I watched the five stages of grief spread across the internet from east to west, like the sunset. James Holzhauer, the Jeopardy phenom and reigning 32-game champion, had finally lost.
“NOOOOO! Please tell me this isn’t true! #JeopardyJames”
“Very obvious he lost on purpose.”
“I am legit depressed right now.”
In an increasingly uncertain world, we get attached to our Jeopardy champions. In 2004, to mark the 20th anniversary of Alex Trebek’s modern syndicated Jeopardy, the quiz show announced a change to its long-standing contestant policy. Instead of booting returning champions off the show after five wins, it would allow players to keep going indefinitely, until they lost. I was the first real beneficiary of the policy, having auditioned for Jeopardy months before the new rule was announced, but not getting called up until a few months after it was official. That accident of timing, it turned out, changed my life (and paid for my house).
The Jeopardy producers may have envisioned the end of the five-day limit as a minor anniversary gimmick, but it ended up fundamentally changing a show that almost never changes. The rule change cannily anticipated the social-media era, delivering us a world where a vast community of viewers now often cares passionately about who is winning on Jeopardy. No longer is the show an endless parade of identical midwestern librarians and Beltway lawyers. Now many are personalities, with fans and haters. On any given night, a Jeopardy contestant can go viral by winning big, or giving a funny wrong answer, or sassing Alex Trebek during his or her mini-interview, or mugging for the camera.
And a few, of course, become national news. I’ve spent 15 years expecting the young gunslinger who would arise and put together a long streak like mine, but no one, not even me, could have predicted James Holzhauer. He was an experienced sports bettor with no qualms about going all in on Daily Double wagers. He was a Jeopardy disciple who had spent years studying the show, practicing his buzzer technique, and devising a strategy to sew up games early by playing the board from the bottom up. And most important, he seemed to know everything.
Suddenly, no Jeopardy record was safe; it was as if the show’s laws of mathematics had been repealed. The old one-day cash record was $77,000; Holzhauer was averaging that every night. Days would go by without him giving a single incorrect response. He won $131,127 in a single game, and even came within a whisker of beating my total-winnings record in a fraction of the time.
Now that Jeopardy champions can stick around indefinitely, they have time to build up a powerful home-field advantage on the set, and even a bit of mystique. Jeopardy tapes five shows back to back in a single afternoon, and so I would meet a new busload of 10 to 12 eager hopefuls on the morning of every taping day. Then they’d be told, “Ken is our 45-day champion and has won $1.4 million,” and I could see their faces fall. Before even sitting down in the makeup chair, they’d given up.
But no streak lasts forever. Until Holzhauer lost in Monday night’s game, he had seemed invulnerable. It was rare for anyone to even make a run at him. But he was defeated, fair and square, by Emma Boettcher of the University of Chicago—that’s right, a midwestern librarian. Boettcher was no civilian. She was a longtime Jeopardy nut who had even written her master’s thesis about predicting the difficulty of the show’s clues. Unflustered by Holzhauer’s stat line, she played a near-perfect game. She found both Daily Doubles in the Double Jeopardy round and did what too many of his challengers had been reluctant to do: bet big. As a result, she rolled into Final Jeopardy with a decisive lead over the best Jeopardy player of our era.
That’s what people don’t understand about Jeopardy dominance: It’s so fragile. You get only one loss, and it’s Russian roulette: Any given night could be the game with your name on it. You could play a dominant game, but still catch a bad break or two—a missed Final Jeopardy, a Daily Double found by someone else. I think there were about a dozen games in my streak where my win hinged on a single question. Incredibly, they all went my way. Until the 13th game, when one didn’t.
In the Before Times, an elite Jeopardy player such as Holzhauer would have been a mild curiosity for five days. Now these champs can be bona fide celebrities. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that Jeopardy mini-fame is a fun little adventure, but it has its downsides. Viral Jeopardy contestants get hounded by online trolls (the women in particular have to wade through some awful sludge). They get fan mail and hate mail from stans and stalkers and nuts and the incarcerated. Worst of all, they are batted around by pundits in endless, pointless hot takes about What Their Streak Means. (Not this article, of course. This one is good.)
This treatment exasperates me. These aren’t celebrities; they didn’t sign up for this! They’re normal folks, just trying to earn a little money on their favorite quiz show. It’s not their fault that they kept winning for a few weeks. If they played well, they don’t care whether you think they have a weird laugh or cute glasses or whatever. They’re not here to entertain you.
But there was something beautiful, I think, in the James Holzhauer news cycle. For two months, one of the most irresistible news stories in America was about Jeopardy, a 55-year-old media property. It seemed so wholesome and old-timey, a story that Snapchatting teens and their grandparents were all following at once. It brought back good memories of 2004 for me, but it also reminded me of a time before the cultural landscape balkanized into a thousand niches, before middlebrow America went away, before politics and everything else dumbed down.
For a little while, we just wanted to watch someone blow our minds by knowing stuff.
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