You can tell that Jeopardy! is a perfectly devised game format when even James Holzhauer can lose at it. Holzhauer’s streak of 32 consecutive victories on the show came to an end on Monday, when he nailed the Final Jeopardy answer (Who is Christopher Marlowe, whom Holzhauer referred to by the nickname Kit because his well of knowledge bores clean through the Earth’s mantle), but needed his challenger, Emma Boettcher, to get it wrong. Boettcher, who told the New York Times that she had no idea who Holzhauer was nor what he had already accomplished going into the taping, did not. She too guessed Marlowe and she wagered a fat $20,201, a sum to make her opponent proud.
Holzhauer ended his run with cumulative winnings of $2.48 million. He came up just shy of Ken Jennings’s all-time non-tourney winnings tally of $2.52 million, and his winning streak couldn’t even reach the halfway point of Jennings’s DiMaggio-esque 74 straight. No matter. He’s the GOAT. He’s the best to ever play Jeopardy!, so much so that his loss remains unfathomable (Alex Trebek was so overcome by last night’s upset that he choked up; my mom believes Holzhauer may have deliberately thrown the game even though the math on the final wager says otherwise), and his formidable presence will continue to loom over the set long after his departure.
I would tell you that Holzhauer versus Jennings sets up as a Bron vs. MJ-style argument that you can dig into when you get bored, but no. Holzhauer’s dominance, while not as long-lived, was far more dominant than Jennings’s. Quality over quantity. He won nearly $77,000 a game. He owns every slot in the top 10 of all-time single-game winnings, plus six more after that. He answered correctly 97 percent of the time, including the final time. He had 11 perfect games where he never missed a question. He won so much fucking money that I openly began to wonder if the show could afford to keep him on (it very much could; to boot, last night’s ratings were the show’s highest in over a decade). His first appearance on the show coincided with Trebek’s cancer announcement, and his ensuing tear lasted so long that Trebek nearly beat that cancer in the interim! I know the show is taped but goddamn!
More important, Holzhauer appeared to have SOLVED Jeopardy! during the course of his run. Not only did he know every goddamn answer, but he knew to go for the big money every time and was rarely, if ever, afraid to do so. His methodology was so canny and precise that, for the first time, I really DID believe a professional sports gambler was who he claimed to be. He owned that board the way you dream about, and he put in a lifetime of background work to do it.
Holzhauer didn’t go about his business with much in the way of flair. His shirts tended to be louder than he was. When Jennings set up camp at his buzzer, he was one of those “I’m funny!” contestants that makes you pine for the charms of a Southwest flight attendant. Ol’ Ken has become a rare welcome presence online since then, but like any other cutesy contestant, he could grate on you over time. Also, he never lost. Holzhauer dabbled in occasional tweeness, like when he deliberately matched his final jackpots to certain numbers, like his kid’s birthday. Otherwise, he was a fucking machine. He was so good that he almost always rendered Final Jeopardy into what Trebek dubs a “runaway,” in which he could not be caught by anyone behind him because he had more than double the next highest contestant’s amount. He had to match wagers to his favorite lottery numbers just to keep shit interesting, both for himself and for you. What’s more, his style will, for better or worse, be duplicated over and over again by his successors.
You can accuse me of being full of shit here, but I don’t think that Jeopardy! contestants are as vulnerable to Recency Bias or Old Man Bias as pro athletes are. Virtually every GOAT argument in sports features an old fogey who believes his childhood represented the peak era of athletic achievement, squabbling with a young squirt who believes he’s LIVING in that era right now. I have no rose-colored glasses for Jennings, even though I watched his run and even though his 74-game streak is still mindboggling. Nor am I all that attached to Holzhauer, who sucked every last drop of suspense out of the bulk of his appearances and who still can’t smile properly. But I’m not an idiot. I saw what I saw. Holzhauer was the GOAT. Ask him after a few beers if he was and he’ll tell you that the averages don’t lie.
And yet, the game, and Emma Boettcher, finally bested him. You can solve Jeopardy!, but only so much. Maybe someone will come along one day and beat Ken Jennings’s game streak, or knock at least one of Holzhauer’s single game records out of the top 10, or maybe win $3 million in pure prize money before Jeopardy! asserts itself once more and shows them the gate. When that happens, we can have this argument all over again, but I’ll stay firm and say James Holzhauer was a force unlike any anyone, Trebek included, has ever seen on that show. He was Trivia Jesus. I’m betting no one will dominate as thoroughly as he did, and that’s not a risky wager.