- James Holzhauer, the current reigning “Jeopardy!” champion, has been dethroned after a 32-day winning streak.
- The Las Vegas resident and professional sports gambler took home more than $US2.4 million before being dethroned tonight by a Chicago librarian named Emma Boettcher.
- Holzhauer’s impressive daily totals were the result of how he played the game – he knew exactly when to hit the buzzer, how much to bet on Daily Doubles, and which clues to knock off the board first.
- Other famous “Jeopardy!” champions have used similar strategies to increase their earnings.
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Making it onto the show “Jeopardy!” is challenging enough. But winning once you’re in the studio is even more difficult.
Unless you know how to play the odds.
“Jeopardy!” champion, James Holzhauer, went on a 32-day winning streak before his reign came to an end tonight.
The 34-year-old sports gambler from Las Vegas broke the “Jeopardy!” record for earning the highest one-day total ever – $US131,127 – on April 17.
He gave the infamous Ken Jennings a run for his money. However, Chicago librarian Emma Boettcher brought Holzahauer’s impressive streak to halt tonight, stopping the former champion just $US58,484 shy of Jennings’s 74-day total of $US2,520,700 in 2004.
“What a game!” Alex Trebek said after tonight’s episode ended.
All told, Holzhauer took home nearly $US2.5 million. And his impressive daily totals were no accident. Although his trivia knowledge certainly contributed to his success, Holzhauer’s 32-day total of $US2,464,216 had more to do with how he played the game than the answers he got right or wrong.
Holzhauer’s “Jeopardy!” strategy
Holzhauer made sure to hit the show’s iconic buzzer at just the right time, as The Ringer has described. Holzhauer grilled “Jeopardy!” producer Maggie Speak about the specifics of the buzzer timing, trying to pinpoint precisely when the “Jeopardy!” staff activates the switch that enables contestants to ring in after host Alex Trebek finishes reading a clue.
This timing is crucial because if a contestant hits the buzzer just a hair too soon, he or she gets locked out for about a quarter of a second, which tends to be enough for a competitor to get a buzz in edgewise, according to The Ringer.
What’s more, Holzhauer went for the high-value clues first. He tended to answer these correctly, aggregating a lot of money very quickly in the game. Then when he came across a Daily Double, he bet big, often doubling his total.
Even with these tricks, however, there’s no question that Holzhauer’s foundation of superior trivia knowledge helped him win again and again. On April 17, when he broke his own one-day winnings record, Holzhauer played a perfect game. In “Jeopardy!” terms, that means he was correctly responded to every one of the 41 questions he buzzed-in to answer.
He has even said that a big part of his preparations involved reading children’s books.
Despite his defeat, Holzhauer now holds the top 10 slots in the “Jeopardy!” rankings of single-day winnings; he has obliterated the $US77,000 record set by Roger Craig in 2010. He sits in second place for longest winning streak and all-time regular-season earnings behind Ken Jennings.
What’s more, according to the New York Times, Holzahauer won an average of $US77,000 per game, more than double Jennings’s rate. And whenever he buzzed in, he got it right 97% of time. For eleven of his 33 games, he answered every single question he buzzed in for correctly.
Middway through Holzahuer’s run on April 17, Jennings gave the then-champ some kudos. “This is absolutely insane. I’ve always wanted to see someone try ‘Jeopardy!’ wagering this way who had the skills to back it up,” Jennings tweeted.
Slate went so far as to say Holzhauer could be the Serena Williams of “Jeopardy!”.
Using game theory to bet on Final Jeopardy
Holzhauer isn’t the only famous “Jeopardy!” champion who’s gamed the game. Arthur Chu, a 35-year-old columnist from Albany, New York, had an impressive 11-day winning streak in 2014. (Though Chu had only netted a comparatively meager $US298,200 when he was dethroned.)
Chu’s goal wasn’t to win the most money per day. Rather, he used game theory to give himself the highest probability of being able to return to the show the next day and play again.
He achieved this by modulating the way he placed his Final Jeopardy bets. Instead of betting to win, Chu purposefully wagered an amount that would result in a tie if both he and his trailing competitor correctly guessed the Final Jeopardy clue.
Leading contestants often bet $US1 more than the tying wager. But in the event that they get the clue wrong and their opponents get it right, sometimes that means losing the game by just $US1.
There were a few instances in which Chu wagered to tie when he didn’t have to, and both he and his competitor moved on to the next day of play. To Chu, that’s better than risking a loss.
He said he nicked this strategy from Keith Williams, a former “Jeopardy!” champion who now runs “The Final Wager” blog.
The hunt for Daily Doubles
Chu was also good at scouring the board for Daily Doubles. He consistently selected higher-value clues from the bottom of the board, bouncing from category to category to do so. In the Jeopardy annals, this is known as “The Forrest Bounce,” after former champion Chuck Forrest who utilised the technique.
Bouncing from category to category has the added benefit of throwing off opponents who may have hit their stride in a single category.
When Chu came across a Daily Double in a category he knew nothing about – “The Sports Hall of Fame” for instance – he bet small. Pitifully small.
That way, even though Chu answered a sports question incorrectly, he only lost $US5 and was still able to prevent his competitors (who might have more sports know-how) from getting the opportunity to bet big with the correct answer.
Holzhauer employed the same strategy of hunting for Daily Doubles and bouncing around between categories.
Though he was a less polarising figure than Chu – many “Jeopardy!” fans took umbrage with Chu’s seemingly blasé playing style – some worried that Holzhauer’s record-breaking earnings would wreak havoc on the game show’s finances.
But after tonight, those worries are – for now – moot, as Holzhauer has palmed the buzzer for the last time. The New York Times reported that Holzhauer – after high-fiving Boettcher following her win – said in an interview that he didn’t feel too bad about it.
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