Like most people who are extremely cool, I'm a huge Jeopardy! fan and have been in awe of the recent dominant run by James Holzhauer. The 34-year-old professional sports gambler has piled up $1.7 million in just 22 games, through a combination of remarkable knowledge, fast buzzing, and lucrative betting.
He's averaging more than $76,000 per game. To give an idea of how impressive that is, when current winnings record-holder Ken Jennings set the one-day record in 2004, he won just over $75,000. Like former champ Arthur Chu, Holzhauer doesn't select dollar amount answers in neat rows, but rather he aggressively searches for "Daily Doubles" in order to maximize his chances. He's smart and ruthless. He's great to watch.
That is unless you're getting crushed by him on national television, as one salty runner-up named Robin Falco told CNN on Monday.
"He turned it into his job," Falco said. "He took a year off from his job — that’s what he told me — to just focus on and perfect this. This is a game! This is a fun experience! And when it comes to dealing with him, it was not."
CNN’s John Berman asked Falco to elaborate on Holzhauer’s not making the game fun.
"I made no secret of the fact that James and I did not get on backstage," she said. "I did not feel he was respectful to me. He wasn’t respectful to a lot of the other people, to the staff, I felt. And he doesn’t have the respect for the game. It wasn’t what we were expecting. It’s not what we prepared for."
I have to pause here. What did you prepare for? This is a simple game. You know the answer, you buzz in, you say it in the form of a question, you get money. You didn't study up beforehand? You don't have an impressive breadth of knowledge? You're probably going to lose. And if you're not willing to take some chances when the opportunity arises, you're probably going to lose.
In their game that aired on April 26, Holzhauer had $29,600 going in to Final Jeopardy, and Falco was second with $4,600. And that was one of his lower totals during his sizzling streak; Holzhauer astonishingly didn't get a single "Daily Double" in that game, despite answering far more questions correctly than his opponents. He still thoroughly dominated them because he was faster and had a superior intellect.
But I noted something key when I watched the episode: When Falco got her "Daily Double" she had $5,600 and was trailing badly late in the game, so she had a chance to double her money and get close to the 50-percent range of Holzhauer's score (in other words, not a runaway game where the person in first place can't be caught in Final Jeopardy ). Yet she wagered a mere $1,000, meaning she wasn't even going for the win, which is the only way to play the game. Second place gets $2,000 and third place gets $1,000, no matter how much money you bank, so there was no benefit in being cautious at that point.
Holzhauer plays fearlessly, and Falco, along with former contestants Alix Basden and Adam Levin, speculated on CNN if he's ever going to be tripped up, it will be because he gets too cocky on a "Daily Double" and loses a huge amount of money. I'll add the suggestion that he could get beaten if someone smarter and faster shows up on the program.
In the end, Holzhauer has to know his stuff when he buzzes in and makes his massive bets. He does. Good for him.
Jennings, the man Holzhauer has a chance of passing for the most winnings in show history, wrote a Washington Post op-ed praising Holzhauer's approach and defending him from social media "hot takes" saying he's breaking the game:
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.
Amen, Ken. At least champions respect other champions.