Holzhauer’s wedding — 9/8/12.

Oliver Roeder is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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