When I was a kid, I hated my teeth, which never looked right, even after I’d worn braces for a couple of years. They weren’t horrendous little niblets of plaque and calcium, but they weren’t straight and attractive, at least to me. To compensate, when I smiled, I kept my lips closed. I still do. It’s very unlikely you’ll ever see me — in person or in a photograph — with a big, toothy grin.
I think of that every time I see James Holzhauer on “Jeopardy!” If I were a gambling man (and it turns out I am), I’d wager that at some point in his boyhood, he had similar issues with his teeth, only baring them when his parents nagged him (e.g. for a family photograph). Somewhere along the line, I’m guessing he got them fixed because he now has a mouthful of straight, pearly whites. Still, in his personal life — when a TV camera isn’t pointed at him — he’s probably a closed-lip smiler like me.
At this point, you may be asking if that’s really my only observation about Holzhauer, to which the answer is no.
Regular readers of this site know I’ve been a fan of “Jeopardy!” for a very long time, all the way back to 1967, when my mother made a four-day run on the original series (with Art Fleming as host and Don Pardo as announcer). I recapped that experience here, along with other observations about the show, which my wife and I still record and watch daily.
I’ve read several pieces that claim that, in his 22-day run with nearly $1.7 million in winnings, Holzhauer has “broken” the game. Nothing could be further from the truth. He’s merely the latest to find a way to exploit the “Jeopardy!” board to his advantage. Others had already become famous for hunting around to find the Daily Doubles, quickly switching from one category to another to throw off their opponents’ rhythm.
But Holzhauer recognizes that it was best to amass a bunch of money before finding Daily Doubles, so rather than start at the top of the board with the least-valuable clues, he starts at the the bottom with the most-valuable. Then, once he finds a Daily Double in the first round, he’s willing to risk it all — or, in Double Jeopardy, put a substantial portion of his stack at risk. Too often, players are overly conservative in their wagering, too afraid of the downside risk. The Holzhauer difference is he knows that if he responds correctly, he’ll have a big lead, but if he gets it wrong, he still has plenty of time and opportunities to get it back.
The piece of the Holzhauer puzzle that isn’t discussed enough is his buzzer skills. If answering correctly is the most important thing a “Jeopardy!” contestant must do, then buzzing in at exactly the right time is a close second. As for his opponents, they’re not dummies or people chosen at random from the studio audience — they are mostly very smart people who’ve earned their way onto that stage. According to former contestant Robin Falco:
83,000 people took the 50-question online test last year. About 4,000 were invited to one of the in-person auditions (another test, an interview/screen test, & a practice game). Only 350-400 people are selected to be on the show each season.
The problems they run into when they play against Holzhauer are: he’s been there often enough to have mastered the timing; he knows an enormous amount of trivia; and he rarely buzzes in when he doesn’t know the answer (although he often deciphers the clues well enough to make educated guesses).
Holzhauer is also good at simple arithmetic, knowing just the right amount to bet when he has a big lead to ensure that if he’s wrong on Final Jeopardy, he’ll still have enough to win the game. I’m consistently surprised by people who are amazed when a returning champion wins by a dollar or two — or eighteen, as Holzhauer did early last week in beating a tough opponent named Adam Levin.
Before Final Jeopardy, Levin had $27,000 while Holzhauer had $33,517. The latter knew the former had to bet it all, giving him a maximum score of $54,000, so Holzhauer had to bet just enough to cover that. He did, wagering $20,500. He could just have easily bet $25,000 or $30,000 and won by even more, but the point is to ensure you come back for the next game, which is exactly what he did.
Incidentally, Levin now holds the record for the highest score by a second-place finisher on “Jeopardy!” — but he didn’t get to keep it. Regardless of your final score, you only keep the cash when you win. Otherwise, you get $2,000 for second place and $1,000 for third place (even if you end up with zero).
Success like Holzhauer’s always breeds criticism, some born of jealousy, some by ego, some by ignorance. He’s been called a robot, a machine, and inhuman — not just on social media, but by professionals paid to write about pop culture. I don’t know Holzhauer, but I don’t see him as any of those things, and the reports from the other contestants he’s faced say he’s a very nice guy who treats everyone politely backstage. Even on the air, I’ve yet to hear him make a disparaging or boastful comment about anyone’s play, including his own.
Other critics say Holzhauer’s repeated success has made the game boring because he’s taken the drama out of “Jeopardy!” That’s never been a factor in our house. My wife and I play along as we watch, trying to recall information quickly enough to come up with the answers before the players do. Thus, we’re always challenged, never bored. As a viewer, I’m happy to see a player who’s so good at the game I love, whether they’re champion for a day or last 74 days, as Ken Jennings did 15 years ago.
Still, some questions remain:
- While Holzhauer is likely to surpass Jennings’ regular-season “Jeopardy!” earnings record of $2.5 million, can he hold the throne 53 more times to become the contestant with the longest streak of consecutive games?
- Will Alex Trebek — who just won another Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Game Show Host — be able to fend off his stage four pancreatic cancer long enough to see Holzhauer’s run all the way to the end?
- Will we eventually see a Holzhauer vs. Jennings vs. Watson special in primetime?
- As a professional sports gambler, did Holzhauer blow any of his winnings by betting on the disqualified horse, Maximum Security, at the Kentucky Derby?
We won’t get any more clues until May 20th, after “Jeopardy!” runs its annual two-week Teachers Tournament. Meanwhile, the producers of the show may not be thrilled as Holzhauer depletes the prize budget by an average of $80,000 per game but, believe me, they are loving the attention, ratings, and higher ad prices. Not bad for a TV show that has been on the air for 35 years in its current incarnation.
Like them, I hope Holzhauer keeps racking up big scores and smiling — with or without showing his teeth.