From the New York Times:
By Julia Jacobs
April 23, 2019
For more than two weeks, a professional sports gambler from Las Vegas has been dominating “Jeopardy!” with a calculated strategy, an affinity for risk-taking and a deft buzzer hand.
The contestant, James Holzhauer, 34, surpassed $1 million in total earnings on Tuesday, becoming the second contestant to do so in “Jeopardy!” history and continuing his record-breaking streak.
Holzhauer won $118,816 in the game that aired on Tuesday, having capped off his winnings by correctly answering this Final Jeopardy clue: “On May 1, 1869, these two men met at the White House, four years and three weeks after a more historic meeting between them.” (Can you guess? The answer is at the end of this article.)
On the show’s hall of fame, which documents the highest single-game winnings, Holzhauer now claims the top seven spots. Holzhauer’s earnings of $1.06 million so far amount to less than half of the $2.52 million that the game-show legend Ken Jennings took home in 2004. But Jennings amassed that prize over 74 games, while Holzhauer took only 14 games to reach his total.
Holzhauer’s strategy boils down to this: Go for the high-value clues first, hunt for the Daily Doubles and, when he finds them, bet everything he has.
When I was on Jeopardy (I refuse to remember whether there is an exclamation point in the name of the game) in 1994, my buzzer only worked about one out of five times I pushed the button. So I fell behind and ended up doing something similar in a desperate push to catch up (which came close but failed).
One tradeoff is that if you pick your favorite category and start with the hardest $1000 question, and you miss, you might not get back to that category before the game is over. For example, I knew I ought to dominate the “1911” category (e.g., “Who is Stravinsky?”), but if I started with the toughest question and missed, I’d be tipping my hand that the other players shouldn’t pick that category. Presumably this guy is just so good that he’s good at almost all categories.
“I’m going to get the Daily Double right a lot more often than I’m not going to,” he said in an interview with ESPN on Monday. “I want to maximize that bet.”
It also helps to be really, really good at answering questions. Holzhauer is presumably pushing the tempo as much as he can not only to make more money during each game but in order to reduce the element of luck: like in the 1985 NCAA basketball final game, mighty Georgetown with Patrick Ewing lost because Villanova slowed down the tempo and only took 10 shots in the second half, happening to make 9 of them.
… Part of how Holzhauer rakes in cash early on is by choosing the $1,000 clues toward the beginning of the game. Instead of watching his pile of cash rise incrementally with the easier $100 questions, he aims for the bottom of the board, opening up the potential to significantly increase his total if he lands on the coveted Daily Double. …
As for the sources of his knowledge, Holzhauer has said that an underrated strategy is reading children’s books, which he said are more effective than adult books because they cater to readers who might not be naturally interested in the subject matter.
I can recall as an adolescent clearing out my public library’s selection of 75-page biographies for kids: Bismarck, Disraeli, Cromwell, etc. I was always distressed after that by the trend toward 800 page biographies that teach more than I care to know about any one person. I think I might have persuaded a guy at Penguin in the 1980s to commission a series of short biographies. If my recollection is correct, I want to apologize to him for probably ruining his career. It turns out, people want to buy biographies they’ll never finish.
Others have speculated on social media that Holzhauer’s winning streak is stretching the game show’s budget. In response to that concern, a “Jeopardy!” spokeswoman said, “Contestant winnings are budgeted for every season and James’ winnings are no different.”
When did Jeopardy last raise the value of its questions?
Jeopardy is doing fine.