In his 11-game run, James Holzhauer has dominated Jeopardy! like no one before. That’s no exaggeration. He already holds the four highest-scoring games in the show’s history, and his $771,920 regular-season winnings surpass all but one player in the Jeopardy! firmament: Ken Jennings.
You remember Jennings. In 2004, he went on a 74-game, $2,520,700 romp, shattering Jeopardy! records along the way. No one since has lasted more than 20 games, and no one has come anywhere near as close to the money record, especially not this quickly. In fact, at this same point in his own streak, Jennings had accumulated less than half of Holzhauer’s haul so far. At this rate, Holzhauer will surpass Jennings by the end of May.
Statistically speaking, Jennings and Holzhauer are near mirrors. Jeopardy! home players keep tabs on what’s known as their Coryat score, named after two-day champion Karl Coryat. In a blog post written shortly after his 1996 appearance, Coryat suggested the best way to measure one’s progress was to exclude wagers—in Daily Doubles and the Final Jeopardy round, players can bet a portion of their winnings—from final tallies. Through 11 games, Jennings and Holzhauer have average Coryat scores of $29,127 and $29,400, respectively.
In the 15 years since his streak, Jennings has written books, launched a podcast, and cultivated a lively Twitter presence. WIRED spoke with the former champ about Holzhauer’s run, what makes a great Jeopardy! player, and what might happen when the two inevitably face off in some future Jeopardy! All-Star tournament. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
WIRED: As someone who has played more Jeopardy! than literally anyone, what are you seeing in James Holzhauer’s gameplay?
Ken Jennings: First of all, I’m just gobsmacked by James. 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. Statistically1, he’s playing at as high a level as anyone who’s ever played the game. And then he’s got these incredibly confident wagers. He’s maximizing money. He can make two or three times what any other player ever has with that same level of play, which again is top-shelf. He’s as good as anybody.
I’ve always wanted to see somebody play that way, you know? I remember as a kid doing the math and figuring out how much somebody could win on Jeopardy!, if they got every question, and got all the Daily Doubles last, and they bet everything on them. Like, wow, look at that number2. Did I actually think we would see someone try that? No, I would not.
Buzzy Cohen [the 2017 Tournament of Champions winner] said something similar: People know the Jeopardy! playbook. It’s just watching someone do it. And you had more chances than anyone to do that. I guess why—
Why not me?
Yeah, why not go as big3, given that you knew that was the way to do it?
James is maximizing outcomes, he’s maximizing winnings. It’s weird, but in hindsight that could not have been further from my mind. The fact that there was going to be a check, that didn’t seem real to me. I was playing a game show like I had on my couch. My top priority wasn’t maximizing winnings; it was to feel comfortable and have fun yelling answers at Alex [Trebek], like I do at home.
I would never have had the stomach for those kinds of bets. You’re going to have to be comfortable with losing the average American income on a single trivia question a lot of the time, and then having to come back five minutes later and play another game with that in the back of your mind.4 Psychologically, my peace of mind was built on just playing my game—a lot lower stakes, fun game, let’s pretend we’re all here to have fun. James is under no such illusion.
You mentioned coming back five minutes later to play the next game. Do you mind talking a little bit about what happens as these games rack up? How does that affect your game play? Is there a fatigue factor? Ten or 20 games feels different from five.
There’s two things going on. The first is that you’re getting stronger the longer you play. You’re getting more comfortable, less stage fright, more buzzer experience. And every day they just keep bringing in the truck full of fresh meat. There’s a very strong home-field advantage the longer you play.
That’s honestly one of the smartest thing James is doing, is going for the high dollar values early. Not just because it enables bigger wagers, but because he’s taking money off the board while he’s the most comfortable player, and everybody else is still finding their legs. It’s really, really smart. I’ve never seen it before.
But the other factor is that it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. You’re going to be at Jeopardy! all day. You’re going to be playing all afternoon. Your head’s going to hurt from the mentally taxing aspects of playing a game, your feet are going to hurt from standing on the stage for hours and hours.
I remember going all out on every game when I first started playing, and just being a wreck at the end of the day. After a few weeks of that I realized, I want to have something left in the tank. From that point I wasn’t quite so all-out on every game, because I knew I might be doing it all afternoon.
You have the Jeopardy! money record and the longevity record. How much are you watching James with an eye on your own legacy?
I’m extremely interested in James’ streak, not just as a fan but because those are my records. But honestly it’s probably for the opposite reason that you think. I’ve always been on the record as believing that my streak was replicable. It’s just mystified me that nobody has made much of a run at it in 15 years. The reason I’m so confident in that is that I was the one who did it! I was there. I know it can be done.
So I’m very excited. As a fan of the show, I’m actually rooting for James or anybody who can take a swing at that record. It’s bizarre to me that it’s still a one-off.
What advice would you give to someone going up against him? What’s their best hope of survival?
The main thing is not to take yourself out of the game. I remember showing up at the Sony parking garage to play in the morning after my games had started running. That was the only time that Jeopardy! contestants could show up and see the returning champion be the person they saw on TV. I would show up, and their faces would just fall. Honestly, that’s a huge part of the streak: People thinking Well, I can’t beat this guy. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But everybody’s beatable. When I lost, I just had to get a couple Daily Doubles in a row wrong and not know a Final Jeopardy answer. That happens all the time. There’s a law of averages with Jeopardy! just because there’s so much risk involved. It’s in the title of the show.
Do you anticipate facing off against James in a tournament? What happens when everyone he’s going up against has a quick buzzer and that deep well of knowledge?
In a tournament scenario, James loses some of his edge. He can’t take a lot of money off the board and put his competitors out of commission before the first commercial. So that’s not a strategy you can count on anymore.
It’s certainly possible that at some point they’re going to want me and James on the same show. Honestly? That’s going to be a real uphill battle for me. If you compare my stats to James’, they’re almost identical. But here’s the thing: That’s not me, that’s Ken from 15 years ago, who was 29, still super mentally acute. It’s kind of a young person’s game. I’m 45. At some point, I’m just a generation behind the new crop of players, and they’re going to be a little bit sharper, a little bit faster than me, and there’s nothing I can do about it. There’s a reason why even Tim Duncan eventually retired.
Using another sports analogy: It feels like there are certain breakthrough moments when people realize you can hit 60 home runs in a season, you can run a four-minute mile, and then lots of people eventually follow. Is Jeopardy! witnessing one of those moments?
You didn’t used to see people hunting for Daily Doubles until Roger Craig5, and then all the champions started doing it. Now during regular-season Jeopardy! you’re going to see a lot of people trying that Moneyball stuff. That changes the game. Now that James has shown people that it really works to hit the big dollar values early and make the big wagers, I think we’re going to see a lot of people trying his methods.
I’m pretty confident that strategy only works if you have a James Holzhauer level of Jeopardy! knowledge. And of all the very smart people who appear on the show every night, a tiny fraction are James Holzhauer–level talent. His is a strategy that works amazingly well for a tiny, tiny group of people. Right now it seems like it’s a group of one.
1 There are lots of ways to slice this, but a site called The Jeopardy! Fan has maintained a running comparison between Jennings and Holzhauer that helps illustrate their dominance.
2 The highest possible single-game Jeopardy! score is $566,400.
3 Through 11 games, Holzhauer has averaged $9,993 per Daily Double wager. At that same point in his run, Jennings averaged $2,533.
4Jeopardy! tapes five episodes in a single day, two days a week.
5 Roger Craig held the single-game Jeopardy! record ($77,000) for over eight years. Holzhauer has beaten it three times already.
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