On April 4, Alex Trebek kicked off "Jeopardy!" with some practical advice for the contestants: "You have to be bright. You have to be fast. And you have to feel comfortable with the categories if you want to succeed." He nodded toward the previous night's winner, Alex Koral, who beamed. "All of those three worked for Alex yesterday. Who will they work for today?" Trebek asked.
The answer, unfortunately for Koral, was the guy to his left: James Holzhauer, the frighteningly talented “Jeopardy!” player who has dominated the past 13 games and racked up $942,738, second only to Ken Jennings. In its 35th season, the dinnertime show is suddenly appointment television as Holzhauer has shattered the idea of a typical “Jeopardy!” strategy. He has broken his record for single-game winnings three times; his highest total is $131,137, which he won last week. Holzhauer plays, as Slate put it, “like a cyborg constructed for the express purpose of winning at this ever-popular game.”
"Unless you have been living under a rock for the past two weeks, you know about our current champion, James," Trebek said Monday evening, as Holzhauer crushed his fellow competitors by tens of thousands of dollars. "Now, it is worth noting that when Ken Jennings had his amazing run of 74 wins in a row, he was averaging $34,000 per victory. James is averaging $71,000 per victory."
As a professional sports gambler from Las Vegas, Holzhauer appears to have absolutely no fear of making huge bets during the Daily Double or Final Jeopardy. He hunts around the board to find the Daily Double before anyone else has a shot. He has developed excellent buzzer strategy, which is a key component. He also goes for the $1,000 or $2,000 clues instead of starting at the beginning of each category, which Jennings (who won $2.5 million in 2004) said is a huge factor in Holzhauer's success.
“That’s honestly one of the smartest things James is doing, going for the high dollar values early,” Jennings told Wired. “Not just because it enables bigger wagers, but because he’s taking money off the board while he’s the most comfortable player, and everybody else is still finding their legs. It’s really, really smart. I’ve never seen it before.”
Holzhauer might be playing with the efficiency of a robot, but he has personality. In an interview with The Washington Post earlier this month, he said he bets specific amounts based on special numbers and dates in his life. For example, he tried to win a total of $110,914 because his daughter’s birthday is 11/09/14 - and it worked.
"Family and friends will always mean more to me than any amount of money or 'Jeopardy!' wins," he explained to The Post. "I wanted to show them my love in an unconventional way."
A trivia ace who is quick with the buzzer - and has the confidence to make massive bets while also giving adorable shout-outs to his family - is a combination that the show has never seen. And Holzhauer shows no sign of slowing down. So, did he break "Jeopardy!"?
In short: Maybe. But no one really knows. (A spokeswoman for “Jeopardy!” said producers do not comment on individual contestants while their episodes are still running.) At the moment he seems unbeatable, but taking high-risk bets could eventually catch up to him. Holzhauer is well aware that it’s still a game, and a lot of luck is involved. “As a gambler, I know you can do everything right and still have to wait a long time to see positive results if luck is not on your side,” he told the Ringer.
The more important question might be: Does it matter if Holzhauer broke the show? After all, we're in an era where television is more fractured than ever. Big TV events are increasingly rare, and it's refreshing to have one topic to discuss around the virtual water cooler of the internet - especially something that you could easily catch up on in one episode, and know what everyone is talking about without being helplessly lost in a tangle of complicated story lines, mythology and drama. (Looking at you, "Game of Thrones" and "The Bachelor.")
As far as the actual show, producers probably aren’t thrilled about one contestant using so much of their budget. Yet as former Game Show Network programmer Bob Boden told the Atlantic, “where records are being set and broken every night, the excitement, I believe, outweighs the lopsided results.” As word of mouth spreads about Holzhauer’s streak, “Jeopardy!” can expect to see a nice ratings bump and, ideally, the ad revenue that goes with it.
Either way, viewers should tune in while they can - not only is this kind of pop culture phenomenon fun to watch, but it's highly unlikely it will happen again.
“Of all the very smart people who appear on the show every night, a tiny fraction are James Holzhauer-level talent,” Jennings said. “His is a strategy that works amazingly well for a tiny, tiny group of people. Right now it seems like it’s a group of one.”