Brow Beat

James Holzhauer Has Changed Jeopardy! for Good

Ken Jennings’ 74-game streak seemed unbeatable. Now it’s only a matter of time.

James Holzhauer in front of a Jeopardy! board.
James Holzhauer proved the records are beatable.
Photo illustration by Slate. Screen grabs from Jeopardy!

“Down goes Frazier!”

“Do you believe in miracles?”

You can now add “What a game! Oh my gosh!” to that list of famous upset calls.

That’s how Alex Trebek reacted on Monday’s historic episode of Jeopardy! After a 32-day winning streak, Jeopardy! champion James Holzhauer has finally been defeated. During his run, the second longest in the show’s 35-year history, he has captivated audiences. His fund of knowledge: prodigious. His Daily Double wagers: immense and touchingly personal, choosing birth dates, anniversaries, and references to #VegasStrong. He racked up the top 11 single-day scores ever. His average winning score of $76,944 was not only more than double that of any players’ prior average—including those notched by Ken Jennings, whose longevity Holzhauer ultimately could not match—it is a mere $64 shy of the previous single-day record. OK, we get it. This guy can play Jeopardy!

Enter Emma Boettcher, the librarian dragon slayer who took Holzhauer down. Boettcher follows in the footsteps of lumberjacks Nancy Zerg, Brian Loughnane, and Victoria Groce, who felled Ken Jennings (74 wins), Julia Collins (20 wins), and Dave Madden (19 wins), respectively. But their triumphs turned out to be short-lived. Each of those giant killers turned out to be flash-in-the-pan champions, winning a grand total of zero games after their triumphant upset wins over these august Jeopardy! legends.

“It’s no coincidence,” Ken Jennings told me Monday. “The reason why the ‘giant killers’ always lose their second game is that everything seems anticlimactic after that big, unexpected win. And, maybe even more importantly, there’s a whirlwind of distracting activity on set after the epochal loss.” Usually, five matches are filmed back to back in approximately real time. But in rare cases, an epic upset for example, the usual flow can be interrupted, which can prove distracting. “On the day I lost, Nancy Zerg got whisked away to do a bunch of promotional material during an early lunch, and then had to go back on set and try to play the game again,” Jennings added, in her defense.

Whether Boettcher can overcome these challenges remains to be seen. However, there is reason for optimism; we know that Emma Boettcher is not a casual Jeopardy! viewer. Her master’s thesis literally focused on whether a computer could text-mine Jeopardy! clues in an effort to predict their difficulty (apparently not that well, but three cheers for trying). Anyone who has put that much thought into this game prior to playing it stands a better chance than your average trivia buff.

Nor is this the last we will hear from Holzhauer, as he is the heavy favorite to win the 2019 Tournament of Champions, the annual postseason playoffs of Jeopardy!, to be held this fall.
Remarkably, and unlike any player in Jeopardy! history, even winning the Tournament of Champions would be an effective pay cut for Holzhauer. During his run, his average daily win was a shade under $77,000. With a purse of $250,000 for the four-game tournament, the payout would average out to a mere $62,500. (Technically, the $250,000 is a minimum guarantee, but winners keep only the amount from the two-game final, and even Holzhauer’s record top two wins would put him only just over $260,000.)

Asked whether Jeopardy! might raise the stakes of the tournament in response to his extraordinary daily averages, Holzhauer told me back in May (20 games into his run) via email, “I suspect Jeopardy! does not feel the need to double the guaranteed prize to get eyes on that tournament.”

Perhaps more enticing, though, is the thought of a Jennings versus Holzhauer showdown. Both players have indicated that they might be game, but Jeopardy! has always been conceived as a three-player contest. The most likely third challenger would be Brad Rutter, who, despite his 2000 winning streak being capped at five (a rule that was later eliminated), has won the most money of any contestant in the show’s history thanks to a string of special tournaments over the past 19 years. But the player with the best chance of beating Holzhauer is IBM’s Watson, a supercomputer that defeated both Jennings and Rutter in an infamous two-game match (but which, disappointingly, has been unable to cure cancer in its post-Jeopardy! life).

And so we turn to the future. Will there be another? How long will Jennings’ record stand? While Holzhauer seemed uniquely equipped to break all of the records, I predict that his style will embolden future players and make Jennings’ streak no longer untouchable. Sometimes this happens in competition. Gunder Hägg’s 4:01 world record for the mile stood for almost a decade before Roger Bannister’s breakthrough “miracle mile” of 3:59 in 1954. In the following four years, three different runners bettered the mark. And while Holzhauer’s daily scores have been gargantuan, he actually did leave some money on the table, often wagering $9,812 (his wedding date) on Daily Doubles late in the game when he actually could have afforded to wager far more and still be guaranteed a victory.* In short, the records are beatable. But it will take a rare blend of skill and the correct frame of mind.

So, what should we look for in a player capable of conquering both Jennings’ and Holzhauer’s records? First, someone who works in data and logic-driven fields. Holzhauer is a professional sports gambler. Ken Jennings was a software engineer. Julia Collins was a supply-chain engineer. While Trebek has said that lawyers and teachers do well on the show, the top-shelf champions have come from analytic backgrounds. Second, we should look for someone around Holzhauer’s age, which is 35. Jennings has said that he no longer has the same brain he did during his 2004 run, but being too young can also be a disadvantage. “There’s a sweet spot where someone is old enough to have lived through a few decades of culture, but young enough that their recall and reflexes are still nice and fast,” Jennings said. “And they keep up with pop music. It’s probably around 30 for most people.”

If we’ve learned anything from Holzhauer’s appearances, it’s that in order to win big on Jeopardy! today and in the future, a player will have to commit to just not caring if they lose. During his streak, many players already started to adjust their style of play, favoring a more aggressive game and bigger, riskier wagers. In the pre-Holzhauer era, the brightest contestants often played to not lose. Moving forward, I predict that, after 35 years of Jeopardy!, the very best contestants will finally start playing to win.

Correction, June 3, 2019: This piece originally misstated the true significance of Holzhauer’s Daily Doubles wager. The $9,812 amount he bets is meant to represent his wedding date, not his wedding anniversary.