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What It's Like To Get Crushed By Jeopardy! God James Holzhauer

Illustration: Elena Scotti (G/O Media), Photo: Jeopardy

James Holzhauer is one of the finest Jeopardy! contestants the world has ever seen. Through his 22 games as reigning champion, he has won $1.69 million, averaging $76,864 in winnings per episode. He appears to be a real threat to break Ken Jennings’s record of 74 straight wins, which was set in 2004 and earned Jennings $2.5 million.

Holzhauer may be a source of awe or inspiration for fans watching at home, but for those unfortunate enough to have to play against him, he represents something else. To them, he’s a cruel twist of fate—a trick the devil has pulled in exchange for making their dream come true. Instead of getting a chance to test their smarts and skills in front of Alex Trebek, a studio audience in Culver City, California, and millions of television viewers, they end up having to battle against an unstoppable force. Holzhauer is Gretzky. He’s Secretariat. He’s prime Mike Tyson with a signaling device and a smirk.

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“I had been stressing a lot about how I would do and if I would win, and suddenly the choice was taken away from me,” said Lorelle Anderson, clobbered in Holzhauer’s 10th game. “I felt relieved.”

“I felt intimidated,” said Libby Wood, soundly defeated in Holzhauer’s 19th victory. “I couldn’t imagine beating this guy who’d been steamrolling dozens of others before me.”

It is not easy to make it on Jeopardy! Out of the nearly 80,000 people who take the online test and few thousand who are invited to auditions each year, only about 400 make it onto the show. Holzhauer, a professional sports gambler who lives in Las Vegas, took the test 13 times and auditioned twice before getting called in to play.

The contestants Holzhauer is beating are all smart people who would have performed better in almost any other scenario. They would buzz in more, answer more questions, have more money, have more of a chance.

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“Any other group of players, any other day, any other time, and I could’ve been at least a one-day champ,” said W. Lewis Black, beaten in Holzhauer’s sixth game. “It was just dumb luck that I happened to run headfirst into a buzzsaw.”

That buzzsaw has felled 44 foes through last Friday’s game. (He will return on May 20 after the show’s Teachers Tournament concludes.)

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Some acquiesced to reality, did the best they could, and wound up where they expected. Others sought to defy the odds and tried to go toe-to-toe with Tyson, but ultimately found out how overpowered they were. A handful performed well throughout, but were still one question, one Daily Double bet, one turning point away.

“I had a pretty sizable lead, so I was getting pretty confident,” said Satish Chandrasekhar, who played in Holzhauer’s second game, one of the only competitive matches. “And then, for lack of a better word, shit kind of hit the fan. James got that third Daily Double and pretty much doubled up. Just like that, I was behind.”

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I feel for them all. I was a Jeopardy! contestant once as well—a lucky one. My competition was tough but evenly matched. There were no future Tournament of Champions entrants among us, and definitely not one of the greatest Jeopardy! players ever.

It was obvious Holzhauer was great after he’d won about $133,000 in three games. One game later, it became clear that Holzhauer was one of the greatest when he won nearly $111,000 in a single episode. That was a new record for a non-tournament game, easily eclipsing the $77,000 that Roger Craig put up in 2010.

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This wasn’t a fluke. Holzhauer has since pushed Craig from No. 1 to No. 13. He owns the top 12 scores ever and even exceeded his own single-game record, which now stands at more than $131,000.

In the beginning, nothing distinguished Holzhauer from the rest of his opponents when they arrived at the Jeopardy! studio in early February.

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“I was concerned about everyone who was there,” said Marshall Shelburne, who played in Holzhauer’s second game.

Holzhauer was already a known commodity to a subsection of the trivia community, though, a fixture in national and international competitions. He’d also appeared on other, since-canceled game shows, winning more than $58,000 in a stunning performance on The Chase in 2014 and competing on 500 Questions in 2015. “James Holzhauer has been on my short list of people who’d kill it on Jeopardy,” former Tournament of Champions winner Alex Jacob tweeted last month, noting Holzhauer’s performance at the World Quizzing Championships in 2012. He was brilliant then and has gotten even better since.

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“He basically made this his job,” said Megan McLeod, downed in Holzhauer’s eighth game. “Almost nobody can do that.”

Holzhauer’s opponents also studied ahead of time, cramming additional knowledge into their heads in the handful of weeks between getting called and getting to play. Through no fault of their own, it’s unlikely that any of them were as prepared as Holzhauer was. Nor were they prepared for him.

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That’s because Jeopardy! is unlike most any other competition. Players don’t know who they’re going to face until the show’s producers draw names for the next episode. Shows are taped five a day, typically two days in a week.

The defending champion at the start of Holzhauer’s first taping day, Steven Grade, came in with a three-game winning streak and more than $64,000, then quickly added two more victories. Some contestants were concerned Grade would continue to dominate. He lost in his sixth game, however, and the man who beat him ran into Holzhauer next. By the end of the session, Holzhauer had two wins and more than $82,000.

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“There are a lot of two-day champions,” said Ariana Mikulski, who arrived the next taping day. “That didn’t reveal to me at the time that he was a super player. It wasn’t until we started playing against him that we realized this is somebody different.”

Mikulski was part of Holzhauer’s fourth game, the one that first shattered Roger Craig’s single-game record. She at least had a little bit of advance warning—about how quick and how knowledgeable Holzhauer is, about his strategy of bouncing around the board to pick off the high-dollar clues and find Daily Doubles, betting big and building huge leads.

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Here’s what a typical James Holzhauer episode looks like:

Holzhauer starts from the bottom of the board. The show’s producers encourage players (but do not mandate them) to start at the top and work their way down rather than jump around. But Holzhauer grabs the questions that are more difficult and more valuable first. He often buzzes in faster than the other contestants—the signaling device proves to be the nemesis for some players, myself included. Buzz in too late and you may be beaten to the punch. Buzz in too soon and you won’t be allowed to try again for another quarter of a second.

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“He’s just got the timing exactly right,” said McLeod. “It’s almost like it’s programmed directly into his brain.”

Holzhauer’s quick buzzer and willingness to hunt the big dollar amounts means he can build a lead and keep control of the board, which means he can land the Daily Doubles. Once he finds one, he always bets big. He’s fearless, but for good reason.

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“That strategy is worthless if you don’t know all that stuff,” said Maryanne Mowen, who was crushed in Holzhauer’s third game.

On average, Holzhauer ends up with $11,918 by the end of the first round. In comparison, that’s a few hundred more than the total amount I won at the end of my game.

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The Double Jeopardy round increases the value of all the game’s answers and includes two of the game’s three Daily Doubles. This is where Holzhauer kicks into another gear and further separates himself from the pack, going into Final Jeopardy with an average of $49,027.

Holzhauer nails more than half of the 60 questions available in the Jeopardy and Double Jeopardy rounds, averaging more than 34 correct answers per game. Just as important: He rarely makes mistakes, missing about one question per game. The gambler in him is cool under pressure and highly accurate when wagering big on Daily Doubles. Through 22 games, he’s landed on 53 of 66 Daily Doubles and missed only four, adding an extra $21,019 per game to his totals.

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His opponents cannot help but admire his talent. They’re largely unable to help their own causes. You can’t catch up if you can’t buzz in. And even when you do, there’s not enough money left on the board to stage a comeback.

Holzhauer can coast in Final Jeopardy. He could bet nothing, retain what he’s won, and move on to the next game. But he’s already won a lot and doesn’t mind risking a chunk of the game’s pot, especially when it doesn’t feel like a risk. He’s so far ahead that he can bet big on without endangering his lead. Holzhauer has missed just one Final Jeopardy in 22 games. Ken Jennings went 51 of 75.

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The players whose shows air on Monday, the first session of a taping day, are at a disadvantage. They learn about Holzhauer’s accomplishments—the length of his winning streak and how much cash he’s amassed—before the game, but have no insight into how he got there.

At this point, though, Holzhauer has been at it long enough that his more recent opponents knew what they were getting into. That has made little difference. Holzhauer is a black hole, devouring knowledge, almost all the available dollars on the board, and his fellow contestants.

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Back in 2004, Jennings set the consecutive wins record with 74, accumulating some $2.5 million in regular-season play. Holzhauer has earned nearly $1.7 million. He averages $76,864 a game. If he keeps up this pace, Holzhauer will need just 11 more victories to match Jennings in less than half the time.

Watching Holzhauer leaves you awestruck, whether you’re a casual fan of the show, a Jeopardy! enthusiast, or a former player.

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“It’s like watching Wayne Gretzky play—he’s up against great teams and it still looks like there’s no one on the ice,” said Buzzy Cohen, a household name himself, the winner of nine games in 2016, the victor in the Tournament of Champions in 2017, and a recent participant in this year’s All-Star Team Tournament. “I say that both as a compliment to James, but also to say his opponents aren’t slouches.”

“Obviously everybody wants to win. Realistically, about two-thirds of the people who go on don’t win, so you’re in good company,” said Samantha Merwin, conquered in Holzhauer’s 11th game. “At the same time, it sucks to lose.”

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Forty-four players have lost to Holzhauer so far. What right now may seem impossible is nonetheless inevitable—Holzhauer, too, will be defeated.

Barring a few exceptions (kids week and teen tournament winners, Brad Rutter), everybody loses on Jeopardy!. For many years, Jeopardy! players could win no more than five regular-season games in a row, after which they would qualify for the Tournament of Champions. That limit was removed in 2003. One player that season won six games. Another won seven. Then came Jennings and his 74.

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The most dominant Jeopardy! champions keep winning because they outplay their opponents, rarely make mistakes, and overcome missteps they do make. But they all lose for the same reasons everyone else does—they get outplayed, or they make mistakes and cannot recover.

Jennings was so much better than other players that he had “lock games,” matches in which he was so far ahead going into Final Jeopardy that no one could have caught him, in all but 10 of his wins. (Holzhauer has had lock games in 20 of his 22 victories.) Jennings missed two crucial Daily Doubles in his 75th game and went into Final Jeopardy ahead of Nancy Zerg, his closest challenger, by just $4,400. Even a $1 advantage for the player in the lead will be enough to retain, so long as they get Final Jeopardy right and bet to cover. Jennings whiffed. Zerg didn’t. Her upset victory promptly leaked into the media, well before the episode was due to air.

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Similar fates have befallen other greats.

Arthur Chu was downed in 2014 after 11 wins thanks to several incorrect answers and a missed Daily Double. For the first time, he wasn’t in the lead entering Final Jeopardy.

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Weeks later, Julia Collins had a pair of ill-timed errors that left just enough room for a challenger to jump into the lead on the last question. He nailed Final Jeopardy, ending Collins’s win streak at 20.

Matt Jackson had his weakest game after 13 straight victories in 2015, getting fewer questions right than normal and entering Final Jeopardy with a narrow lead. His challenger answered correctly; Jackson did not.

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It can take the right set of circumstances. Holzhauer is so strong, however, that so many believe that only he can beat himself. That’s not necessarily true.

Sometimes another strong player comes along. It’s rarely another future dominant champion. More often than not, the end comes at the buzzer hand of a contestant who never wins again, or picks up one or two more victories. That’s what happened to Austin Rogers in 2017. He was summarily outplayed by Scarlett Sims, who answered more clues correctly than the defending 12-game champion.

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“I went in thinking I could win this, that I wasn’t just another person he’d beat,” Sims said. “I was definitely the most focused I had ever been in my life. I was in a completely different zone than I had been in. I was definitely not feeling that way my second game.”

These games are proof that even the greatest of champions are human, even if Holzhauer hasn’t looked anything but superhuman so far. The only games still in the balance come Final Jeopardy were his second game and the April 29 episode, which was the closest yet.

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Adam Levin earned $53,999, which in any other game should have been more than enough to win. It would’ve been one of the top scores ever in an era before James Holzhauer came around. Instead, Levin was $18 short of winning. He set a new record for the highest total by a runner-up. That still did no more for Levin than send him back to Massachusetts with a $2,000 consolation prize, minus the costs contestants bear for travel and lodging.

Holzhauer returned with a vengeance in his next two games, winning with $96,729 on Tuesday, $101,682 on Wednesday, $80,615 on Thursday, and $82,381 on Friday, four more of the best scores ever.

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He’s come from behind to win. He’s recovered from going all-in on a Daily Double and rebuilt his lead. He’s dominated a game where he didn’t find a single Daily Double. And he’s held up against opponents as strong as Levin, who might have been a multi-day champion had he gotten the call to play at a different part of the season.

But there will be a day when Holzhauer bets too much on a Daily Double and, for once, doesn’t know it; or when he misses Final Jeopardy when he most needs it; or when another player finds a way to beat him on the buzzer.

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Holzhauer will go down as one of the greats. But he will go down.


David Greisman is a freelance writer and one-day Jeopardy! champ from Washington, D.C.

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