Just picture it: You’ve always dreamed of being on “Jeopardy!” You take the online test. You impress producers at the in-person audition. You beat out thousands of other hopefuls. You travel to Los Angeles. You step onstage under the bright lights of the TV set. You see Alex Trebek. This is your moment to shine.
. . . and then you have to play against James Holzhauer.
This has been the harsh reality for the 32 people in the last three weeks who have faced off against one of the most dominant players in “Jeopardy!” history — someone who may have cracked the code to the legendary game show, to the point where it might never be the same. Holzhauer, a professional gambler from Las Vegas, has racked up an astounding $1.2 million over the last 16 episodes, and is averaging the highest amount per game in the show’s history. Ratings have spiked as viewers tune in to see his aggressive gameplay: a strategy that involves picking the highest-dollar clues first, placing massive bets on the Daily Double and Final Jeopardy questions and, apparently, having a stunning command of nearly every trivia topic in existence.
As Holzhauer casually works his way through the categories, it’s impossible not to wonder about the other two contestants. What are they thinking? Are they amazed? Annoyed? Dejected?
We spoke with some of these unlucky — yet extremely good-humored — souls and have learned that there are five stages of losing to Holzhauer.
1) You quickly realize something is up with this “James” guy.
“Jeopardy!” is generally taped weeks or months ahead of airtime, with producers staging five consecutive games in a single day. So new contestants typically have no idea who the defending champion is until they arrive on set. For some players, it dawned on them what was happening as they observed the taping of the day’s first games, waiting for their own turn to play.
Kevin Bohannon, game 8: The producer said, “So James, tell them how much you won.” He said, “$415,000.” We all went, “WHAT?!” That was shocking. I would describe the mood in the room at the point as almost relief. It was almost comical. Maybe that’s just how I was interpreting it — the inevitability of what we were facing became apparent. But I don’t think we understood how quickly he got that amount of money.
Mike Dindoffer, game 7: [When Holzhauer won $110,914 in his fourth game.] You could hear the audible gasp from the audience. . . it was like the sound of the soul escaping the body.
Satish Chandrasekhar, game 2: I knew he was a pretty strong competitor, but I didn’t know he was at the level he is now. I think it really hit me when I saw him play his first game . . . he just crushed it from start to finish.
Lorelle Anderson, game 10: I knew we had the returning champ and how much money he won, but didn’t know what he was like until I saw that first game. My expectations just adjusted dramatically. I was like, “Okay, I see how it is, alright then!”
Claudia Walters, game 14: They said, “Here’s our returning champion, James, he’s won 12 games so far.” And you’re sitting there nodding and thinking, “Oh wow, that’s cool, maybe he’s going to be a Buzzy Cohen or Austin Rogers.” Then they said, “He has [$851,926].” I pulled out my calculator . . . and kept staring at it: He’s averaging over $70,000 a game. This is nuts! This is something no one has ever seen before. This is a different kind of “Jeopardy!” and you have no idea what you’re up against.
Hannah Pierson-Compeau, game 10: I kept thinking, “Come on, somebody beat him, somebody beat this guy so I can play somebody else!”
2) You acknowledge this might not go well.
Arriving on the “Jeopardy!” set is surreal enough as it is — seeing Alex Trebek in the flesh and all that. Many have described it as a feeling akin to stepping through their TV screen. Holzhauer, though, has clearly had the chance to make himself feel at home, so he’s free to pursue his tactic of pouncing on high-dollar clues while his new competitors are still figuring out the buzzer.
Pierson-Compeau: I was really proud of myself for getting the first Daily Double. . . . [But] as much as I was trying to be optimistic, once he got on a roll, it was just “Ohhh, no.”
Samantha Merwin, game 11: For my game, it feels different watching it back — it didn’t feel as dramatic as it looks. The Double Jeopardy round was when it was like, “This is crazy.”
Matthew Amster-Burton, game 3: One $2,000 clue was about the lead singer of the Pixies. I’m a huge Pixies fan . . . I thought, “I’ve got this.” But then he beat me to the buzzer. You can see me in the side of the frame, throwing up my hands like, “What is going on?!”
3) You accept that, yes, you are going to lose.
The game moves so quickly that some players remain oblivious to the dollar amounts being amassed. It’s not until a break in the action that they notice how much Holzhauer has racked up — and for many, that brought a sense of doom.
Lewis Black, game 6: Any other day, any other opponent, the results might have been different, but you just happen to get there and run headfirst into a buzzsaw.
Amster-Burton: At the end of single “Jeopardy!” I thought maybe I could win. But soon as he got the first Daily Double in Double Jeopardy, he bet a lot, and I was like, “Okay, this is over.”
Alex Koral, game 1: I hoped he would start missing questions . . . and then in the Double Jeopardy round it was sort of like — you see the writing on the wall.
4) You suddenly hear from every person you’ve ever known.
Holzhauer’s run of episodes started filming in February, so he and his competitors had to keep their secret for weeks; for them, it has been amusing to see the rest of the world catch up to the Holzhauer phenomenon. A common thing for contestants to hear: “If it wasn’t for that guy, you could have won!”
Walters: It’s been the strangest thing to become famous for when you lose.
Bohannon: Everyone wants to know about his personality, they want to know, “Is he a robot, does he ever smile?” The truth is, he’s not a robot, he does smile, he’s having fun up there.
Dindoffer: People thinks he comes off robotic. But truthfully, I think he’s trying to play the gambler strategy, not reveal too much and keep moving.
Kevin Donohue, game 14: My dad emailed me, “On an ordinary show, you would have been up there.” Obviously, with James, ordinary no longer applies to “Jeopardy!”
Merwin: A lot of people knew when my air date was and they did the math: “Oh my gosh, are you going to face that guy?!" . . . then a lot of people were like, "You did really well, sorry you had to go up against that!”
Black: People would watch and I would get comments like, “Wait, do you have to go up against that guy?” “Uh — yeah.”
Anderson: My mother said the whole thing was rigged.
5) Even in defeat, you’re proud to be part of “Jeopardy!” history.
Competitors expressed admiration for Holzhauer, an affable guy who made friendly conversation in the greenroom between rounds of steamrolling over everyone on set. And hey, only 400 people make it on the show of the roughly 85,000 people who take the online “Jeopardy!” test. So just being there is a huge accomplishment.
Donohue: James is 100 percent amazing. It has been really fun to see him take all of the best pieces of “Jeopardy!” players and combine them into a master strategy. . . . It’s kind of the best of both worlds: You either take down a machine, or you’re just one more person that loses to a guy who is incredible at this game.
Koral: I did have mixed feelings: From a sour-grapes perspective, I wanted him to lose right away . . . but then I hoped he would be some sort of once-in-a-lifetime monster at the game and people would say, “It took that type of person to beat him."
Amster-Burton: I did not go to “Jeopardy!” expecting to win. It’s an honor to play, and it was a great story to be beaten by the best of the best.
Walters: While it would have been cool to win, it is also very cool to be part of “Jeopardy!” history.
Chandrasekhar: James and I were talking about what great competition we were for each other. I told him I’m rooting for him and hope he goes far — the better he does, the better I look in comparison.
Black: I got to be on “Jeopardy!," shake hands with Alex Trebek and be an extremely minor footnote in the history of the show. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.