Huge Bets, Fast Buzzer: Sports Bettor Smashes 'Jeopardy!' Records
A new star has risen on a classic game show.
James Holzhauer, a Las Vegas professional sports bettor, is on a Jeopardy! hot streak. He has breezily won the last 12 games in a row.
But most notably, the 34-year-old is drawing attention for his unique strategy and big bets. Over the 12 wins as of Friday, he now holds the top five slots for single-day winning records on the show in regular play, racking up a total of $851,926.
Last week, he won $131,127 in a single game, setting yet another new record. He answered every single question correctly that he buzzed in for. Before his appearance on the show, the previous single-day record in regular play was $77,000.
For comparison, Ken Jennings, the show's most successful player ever during nontournament play, had won $410,158 after 12 games, according to The Jeopardy Fan.
"All good professional gamblers are selectively aggressive. You need to pick your spots and bet big when you identify them," Holzhauer tells NPR over email. "That's basically my Jeopardy strategy in a nutshell."
Holzhauer starts by choosing the highest-value clues on the six-by-five board. Contestants have typically started with the lowest value of a category and worked down the board to the more valuable spots.
"You need a decent-sized bankroll to bet for profit, which is why I start at the bottom of the board," he says. That bankroll pays off when he hits a "Daily Double," a question where he can bet more if he has more money in his pocket already. And he routinely bets everything he has.
The show's host, Alex Trebek, put it simply during a recent show: "If you control the board and constantly come up with correct responses, you're likely to hit most of the Daily Doubles, which is what you do," he remarked to Holzhauer. He asked the other contestants: "How does it feel to come into a buzz saw?"
Holzhauer, who has a degree in math from the University of Illinois, says that sports betting comes naturally to him. "There's nothing better for my interests and talents than combining math and sports for profit."
He says he initially focused on baseball "because it is the easiest sport to break down mathematically, but as betting markets have adjusted, I'm spending more time on football and hockey now."
His grandmother, who is now deceased, inspired him to try out for the show.
"She moved from Japan to help raise me and my brother, spoke barely any English, if anything at all," he told Trebek in a recent episode. "But Jeopardy! was on in the afternoon at our house. ... She would watch the program with me even though she didn't understand a lick of it. And I promised her someday, she'd see me on the stage up here."
"So, I hope wherever she is right now, she's looking down," Holzhauer added. He has written a short message in her honor on the final question's write-in space. On other days, he has given shout-outs to his young child and other family and friends.
Holzhauer dominates across topics – with answers such as "Who is Aquaman?" "What is the Reformation?" "What is quantum leap?"
He says some categories come more easily to him than others. "I spent almost no time studying categories like geography and sports, even though they came up frequently on Jeopardy, because I'm already strong in those subjects," he tells NPR. Categories he says he did spend time reviewing: animals, classical music and literature.
In 2004, Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings eventually went on to win 74 straight games and more than $2.5 million.
"I'm just gobsmacked by James," Jennings told Wired. "It's absolutely insane what he's doing. Like, I thought I had seen everything on Jeopardy! And this is something I would have thought was just impossible, these numbers."
He says he played the game very differently. "I was playing a game show like I had on my couch. My top priority wasn't maximizing winnings," he said. "I would never have had the stomach for those kinds of bets."
Jennings told the magazine that he is surprised his record has stood for some 15 years. "As a fan of the show, I'm actually rooting for James or anybody who can take a swing at that record," he added.
On April 8, Jeopardy! released a trailer pumping up excitement about the new challenger. "This April ... every record ... is in Jeopardy!" it said. "The next great champion ... is coming. ... Is it too soon to start making comparisons with Ken Jennings?" ( Jeopardy! is taped in advance — the episodes that have aired thus far were taped in early February, Holzhauer said.)
"It's an honor to be compared to him, but he and I play very differently," said Holzhauer. "Studying his game film would be about as useful as someone my size trying to play like Shaq in a pickup basketball game."
Holzhauer has shown extraordinary speed with the buzzer — and it's notoriously difficult to get that timing right.
Originally on the show, contestants could buzz in as soon as the clue appeared. That "led to a lot of quick guesses, negative scores and general confusion," Jeopardy!'s website says. These days, the contestants can't buzz in until Trebek has finished reading the clue. Then, a staff member pushes a button that illuminates lights on either side of the game board and opens up the system to allow contestants to buzz in.
However, if a contestant buzzes in before the system is operating, he or she gets locked out for a quarter of second — a huge disadvantage when tiny fractions of a second determine who has the edge. As The Ringer reported, before he appeared on the show, Holzhauer practiced his timing using an improvised buzzer — a mechanical pencil wrapped in masking tape.
The Jeopardy! success hasn't yet changed his life much yet — "I would say I'm currently a C-list celebrity with Vegas locals," Holzhauer says. But that may be different when he visits his hometown of Naperville, Ill., where he hears his success is generating a lot of buzz. "My dad has never been more popular," he adds.
And at this point, he says sportsbook managers have said they are rooting for him. "Maybe they think I will stop betting on sports if I stay on Jeopardy forever," Holzhauer adds.
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