Brow Beat

James Holzhauer Could Be the Serena Williams of Jeopardy!

He isn’t just winning the game. He’s changing it.

James Holzhauer
James Holzhauer. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo from Jeopardy!.

In his 1984 fever dream “I Lost on Jeopardy,” “Weird Al” Yankovic imagines disgracing his family for generations to come after he’s outsmarted by an architect and a plumber on national television. But not even Weird Al could have conjured up current Jeopardy! champion James Holzhauer, a professional sports gambler from Las Vegas who plays like a cyborg constructed for the express purpose of winning at this ever-popular game.

In his first 11 victories, Holzhauer has broken scores of records and then broken some of his own. He is dismissing his competition with an enviable and breezy dispatch, and with winnings totaling $771,290, he is already one of the most successful contestants on any game show in television history. Holzhauer possesses a particular set of skills that have made him the most successful Jeopardy! champion in years and, though it is still early days, positioned him to take the title of the all-time great.

What about Ken Jennings, you say? Yes, Jennings’ 74-day run as champion set the standard by which all others are judged. But if Holzhauer continues to dominate the game as he has during his first 11 episodes, he will have effectively turned Jennings into Steffi Graf, a generational talent, and crowned himself Serena Williams, a centurial one. (There are a lot of sports analogies in the offing; there’s simply no other way to measure.)

The numbers speak for themselves. Let’s start with power. Holzhauer now holds the top three single-day performance records ($131,137, $110,194, and $106,181). The previous record was Roger Craig’s $77,000, a standard that stood for more than eight years. (Jennings’ personal one-day best was a measly $75,000.) For context, winning $131,137 in one game is the approximate equivalent of scoring eight goals in a World Cup match and then scoring seven in two games soon after. (Russia’s Oleg Salenko scored a record five goals against Cameroon in 1994, a match I happened to attend in person—though honestly, I’d trade that experience at this point to see Holzhauer play.) Currently, Holzhauer is averaging $70,000 in winnings per show. That’s more than double Jennings’ average haul at a similar point in his run.

Then there is accuracy. It’s not just that Holzhauer has a high percentage of correct responses—both Jennings and Holzhauer responded correctly an average of around 35 times per game in each of their first 11 games—but that he rarely rings in wrong. In his first 11 games, Jennings averaged around 2.2 wrong responses per game. Holzhauer is averaging just 1.2. Think of an NBA sharpshooter in the Reggie Miller mold, both prolific and precise.

Finally, there’s his sheer dominance over the competition. The best way to look at it is not his average margin of victory (though Holzhauer clearly owns that record at the moment) but the percentage of games that were numerical locks prior to the Final Jeopardy round (i.e., situations in which he had more than double the score of the contestant in second place, meaning he could bet nothing and still win). Jennings had a lock prior to Final Jeopardy in nine of his first 11 appearances. Holzhauer has had the game put away in 10 of 11. Nor is his competition particularly weak in comparison to Jennings’. Jeopardy! superfans measure players against one another according to a statistic known as the Coryat score, which factors out wagering to gauge their overall knowledge. So far, James appears to have actually drawn tougher opponents than Jennings.

Holzhauer is already the second-highest-earning player in regular season play (tournaments have higher purses). But the question remains whether Jennings’ 74-day winning streak will remain intact. Jennings’ seemingly unbeatable standard is truly akin to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, a mark that no one has come close to since Pete Rose’s 44-game effort in 1978. In the 15 years since Jennings set his record, no player has progressed beyond Julia Collins’ 20-game streak in 2014. In a brief interview, Collins told me that after her first show, the game felt easier, and that fatigue would set in at the end of a long day of taping, but overall fatigue was not a factor. (Winning, it turns out, is enjoyable).

How is Holzhauer doing it? The answer comes down to a combination of knowledge and strategy unseen in 35 seasons of Jeopardy! This is what sets Holzhauer apart from the show’s approximately 14,000 previous contestants. Until now, no player has come close to having Jennings’ memory bank, capable of providing more than 40 correct responses in a single episode, while also having such high command of the game’s strategy. Jeopardy! is not merely a trivia contest decided by who gets the highest number of clues correct. Equally important to ringing in with a correct question (yes, Jeopardy! clues remain answers in search of questions, a gimmick that will live on for as long as the show does) is the ability to work the board. Several notable players have used this to their advantage. Arthur Chu infamously jumped around the board “hunting” for Daily Doubles, a strategy that he says he did not invent (to that he credits Jeopardy! greats Chuck Forrest and Dave Madden). Chu told me he used “Moneyball tactics” because he considered himself a “midlevel talent.” Jennings, he said, never used any particular strategy, because, frankly, he didn’t need to. (Host Alex Trebek previously complained about contestants jumping around the board looking for Daily Doubles, but he seems to have come around to an understanding that this helps dominant players win more money, which is something he likes to encourage.)

Holzhauer hunts for Daily Doubles, but he does so in a way that no previous contestant has. In the first round, he starts with the most valuable clues ($1,000). That way, if he does not hit the Daily Double early, he is accumulating cash fast so that when he does find one, he has more money to wager. However, in Double Jeopardy!, James takes a slightly different approach, starting at the third clue in each category, worth $1,200. (Daily Doubles usually appear in the third, fourth, or fifth row, and the clues become harder the lower on the board and more valuable they are, maxing out at $2,000.) This improves his chance at landing on easier Daily Doubles in the second round, in which the clues are significantly harder. Also, once he has found a Daily Double, he usually abandons the category it appeared in, because two Daily Doubles never occur in the same category (though Holzhauer has not always remembered to do this; no one is perfect!). So far, Holzhauer’s dominance (giving the previous correct response allows you to keep control the board) combined with his strategy has allowed him to find 26 of the 33 possible Daily Doubles in his first 11 shows—79 percent, compared with Jennings, who had only found 64 percent at this point—and yes, his performance on Daily Doubles is also better than Jennings’.

Once Holzhauer lands on the Daily Double, he truly pounces. In the first round, he typically bets the maximum allowed or close to it. In the Double Jeopardy round, he still bets huge but does not as frequently go, as he puts it, “all in.” Only a few players in Jeopardy! history have understood the importance of this approach in order to maximize upside (Alex Jacob, himself also a onetime professional gambler, had this strategic aspect beautifully worked out, but he ultimately lacked the sheer knowledge to make a Jennings-like run).

Then there’s personality. Jeopardy! has always had “characters.” To be a great player, numbers aren’t enough. Eddie Timanus wowed us by being the only blind player to win (and win big) on the show. Austin Rogers mimed his way into our hearts in 2017. Larissa Kelly carried a certain dignity in her dominance that has earned her the respect of fans. Brad Rutter is a self-aware freak of nature who has never lost to a human (IBM’s Watson beat him). It may yet be early in King James’ reign, but he’s got an enigmatic smile (reminiscent, at times, of Matt Jackson’s occasionally creepy but ultimately irresistible vibe), his propensity to calibrate wagers according to the birthdays of his family and friends is actually kind of sweet, and in his brief interviews with Alex Trebek, he has shown himself to be both humble and self-effacing.

Isn’t Jeopardy! just a game? Well, yes and no. Jeopardy! has become such a constant that it pervades everyday life in ways we may not always realize. Stadiums play the Jeopardy! theme when baseball managers take too long talking to a pitcher on the mound, for crying out loud. Jeopardy! has figured centrally in the plots of movies and television sitcoms. But it’s more than just that.

Consider Wheel of Fortune. The show that brands itself as “America’s game,” and perhaps that is fitting because, in essence, it is an awkward marriage of hangman and roulette. But in this wretched post-fact world, Jeopardy! remains a public bastion of erudition, where knowledge is king and Alex Trebek its humble servant. On Jeopardy! at least, truth remains a concept that can still be agreed upon. If Wheel is what America is, Jeopardy! is what America, at its best, once imagined itself to be: an open competition, fierce but dignified, where knowledge, problem-solving, speed, and calculated risks are rewarded in proportion commensurate to the skill of the players.

James Holzhauer may be setting a new standard for the game of Jeopardy! And that leaves the producers and writers of the show with a choice, as Alex Trebek’s long run as host draws to a close (regardless of the fact that he is being treated for stage 4 pancreatic cancer, his contract runs out in 2022 and the show has already begun to consider possible replacements). The game will continue, and it will evolve. But the central question has always been how difficult the game should be. Easier clues make viewers feel better about themselves. But tougher ones favor dominant players, leading to longer winning streaks. (It’s easier for Tiger Woods to differentiate himself from good amateurs on challenging courses; that’s the final sports analogy, I promise.) Over the years, Jeopardy! has leaned toward slightly easier content (though not easy enough for me to get on the show, despite crushing the online quiz twice). But Holzhauer is bringing in some of the highest ratings the show has enjoyed in years. And maybe this is telling. Perhaps we’re ready, as a nation, to redirect some of the attention we currently shower on influencers and instead focus it where it more rightly belongs: on knowers.