The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who is Ben Sasse? ‘Jeopardy!’ wizard James Holzhauer knows everything but that.

James Holzhauer, a 34-year-old professional sports gambler, also holds the record for the ten highest single-game winnings in the show’s history. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)
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Who is Ben Sasse?

This time, it was the answer — and nobody knew it.

Not Robin Falco, a nonprofit administrator from King of Prussia, Pa. Not Tyler Lee, an international banking project manager from Hollis, N.Y. And, notably, not James Holzhauer, a professional sports gambler from Las Vegas.

None of them could tell the good-natured Canadian man the name of the senator from Nebraska and author of “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal.” Not even if the inquisitor had paid them.

Indeed, he would have.

For this was “Jeopardy!” and there was $2,000 worth of loot on the line. Yet several seconds passed in silent suspense, until, finally, host Alex Trebek informed them, with but a faint trace of concern, that the correct answer was Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.).

Had it been any other crop of contestants, it may have ended there, just another missed piece of trivia in the show’s decades-long history. But this group included Holzhauer, the man who has been called “unstoppable,” “dynamic, “cold-blooded,” “absolutely insane” and “a cyborg” for his record-setting “Jeopardy!” dominance.

James Holzhauer’s total domination of ‘Jeopardy!’ in 3 charts

And even he couldn’t tell Trebek the name of the first-term senator, one of just 100 Americans who serve in that chamber. Brent Scher, a writer for the Washington Free Beacon, pointed this out on Twitter.

“The most impressive champion in @Jeopardy history had no damn clue who Ben Sasse was,” he wrote.

Holzhauer’s knowledge of obscure, niche factoids has allowed him to answer nearly 700 questions correctly and has won him more than a million dollars. He has identified 19th-century novels and 20th-century literary figures, superheroes and stamps. But somehow a sitting U.S. senator wasn’t on his radar.

To be fair, though, a lot of people don’t know about Sasse.

By the senator’s own admission, he’s often able to fly under the radar in public. In a 2017 interview with NPR, Peter Sagal asked Sasse, who sometimes jogs around the National Mall, whether anyone ever recognizes him, Sasse replied with a laugh, “There’s nobody tracking me.”

Even in Iowa, which neighbors Sasse’s home state, registered Republicans didn’t know much about him. In a 2018 Des Moines Register-CNN-Mediacom poll, when asked whether they viewed Sasse favorably, 65 percent of respondents replied “not sure.”

(About a quarter of respondents said they viewed him favorably, while 11 percent had unfavorable views of him.)

But if the question had been about Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Holzhauer — and many other Americans (or, at least, Iowans) — would have probably buzzed in right away. Just 4 percent of respondents in the same Des Moines Register poll said they didn’t know enough about Sanders to form an opinion of him.

James Holzhauer is a menace to ‘Jeopardy!’

The Washington Post contacted Sasse’s office on Wednesday afternoon for comment on the slight. At the time, though, the senator was a little preoccupied questioning Attorney General William P. Barr about a Russian oligarch’s influence over U.S. elections.

However, as the hearing ended, Sasse offered a game show rebuttal: “i’ll take ‘uncomfortable awkward silences’ for a thousand dollars, Alex ... ” he wrote on Twitter.

The missed question joins a scant list of just over 30 others that Holzhauer either got wrong or didn’t know. (New York Magazine has diligently chronicled each one and packaged them into a take-home quiz here.) There, Sasse finds himself in the company of Panic at the Disco, “Pulp Fiction,” lake monsters and the Quakers, among others.

To date, Holzhauer has won 20 consecutive games and has obliterated the single-game earning record. He seems destined to topple “Jeopardy!” savant Ken Jennings’s records for most winnings and most consecutive games won — that is, unless another mysterious Midwestern senator stands in his way.

Read more:

What it’s like to lose to unstoppable ‘Jeopardy!’ champion James Holzhauer

James Holzhauer’s ‘Jeopardy!’ records rival those of sports’ most dominant athletes

Who is Alex Trebek? How a mustache and correct pronunciation created a TV legend.