A Former Jeopardy Champion Scrutinizes James Holzhauer’s Strategy

“I think he has a good shot at beating Ken Jennings’s overall earnings, but I don’t see him winning anywhere near the 74 consecutive games Jennings won.”

Jeopardy Productions

James Holzhauer Explains the Strategy Behind His Jeopardy Winning Streak

The Jeopardy contestant James Holzhauer has now won 18 consecutive games and earned more than $1.3 million—and he’s outperforming the 2004 Jeopardy legend Ken Jennings in providing correct responses. Last week, Joe Pinsker wrote that three things give the seemingly unstoppable contestant an advantage: a deep knowledge of trivia, the speed of his recall, and a mind for strategy.

As a former five-time Jeopardy champ in Season 1, I am very surprised that no one has adopted Holzhauer’s “maximize your winnings per show” strategy until now. I think a lot of future contestants will probably do so.

Two factors affect your winnings on Jeopardy: your winnings per show, and how many shows you win. If you try to maximize one, you will lower the other. This is because winnings per show is primarily dependent on a Daily Double strategy. If you are the best of the three players, betting big will increase your expected winnings for the episode, because you’ll generally get the answers right; however, it will decrease your chance of winning that game—and allowing you to play more games—because betting big and missing will work in favor of your opponents. If you bet small, you’ll increase your chance of winning the game, but decrease your expected winnings.

When I competed on the show—and for many, many years after—there was an upper limit of five games and/or $75,000 in winnings. The values on the board were half of what they are now. As a result, the best strategy for the superior player—especially if you had a decent lead at the time you hit the Daily Double—was to bet small and maximize the chance to win each game. That’s what I did, and I had five solid wins and  earned almost $55,000 (which would be at least $120,000 today). Betting big would have only increased my winnings somewhat, and I would have had to risk losing a game, which was not worth it.

That’s what just about everyone did for years thereafter, including Ken Jennings in his 74-game streak. But since Jeopardy eliminated the upper limit on winnings and the five-game rule, my strategy may not work anymore. It seems like betting big on Daily Doubles—especially if you like the category—and risking a loss is what will maximize your expected winnings. You’ll likely have a shorter run, but you’ll win a lot more money per show.

Maybe it took a game-theory guy like Holzhauer to figure that out. With this strategy, I think he has a good shot at beating Jennings’s overall earnings, but I don’t see him winning anywhere near the 74 consecutive games Jennings won.

It sure makes Jeopardy more exciting, though. After about 12 or 13 years of never watching the game I appeared on three different times—first a run of five wins, then a Tournament of Champions, and finally the Ultimate Tournament of Champions—I’m watching again.

Michael Day
Tiburon, Calif.