How James Holzhauer Finally Lost

“I made peace with my fate before the clue for Final [Jeopardy] was even revealed.”

Jeopardy Productions / The Atlantic

On tonight’s episode of Jeopardy, James Holzhauer’s winning streak finally came to an end. Before he was stymied by Emma Boettcher, a librarian from Chicago, Holzhauer had chipped away at Jeopardy’s prize budget at an unprecedented rate, collecting nearly $2.5 million over the course of 32 episodes.

One key to Boettcher’s success was that she claimed both Daily Doubles in the show’s second round, depriving Holzhauer of the chance to bet large sums and pull away from his competitors, as he’d gotten used to doing in previous games. For the first time ever, he entered the show’s final round trailing one of his opponents.

“By the time Final Jeopardy rolled around I knew my goose was cooked if Emma answered correctly,” Holzhauer wrote to me in an email. “It’s a little like needing a team to miss a last-second field goal—nothing you can really do but watch. I made peace with my fate before the clue for Final was even revealed.”

It was an unfortunate night for Holzhauer to lose. Before facing Boettcher, he had been winning roughly $77,000 an episode on average, and if he’d kept up that pace tonight, he would have taken the title for highest regular-season winnings on the show, a record Ken Jennings set in 2004. Instead, Holzhauer fell short of Jennings by only about $60,000.

But even if Holzhauer didn’t break that particular record, he set plenty of others during his run. Before he went on the show, the most money ever won by a contestant on a single day of Jeopardy was $77,000. Holzhauer shattered that record, winning $131,127 on his best day, and exceeded it on 15 other occasions. (He now holds 21 of the top 25 spots on the show’s list of the highest single-day winnings.)

One reason Holzhauer was able to win so much money each game was his willingness to place large (by Jeopardy’s usual standards) wagers on Daily Doubles—his average bet was roughly $9,000, nearly triple what Jennings averaged over 33 games. One vulnerability of this tactic, as Holzhauer told me previously, was that a wrong answer could wipe out his winnings.

But Boettcher didn’t even give him a chance for such a wipeout. Holzhauer found the first Daily Double on the very first clue of the game, and finished the first round in the lead. Boettcher, though, wrested control of the board for enough of Double Jeopardy to get both of that round’s Daily Doubles, which she turned into gains of $7,600 and $3,000.

Still, Holzhauer performed well—he didn’t give an incorrect response the whole episode. “It just shows how difficult it is to win a sustained amount of games and a large amount of money on Jeopardy,” says Andy Saunders, who runs the site The Jeopardy! Fan. “James didn’t make any mistakes in this game and yet he still lost.”

In Saunders’s assessment, Holzhauer’s tactics were sound; he just got unlucky. “Emma happened to be reasonably good on the signaling device”—buzzer timing is crucial to Jeopardy success—“and she kept close enough [to Holzhauer’s score], and she was the fortunate one to find the Daily Doubles,” Saunders told me. “And that’s Jeopardy sometimes.”

Without his usual Daily Doubles, Holzhauer entered Final Jeopardy with $23,400, behind Boettcher’s $26,600. Boettcher bet $20,201, guaranteeing that she’d end up ahead of Holzhauer if she wrote the correct response; Holzhauer bet $1,399, so that even with an incorrect response he’d remain ahead of Jay Sexton, the third-place player going into the final round. All three players provided correct responses, and Boettcher ended up with $46,801—not quite a Holzhauer-esque score, but enough for a commanding victory (and one that merited a high five from Holzhauer).

When I asked Holzhauer how he felt about his run, he said, “My only real goals were: Win $110,914 on an episode to honor my daughter’s birthday, and play my absolute best every game. I achieved both, and I’m very proud of myself for that.”

Boettcher, meanwhile, has her work cut out for her—she’s just $2,473,899 away from overtaking Jennings’s record herself.