Ken Jennings is a 74-time “Jeopardy!” champion and the author, most recently, of “Planet Funny: How Comedy Took Over Our Culture.”
When James Holzhauer returns to “Jeopardy!” Monday night after a two-week hiatus, he will already be the second-longest-running contestant in the venerable quiz show’s history. During his 22-game winning streak, he has amassed almost $1.7 million, getting within spitting distance of the $2.5 million all-time cash record. All right, fine, if you insist: my all-time cash record.
It’s impossible to overstate what a statistical outlier Holzhauer has been during his “Jeopardy!” rampage — even for a fellow “Jeopardy!” outlier like me. Let me put it this way: When I set the one-day “Jeopardy!” earnings record back in 2004, my total that night was $75,000. Over his first 22 games on the show, Holzhauer is averaging $76,864 per game. Nice work, if you can get it.
We are seeing history made in front of our eyes, the “Jeopardy!” equivalent of a basketball player notching 70-point games for an entire season or a baseball player hitting for the cycle in every game. Even casual fans of the show have probably heard by now how Holzhauer is doing it: He’s a sports bettor who feels supremely comfortable wagering aggressively, and he cannily plays the game board from the bottom up, starting with the highest dollar values and amassing cash before the Daily Doubles have been found and while his poor opponents are still finding their feet.
But I count my blessings that I own at least one “Jeopardy!” distinction that Holzhauer can’t touch: I appeared on the show before the dawn of social media. Holzhauer has been met every night by a barrage of hot takes about his streak: He’s “broken the game.” He’s “ruined the show.” He’s “unfair” to his competitors, or “boring” to watch. This very op-ed page has called him a “menace to ‘Jeopardy!,’” evoking mental images of angry newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson from the Spider-Man movies. “Bring me pictures of James Holzhauer!”
Yet Holzhauer’s play is blissfully unaffected by the online furor — because everyone is kibitzing about shows that actually taped months ago. I’m no Alex Trebek, but maybe I still have a little moral authority with “Jeopardy!” viewers. If so, please take it from me: The game will be fine.
It’s not true, as some have implied, that “Jeopardy!” has long been a genteel scholar’s game of knowledge that this brash Vegas arriviste has soiled with his unseemly cash grab. Winning on “Jeopardy!” has always been about out-earning your opponents, and the game pivots on four clues every game that allow players to risk their money: three Daily Doubles and one Final Jeopardy. That element of risk is called out in the name of the show, for crying out loud. I think players know this is on paper, but when the moment of truth arrives, making big wagers is just out of their comfort zone.
That’s what we should appreciate about Holzhauer: the insane confidence of even trying to play “Jeopardy!” according to an untested personal strategy. Every contestant who gets on “Jeopardy!” has watched the show for hundreds or thousands of hours. We’ve internalized its rhythms. But when it all rises up and surrounds you, “Jeopardy!” is an overwhelming and stressful experience. You’ve got the lights, the crowd, the stern Canadian host — but most of all the realization that this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. As soon as you lose a game, the dream is over.
In that kind of crucible, it’s no wonder that just about everyone plays “Jeopardy!” the low-impact way they play from their couches at home. Imagine the kind of moxie it takes to tell yourself, “Actually, I have a theory. Everyone else has been playing ‘Jeopardy!’ wrong for decades. Today, the first time in my life I pick up that buzzer, I’m going to try something different.” Just taking that chance is what I admire most about Holzhauer.
But his strategy requires a player of his extraordinary knowledge and accuracy. Holzhauer’s question-answering (answer-questioning?) stats are remarkable, and as good as those of anyone who has ever picked up a buzzer. If you’re a oncein-a-generation talent, playing “Jeopardy!” the James Holzhauer way works. For less elite players, it might backfire. But either way, a version of “Jeopardy!” where more contestants feel that they need to wager big to win is going to produce a more exciting game.
I’m the only person alive who knows firsthand how difficult it is to do what Holzhauer is doing, and that’s why I’m rooting him on. I may hold a bunch of “Jeopardy!” records, but at heart I’m just a fan of the show. And for any real “Jeopardy!” fan, this streak is something special.