It’s 7:30 p.m., and Johnny Gilbert is announcing tonight’s Jeopardy! contestants. The first two don’t really matter, and I will forget about them the moment the episode ends. Then the camera moves on to the reigning champion, James Holzhauer. James flashes a toothy grin, then feigns surprise, almost embarrassment, as Johnny describes his record-smashing totals—currently $2,254,938 over 29 games. The audience applauds. I swoon. Alex Trebek takes the stage, and the game begins. It is another beautiful night of Jeopardy! with my crush, James Holzhauer.
Many commentators have described the particular joys of watching James play: his bottomless font of knowledge; his precise hunt for the Daily Doubles; his quirky, canny wagers. But it is James’ demeanor that entrances me. Self-possessed and unflappable, he radiates serenity even as he brutally trounces his competition, a kind of soothing confidence that seems to bewitch even Trebek. The other contestants fidget and fret; they mash their buzzers and bite their lips and bobble their heads in frustration. Not James. He is still and assured. He is poised but relaxed. We never see him press the buzzer because he is one with the buzzer. He is in the zone, and it is beautiful to watch, because he is beautiful.
Have you seen the picture of James that the New York Times dug up? The one at his college graduation, where he’s wearing sandals and shorts under his robe? I think about that photo at least twice a day. That is the James Holzhauer I adore. He is goofy underneath the imperturbable demeanor, sweet and silly and delightful. You can tell because he writes his name differently every time. One night the J was a hockey stick hovering over a wee cartoon puck; another night he added inverted exclamation points. ¡James! used to go by Jamie, the Times revealed, which is as adorable as the monochrome sweaters and button-downs he wears almost every episode.
We are back from the commercial break, and Trebek is doing his forced banter thing with the disposable contestants, who have nothing interesting to say. Then he gets to James and starts by lavishing him with praise—say what you will about Trebek, but he enjoys this spree as much as we do. He tosses out a softball, and James reels off a prepared answer without pausing for breath, always the same stilted yet lilting cadences, often ending on a self-deprecating half-joke. The audience loves it. Trebek loves it. I assume that Gilbert, who is 94 years old and clearly in the prime of his life, loves it too. Then it’s back to the game.
As everyone now knows, James starts with the most valuable clues to rack up the cash, a tactic his competitors sometimes ape, but rarely with any success. It only works for James because James knows everything, for reasons that remain cryptic. He has said that he read lots of children’s books to prepare, which seemed somewhat plausible but, upon further scrutiny, a little ridiculous, especially when he reveals he can identify and spell the names of arcane English prime ministers. He’s a professional sports gambler, so he knows a lot about sports, which is somehow not at all irritating. But what about his vast knowledge of trees, flowers, birds, food, geography, physics, chemistry, history, politics, cinema, and (we learned recently) bees? Where did that come from?
Best not to ponder it for too long. James is the Roger Federer of Jeopardy, both flesh and not, an otherworldly creature who possesses talents heretofore unknown to humankind (at least on one game show). He is ethereal, floating through the game with peerless grace. Unlike Federer, he does not remind me of my own clumsy body’s all-too-human limitations, because his mastery of the game manifests as pure intellect—the platonic ideal of a trivia brain at work. That is not to say that James has no physical elegance. Quite the contrary. It is cliché to say a player doesn’t break a sweat, but James literally never sweats, and I am, in fact, not convinced he is capable of sweating. He has probably mastered the ability to regulate his own body temperature.
James is apparently straight, but he’s the kind of straight guy who would appreciate his adoring gay fans, of which he deserves many. He has a wife and a child whom he seems to cherish. He frequently travels with his family because, as he explained in one of those breathless monologues, he wants his daughter to appreciate other cultures. (That was the moment I fell in love with him.) He smiles equably, never smugly, and evinces nothing but warmth toward the other doomed contestants. I am certain that if I met him and babbled something embarrassing, he would make me feel smart and special. He is my TV husband.
There isn’t much tension when James plays Jeopardy. The biggest question each night is whether some evil contestant will steal a Daily Double from James, cruelly and pointlessly lowering his daily winnings. He will nail Final Jeopardy and, when the show is complete, turn to chat politely with his vanquished foes. For half an hour each night, he has calmed my nerves and restored my belief that kindness and intelligence matter in this world. One day, hopefully no time soon, James may finally lose a game. But I will never lose my faith in him.