We are witnessing what very well could be one of the greatest runs in sports history. It’s not Tiger’s incredible comeback to win his 5th green jacket at the Masters, and it’s not the Warriors who could become one of the six teams to ever 3-peat in the NBA. The greatest to ever play his sport has been on a 22 day win streak with no signs of stopping. His name is James Holzhauer, and he’s on “Jeopardy!”
James Holzhauer, a professional sports bettor from Las Vegas, just may have solved “Jeopardy!” In Holzhauer’s unprecedented run he became the second ever contestant to win 1 million dollars on the program, in a record 14 days. He is on pace to beat Ken Jennings’ record 2.5 million won on the show in 40 fewer days.
Is Holzhauer the “Jeopardy!” GOAT? Is “Jeopardy!” really a sport? Some of the secrets to his success are also proof that the game show should be considered a sport like any other.
Before Holzhauer started his run on the show the biggest single day total was $77,000. Holzhauer has averaged roughly $76,000 in winnings per episode in his 22 day run. Holzhauer now holds the record for all 10 of the top 10 biggest single day totals, in his biggest winning day (so far) Holzhauer took home a whopping $131,127 on April 17th, 2019.
“Jeopardy!” should be considered a sport like any other. It’s a combination of bullet-chess, twitch reaction times, and poker. For multi-day winners, it also takes the endurance of playing back-to-back games in the NBA. The show tapes about 5 episodes per day on average, multi-game winners are on their feet for long hours every day in the high stress situation of each 24 minute episode. And each game you win means you’re more tired for the next one, but you’re opponents are fresh faced every time. This makes it hard to maintain a long winning streak, especially towards the end of a week’s worth of taping. Former champion Arthur Chu, in an interview with fivethirtyeight said on why he couldn’t maintain his 11 day streak, “It was fatigue. One of my opponents said I looked punch-drunk… You could definitely tell I was making dumb mistakes.”
When majority of contestants that make it onto the show all know the answers to majority of the questions (Or rather, the questions to majority of the answers) the contestant that’s dominant with the buzzer has a significant edge over the other two competitors. Contestants are able to buzz in the moment host Alex Trebek finishes reading a clue; ring in too quickly and you’re locked out for half of a second, but ring in too slow and someone else will buzz in first. Holzhauer credits former champion Fritz Holznagel, who literally wrote the book on perfecting buzzer accuracy “Secrets of the Buzzer”, for his buzzing domination. Holzhauer even created a makeshift buzzer by covering a mechanical pencil with tape to practice from home.
In an interview with The Ringer Holzhauer said, “I would save several episodes to watch back-to-back on my DVR, and when I had an hour free from work and parenting, I’d put on dress shoes to simulate standing that way during the tape day.”
The second key to Holzhauer’s success has been his prolific findings of Daily Doubles. There are three total Daily Doubles in any game of “Jeopardy!” one in the first round and two in the second. If you’re the player that finds a Daily Double clue you can wager any amount of your winnings on the clue, answer correctly you win whatever amount wagered, answer wrong and you lose the amount wagered.
Daily Doubles are the most powerful tools in the game of “Jeopardy!” as the highest dollar amount in a normal clue is $2000, Daily Doubles allow players to take significant leads by betting big and getting the answer right. Holzhauer finds these Daily Doubles not by going top to bottom in each category, but rather by skipping around the board based on which spots have the highest probability of being Daily Doubles. In his 22 games thus far Holzhauer has uncovered 78% of Daily Doubles, answering 90% of them correctly (These figures courtesy of J! Archive — essentially the baseball-reference of “Jeopardy!”)
This strategy was first used by former champion Arthur Chu, who hopped around the board searching for daily doubles to an 11 day win streak. This new game theory and analytic approach to the show left many viewers unhappy the same way watching teams attempt 40 three point shots a game makes some basketball fans weary of the sport’s future, perhaps this is the cost of ‘solving’ these sports with analytics.
The final, and most talked about of his winning strategies, has been Holzhauer’s wagers. Holzhauer has taking his professional gambler attitude to the game of “Jeopardy!” The average wager on Daily Doubles since 2001 (When J! Archive first began it’s “Jeopardy!” stats tracking) was $2,500, Holzhauer’s average wager on Daily Doubles has been $9,900 thus far. Before his appearance on the show the largest wager for any Daily Double was $19,000 – Holzhauer has bet $20,000 or more three times now, and he’s answered them correctly every time.
These big bets are what sets him apart from any of the greats of the game before him. While he has forbearers when it comes to hopping around the board looking for Daily Doubles, Holzhauer has single handedly reinvented the wheel when it comes to “Jeopardy!” wagers. Many times when a player has a runaway game going into Final Jeopardy (where the second place player still cannot win even if they double their current winnings) the player in the lead will bet a few thousand dollars or nothing at all, but Holzhauer never lets his foot off the gas and will routinely bet upwards of $10,000 on Final Jeopardy.
His large wagers is the reason why he’s on track to beat Ken Jennings’ 2.5 million in almost half as many days. While Jennings apparently isn’t concerned yet about his streak being beaten, a comparison on TheJeopardyFan.com says that Holzhauer has outperformed Jennings in his first 22 games, noting that “Holzhauer has less than half of the incorrect responses that Jennings did at this same point.” His win streak has brought the show ratings success according to The Hollywood Reporter, “Jeopardy!” had a 14 year peak in ratings the week of April 29, averaging 13.28 million daily viewers. That week’s episode of “Game of Thrones” averaged 11.8 million viewers. Those that were concerned Holzhauer’s consistently large winnings would hurt the show financially need not worry.
“I think he’s the greatest whether he beats Ken Jennings’ streak or not.” Said Michael Vaughn, Jeopardy fan who has an interview to be on the show this summer. “He came at the game from the perspective of a gambler, which not a lot of people have, I think… you do have to worry though with his giant bets, it only takes one big bet to go wrong and that could be the end of it.”
Others, like my mother and longtime “Jeopardy!” fan Terri Verrette, aren’t so pleased with Holzhauer’s winning streak “I don’t like people who skip around [the game board] I can never remember what the category is when it’s a different one every question.” Terri Verrette said. “And when you already won you shouldn’t bet so big in Final Jeopardy it’s not nice to the other players to rub it in like that.”
Holzhauer has been on a two and a half week break from the show, while it airs its yearly Teacher’s Tournament. James Holzhauer returns to “Jeopardy!” to continue his 22 game winning streak May 20th.