Updated at 3:21 p.m. ET on April 24, 2019
On an episode of Jeopardy that aired Tuesday evening, James Holzhauer became the fastest-ever contestant on the show to earn $1 million in prize money. During his now 14-game win streak, he has seemed unstoppable, usually pulling away from his competitors early in the game and piling up money at an unprecedented rate: He’s winning more than twice as much per game as the Jeopardy legend Ken Jennings did during a record-setting 2004 run on the show. And Holzhauer’s highest daily prize yet, $131,127, exceeds the previous record holder’s one-day sum by more than $50,000.
What makes Holzhauer so dominant? When I asked him, he was able to sum up his game plan pretty easily: “I sketched out what I believed to be my optimal strategy for Jeopardy: Play fast, build a stack, bet big, and hope for the best,” Holzhauer wrote to me in an email. “In my mind, playing a seemingly risky game actually minimizes my chances of losing.”
It may be risky, but Holzhauer has the trivia chops to make it work. Mark Labbett, a British trivia pro nicknamed the Beast, has been familiar with Holzhauer since competing against him five years ago on a game show called The Chase, in which a resident trivia expert (Labbett) took on layperson contestants (including Holzhauer). The conceit of The Chase is that the expert is expected to outshine his challengers, but Labbett remembers facing Holzhauer as “the worst beating I’ve ever had” on the show.
“I’ve got to give Jeopardy immense credit, and The Chase U.S.A.,” Labbett told me. “In Britain or Australia”—where The Chase still airs—“James would not have made it onto television, because he’s just too damn good. They would never have him on.”
Labbett said that Holzhauer has “the unholy trinity” of Jeopardy skills. First, he has deep trivia knowledge. In training for competitions such as Jeopardy, trivia experts typically memorize lists of presidents, world capitals, and the like—unchanging bodies of knowledge that will pay dividends in competition. Holzhauer seems to have mastered these, but Labbett is impressed by his grasp on more topical categories of information, such as sports, pop music, film, and TV. “He doesn’t appear to have any [subject-area] weaknesses, which is very rare—a genuine all-rounder,” Labbett said.
Developing expertise like this requires a sharp memory, but also a ton of work. Labbett told me that before he became a father, he would spend 30 to 70 hours a week honing his knowledge in some capacity or another. His methods vary: Studying might mean browsing random pages on Wikipedia, watching TV (to stay current), or reading 30 consecutive pages from a reference book.
Holzhauer’s second advantage, as Labbett sees it, is the speed of his recall. “Good quizzers often need a couple of seconds to think of the answer,” Labbett told me. “James doesn’t.” This is a skill that’s not as responsive to practice, and it’s a valuable edge in a game that prizes quickness. So is a proficiency with Jeopardy’s finicky buzzers, which many contestants struggle to time correctly. Holzhauer’s mastery of the buzzer is what allows him to get in ahead of other contestants, even when all three of them might know the correct response.
The third element of the trinity is Holzhauer’s mind for strategy. When in control of the board, he rarely hesitates to pick his next clue—often doing so with an eye for Daily Doubles, tiles that essentially let players wager as much of their money as they’d like—and calibrates his bets without much apparent anguish.
“I know a lot of very good trivia players who would never be able to work out the complex wagers that he does on the Daily Double, because they just wouldn’t be able to think as fast as that,” Labbett said. The ability to make such on-the-fly calculations, Labbett noted, doesn’t necessarily overlap with trivia expertise—trivia usually doesn’t require people to do math on the spot.
What’s helpful to Holzhauer in this regard is his professional background. He is a Las Vegas–based sports gambler, and as such is comfortable not just making risk-benefit calculations, but also putting significant amounts of money on the line. Jennings, during the first 14 episodes of his 74-game, $2.5 million run 15 years ago, placed an average wager of $2,700 on Daily Doubles and $6,175 on Final Jeopardy (the show’s last clue, on which everyone bets). Holzhauer, meanwhile, has averaged $9,879 on Daily Doubles and $26,686 on Final Jeopardy as of Tuesday night. (Episodes of Jeopardy are usually taped months in advance.)
“I would never have had the stomach for those kinds of bets,” Jennings recently told Wired. If he did, maybe he’d have had a chance of winning money at the rate Holzhauer has. Over Jennings’s first 14 games, his overall net gain on Daily Doubles was $48,600. Holzhauer’s has been $319,366.
But even setting aside these successful bets, Holzhauer is outperforming Jennings—and every other contestant, ever—in providing correct responses. Jeopardy devotees tally up something called a “Coryat score” (named for a 1996 contestant named Karl Coryat), which reflects a player’s raw trivia and buzzer abilities, isolated out from the rewards of smart betting. The figure is calculated, more or less, by adding up the value of every correct response a player gives, and subtracting the value of every incorrect response.
According to Andy Saunders, who runs a site called The Jeopardy! Fan, the average Coryat score of a Jeopardy contestant is $11,300. Through 14 games, Jennings’s was $28,786. So far, Holzhauer has him beat by about $1,000—which makes his the highest Coryat score ever. (For the record, the highest conceivable Jeopardy score, wagers included, has been calculated to be $566,400, though this would require a highly unusual arrangement of Daily Doubles, to say nothing of being able to buzz in and give every single correct response.)
With a player this dominant, what could lead to Holzhauer’s undoing? I asked him this as well. “A particular vulnerability is that I can wipe out my entire score with one missed Daily Double, but I could also lose by failing to uncover any of the Daily Doubles at all, or just running into the wrong opponent at the wrong time,” Holzhauer told me.
Some of the game-show experts I interviewed noted the same risks. “The [top players’] knowledge base is vast, and so therefore it’s going to come down to the occasional random fact that they don’t know,” says David Hammett, who has worked as a mathematical consultant for game shows such as The $100,000 Pyramid and The Weakest Link. “And if it happens in particular on Final Jeopardy, against another contestant that has any relatively close degree of savviness with the buzzer and with content, that’s how Ken lost, and that’s probably how James would lose."
A major betting wipeout, then, seems the most probable unraveling of Holzhauer’s strategy. But say such a wipeout never comes, and Holzhauer remains on the show long after beating Jennings’s win streak. Perhaps this wouldn’t be boring: As Hammett noted, many people watch Jeopardy not for the contestants, but so that they can shout responses at their TV and see how they do. Yet suppose that some sort of Holzhauer fatigue sets in eventually, and his presence becomes predictable, and thus bad for ratings. Are there any dials the producers of Jeopardy could turn in order to bounce him from the show?
The game-show experts I talked with stressed that the integrity of Jeopardy is unassailable, and that the existence of cheating or bad-faith manipulation is out of the question. Still, there are ways the producers could think about trying to oust Holzhauer, or at least reduce the amount he wins each episode. (A representative of Jeopardy told me that the show’s producers wouldn’t comment on Holzhauer’s performance while shows he’s on are airing.)
One strategy might be to figure out Holzhauer’s weakest categories, and load up the board—and, ideally, Daily Doubles and the Final Jeopardy clue—with them. But Hammett thinks this would be difficult to pull off. “Those [categories] seem so few and far between. You certainly can’t make an entire game out of those,” he says. “It would probably be (a) impossible and (b) it would just come off looking very awkward.”
What about making the questions harder? Hammett says it’s not unheard of for producers to start adjusting a show’s difficulty if it’s, say, running over budget. But harder clues would likely only play to Holzhauer’s advantage, given that his trivia expertise appears to be deeper and broader than many of his opponents’.
Mark Labbett, the Beast, proposed a twist on this idea. “Do you want to know the best way to stop a superstar quizzer?,” he said. “Make it easier.” A trivia show that asks, for example, about the capital of California or the president who issued the Emancipation Proclamation would erase some crucial advantages of a player like Holzhauer. “It just becomes what we call a cavalry charge,” Labbett said. “Everyone knows the answer—it’s just who hits the button first.” (Though, of course, Holzhauer is usually the first to do so.)
Labbett also discussed the possibility of bringing on another elite contestant, a sort of assassin, to take Holzhauer down. But this would have its problems too. “Then you’ve got a new apex predator. How do you get rid of him?” Labbett said.
Given that these options are not only unlikely to be put into practice but also ineffective, Holzhauer’s streak will probably last until he has a bad day (and someone else has a very good one). When that day comes—if that day comes—Holzhauer will be left with the question of what to do with his newfound fame. Jennings, since his own run on the show, has fashioned a career as an author and a podcaster, and hasn’t restricted himself to the subject of trivia. Holzhauer could go back to gambling on sports in Las Vegas, but Bob Boden, a TV executive who has worked on dozens of game shows, says that Holzhauer might be able to go on to write books, like Jennings, or perhaps pursue a career in television.
In fact, Boden was the producer of The Chase, the show on which Labbett had to contend with Holzhauer. Watching from the control room, “we were dumbfounded by how well he did,” Boden remembers. So dumbfounded, in fact, that he later had Holzhauer audition to join the show as a colleague of the Beast.
Which is to say, Holzhauer will probably have options. But first, he has to lose.
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