Jeopardy! Champ James Holzhauer on Why His ‘Strategically Aggressive’ Gameplay Paid Off – Vulture

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Photo: ABC

Sure, Game of Thrones might be the last show we all watch together, but when a contestant has a crazy hot streak on Jeopardy! for weeks and weeks on end? That’s what we call appointment television — and we’re ready to fight Merriam-Webster on that. The latest player to cause such a tizzy is James Holzhauer, a professional sports gambler from Las Vegas who’s excelled at a quietly aggressive gameplay meant to get as much bang for his buck as possible: He starts on the bottom with the most “expensive” clues while sniffing out the Daily Doubles in the process, all while his fellow competitors stand around looking pretty dumbfounded. You could say it’s been a damn good strategy, albeit not a super-popular one. At publishing time Holzhauer has amassed $460,479 in winnings, making him the second-best player in Jeopardy! history, behind only the great Ken Jennings.

Holzhauer was nice enough to take a call from Vulture earlier this week and share more about his Jeopardy! experience, which is still chugging along in remarkable fashion. Among other things, we discussed how being a gambler gives him a competitive advantage, why more contestants need to embrace their aggressive side, and one very amusing Alex Trebek story.

Can you tell me more about your background as a sports gambler, and how that became your line of work?
When I was a kid, I would turn on the television as soon as I got home from school. The afternoon options for the Chicago area were Cubs games and Jeopardy! So I got super into baseball statistics and Jeopardy! That informed who I am today. I was one of those kids who wanted to get every single baseball card in the set. The internet was the only way I could get all of these players’ statistics and put them in Excel and determine who the real MVP of the league was. And even when I was a kid I would tell my dad, Man, I wish there was something that was a stock market but for sports teams instead of businesses. Fast-forward to adulthood, there is indeed such a thing! You just have to look for it.

Do you enjoy gambling on baseball more than other sports?
Kind of. I first got into gambling because it was a way for me to leverage my love of baseball statistics. For the first few years, that’s all I would focus on. They have this thing called “future bets” where you pick which team is going to win the division or the World Series. It’s easy to analyze those odds mathematically. The next few years I transitioned to betting on individual baseball games, which has a much bigger market. As it went on, the bookies were getting better at setting their baseball odds, so I branched into different sports where I thought they were still behind the curve. You have to find different ways to get edges. In-game betting has become very popular. Every time there’s a commercial break, new odds are set for the game. That’s the kind of thing you can make mistakes on, because you only have ten or so seconds to work on those odds. Now I bet on hockey a lot, too.

What’s the weirdest sporting event you’ve ever bet on?
This isn’t super weird, but my wife was mad at me one time. It was the week of the 2016 Baseball Hall of Fame induction, the year Ken Griffey Jr. was eligible to be inducted. There was a place that would let me bet $75,000 he would be inducted with more than 75 percent of the vote. It seemed easy to me, but I made the mistake of telling my wife about it. She got all scared we were going to lose this bet, although I have no idea how that could’ve happened. [Laughs.] I never tell my wife when I make bets like that anymore!

So what motivated you to give gambling a break and audition for the show?
When I watched Jeopardy! as a kid, I would primarily watch with my grandmother. She was the most beautiful person the world has ever seen. Her first language wasn’t English, so she couldn’t follow along well, but she wanted to share this experience with me since she saw it was something I really liked. I promised her I’d one day be up on that stage for her. I don’t promise anything unless I intend to fulfill it. To me, it’s fulfilling the promise I made to her 25 years ago. Once I really decided to take this seriously, I wasn’t going to half-ass it. It didn’t matter if I won, but if I went home knowing it was the absolute best I was capable of, that’s all I really cared about.

How did you prepare for the show? Did you go all-in on Jeopardy! game theory?
What I do in sports betting is I look at what the typical bettor does. I look at every aspect and think, What can I do just a little bit better than the average person? If you synthesize, like, ten different things, you do one or two percent better than someone else. I would look at Daily Double wagering. What can I do that’s a little ahead of the curve? Is it better to build up your score first or try to find the Daily Double right away so no one else can have it? I like to look in the children’s section of the library to get a base of knowledge of every subject. Often the Daily Double is going to be in a subject I’m not familiar with, so I need at least some knowledge of every category. It was finding a little bit of an edge in every aspect of the game as I could.

How do you think your experience as a gambler further enhanced your gameplay? Did you go in with an advantage compared to the other players?
Yeah, I definitely think so. My theory is that you need to be betting very aggressively on Daily Doubles and in Final Jeopardy. A lot of people bet big when their backs are against the wall, but people don’t realize … everyone thinks, Oh, I want to go into Final Jeopardy with some chance of winning. But that’s not the best strategy. I bet on sports, and as an example, there comes a time in a football game where a team is down three points with a minute left, so they’re going to try a field goal to tie and go into overtime. But really the best chance of winning is to go all-out for the touchdown. Players need to be playing more aggressively when they get Daily Doubles in “regulation time,” so to speak. Maybe it’s just the mind-set of football teams doing this, but in my job, I have to bet very large amounts of money from time to time. I know life goes on if you make a big bet and you lose. But if you don’t give yourself the best chance of winning, you’re going to kick yourself tomorrow. I’m used to gambling. To me, these are just points on the scoreboard and not actual dollars. That mind-set was very helpful for me.

How else would you define your strategy besides being aggressive?
I guess I’d call it strategically aggressive. I didn’t model my strategy after anyone in particular. My basic thoughts going in were, Okay, I want to have some money before Daily Doubles, and if this helps take my opponents off [their] game, that’s just a bonus. Some players in the past have said they bounced from category from category on purpose to throw everyone. I wasn’t trying to do that at all, it wasn’t my goal. I was just trying to get as much money I could before the big bets came in to leverage that. I do feel maybe the opponents I faced tried to play “the James style” — I guess you can call it that — of going for the high-value clues first, like what I was doing. But maybe since they didn’t go in with that game plan, they were less comfortable with that. That gave me a home-court advantage, so to speak.

You say your goal wasn’t to throw everyone off with your strategy. But did you go on Jeopardy! with any goal in mind?
I had one specific goal, which was to win an episode with exactly $110,914, because that’s my daughter’s birthday. A lot of people said, Okay, good luck, keep dreaming. But I knew it was achievable if I played my cards right. I was very happy I got the opportunity to do that. I didn’t have a “this will be a failure if I don’t win more than X games” mind-set.

Why do you think the vast majority of past Jeopardy! players never adapted to your aggressive technique? It seems pretty simple to me: If you want more money, start with the bigger-money clues and seek out Daily Doubles.
I think what you’re describing is the best strategy for me, but the most important thing for every contestant is to be comfortable and don’t succumb to nerves. If you’re not playing a game you find comfortable, that’s going to be worse for you than just having a suboptimal game-theory strategy. If you’re the kind of player who needs to take the low-value clues first to become comfortable with the categories to move along, that’s what you should do. But if you’re like me, who goes in cold-blooded about it, then you play the cold-blooded strategy. Everyone is doing the best things for themselves.

The general chatter on social media is that you “broke” the game with your playing style. Would you agree with that?
I wouldn’t agree with that at all. I think Jeopardy! is a great game that could never be broken. I see it as a compliment, but there’s nothing about the game that needs fixing. It didn’t get broken, I just found a way to play that fit well with my style. I don’t foresee them changing the rules or anything going forward. I’ll be interested to see down the road if anybody else tries a similar style and see how it works for them. I would actually like to see something like that. It would make me feel good.

Do you follow hot-dog eating?

Can’t say I do.
About a decade ago, nobody ever thought someone could eat more than, like, 25 hot dogs in ten minutes. But this guy named Takeru Kobayashi came along and he shattered the record by so much that people realized there was a new blueprint to do this. So I’d be interested to see if there was a new paradigm in the show. If someone comes along and breaks my record, and attributed to my style, that would be really great.

Has Roger Craig reached out to congratulate you on breaking his single-day record?
Yeah, Roger did reach out. He was really gracious. He congratulated me and offered some advice about the media frenzy that he knew was coming for me. I wasn’t ready for it, but he helped me prepare me a bit better than I would’ve been.

In one of your first episodes, Alex Trebek said we should be on the lookout for you becoming the next Ken Jennings. Do you welcome those comparisons, either to Ken or any other famous Jeopardy! player?
All of these comparisons are an honor. I play the game very differently than Ken does. If you look at his statistics, he was a much more dominant player on the buzzer than I could ever hope to be. So I needed to play the game differently than he does to achieve the same results, if that makes sense. I created my approach to the game by myself, but I definitely see some similarities between me and champions who have come in the past. It’s a credit to them that they had this stuff figured out before I did.

Okay, you brought up the buzzer. I have a weird question for you.
Shoot.

What does it actually look and feel like? I hear so much about “buzzer theory” that I forget viewers can barely see it while watching the show.
It’s a cylinder, kind of like the size of a ballpoint pen. But a lot thicker. What I did to prepare was I took an old mechanical pencil and wrapped a lot of masking tape around it to simulate the shape of the buzzer. I heard others took an old toilet paper tube and worked with that. When I was practicing, I would put on my dress shoes, stand up, and actually click this makeshift button I made while watching old episodes. That helped me improve my comfort level before I even got onstage.

You got to spend some time with Alex before he gave a not-so-great update about his pancreatic cancer. Do you have a favorite memory of him during your time on the show?
My favorite thing that happened with Alex occurred during the post-game interview after my record-setting game. He pointed to the audience, where the next two contestants were sitting. We were going to tape the next show in about 15 minutes. And he just looks over at me and whispers, “Look at them, they’re thinking, Oh shit. We have to face James next.” [Laughs.] There was something about hearing your elderly uncle on television whip out this curse word that was very entertaining.

I have to ask, did you have fun playing? Was this a fun experience?
You know, I definitely did have fun. I lost myself in the playing zone during the actual game, but the producers do a wonderful job of making sure everyone’s having a good time. They keep it light. Everyone’s laughing in the green room. Everyone’s smiling, even the people I beat. I lost to this guy who beat the record, I can go home with my head held high. So yeah, it’s fun!

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