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Jeopardy champion James Holzhauer’s phenomenal winning streak, explained

Holzhauer is coming for Ken Jennings’s Jeopardy records. It’s compelling — and polarizing — TV.

James Holzhauer on the Jeopardy! set
James Holzhauer is Jeopardy’s biggest challenger since the inimitable Ken Jennings. And he’s nowhere close to stopping.
Sony Pictures Entertainment

Of all the must-see pop culture out right now — including behemoths like Avengers: Endgame and Game of ThronesJeopardy may sound like the odd man out. But the long-running, venerated game show is currently experiencing one of the most exciting hot streaks of its more than three decades on the air, all riding on the success of a single contestant who just won’t. Stop. Winning.

James Holzhauer is seemingly unstoppable. The 34-year-old contestant has gone undefeated for 24 consecutive games, Jeopardy’s second-longest winning streak ever. He’s also racking up an unprecedented amount of money with each victory; in less than a month’s worth of episodes, he’s amassed the second-highest total earnings in Jeopardy history, with $1,867,142.

Following Holzhauer’s May 3 win, Jeopardy took a two-week break from regular competition for its annual Teachers Tournament. But when he returned to the game on May 20, he picked up where he left off to win his 23rd game. The next night, May 21, brought his 24th win, and a new record: the highest per-game average winnings in Jeopardy history.

He’s expected to stick around for a while, considering his performance thus far; if Jeopardy’s format is charmingly predictable, so too is Holzhauer’s success each night, thanks to a highly strategic and calculated style of play that consistently nets him an early — and huge — lead over his fellow contestants.

But Holzhauer isn’t just the latest Jeopardy success story; he’s also a polarizing one. Is he a boon for the long-running game show, adding excitement and tension with each additional win? Or is his winning streak “breaking” the game — by undermining the “spirit” of Jeopardy and making it seem impossible for anyone to beat him?

A professional gambler by day, Holzhauer is leveraging his experience in the sports-betting scene and using game theory — in combination with his impressive knowledge — to dominate the game. Many Jeopardy fans have said they’ve never seen anything like it.

That’s why Holzhauer has boosted the show’s ratings and made headlines across the country. His performance has stunned many viewers, who cheer that he’s “redefining the standard of excellence” for Jeopardy contestants. Indeed, it can be thrilling to watch a brainy, strategic phenom handily beat every opponent he faces. And it’s exciting to keep tabs on how close Holzhauer is to beating the records of Ken Jennings, who has been Jeopardy’s reigning record-holder since 2004.

But while his calculated style of gameplay has made Holzhauer far more interesting to watch than most typical Jeopardy contestants, it has also drawn harsh criticism from viewers who say his data-driven approach is undermining — and maybe even ruining — the game.

In other words, depending on whom you ask, he’s either a welcome shot of energy for a formulaic trivia show or a threat to the reputation and legacy of an American institution.

In many ways, Holzhauer is a model Jeopardy contestant: smart, strategic, and fast on the buzzer

The rules of Jeopardy are mostly straightforward: Three contestants choose from a variety of categories that each contain five clues, with each clue worth a progressively higher amount of money. The game’s most well-known quirk is that players must offer their answers in the form of a question Jeopardy is famous for its “Who is?”/“What is?” response structure. This plays out over two rounds, as contestants aim to win as much money as possible before the game-ending Final Jeopardy round.

During Final Jeopardy, contestants bet some or all of their earnings on one last clue. They must lock in their wager before the clue is revealed, based only on the category it falls within. Then they have 30 seconds to read the clue and answer in the form of a question.

Hardcore Jeopardy fans and scholars advise that players not risk their entire pool at the very end of the game, lest a potential winner sacrifice their lead by betting too big. A typical Jeopardy champion takes home a few thousand dollars per game, on average, and rarely lasts more than two or three more episodes.

But James Holzhauer is anything but typical. He’s the first contestant in years to rock the mostly static boat, regularly racking up six-figure winnings. As far as Jeopardy players go, he’s a wildly dominating force who commands the game for long stretches of time, answering clue after clue after clue. Watching him play can be a study in contradiction, eliciting feelings of apathy and even boredom (how could anyone possibly beat him?) alongside fascination and delight (how much will he win today?).

“I went in expecting to play well, but not this well,” Holzhauer told me via email after the end of his third week on the show. He may sound humble here, but if you watch him play, you’ll quickly notice that what defines him is the way he moves all over the game board like a basketball player on offense. He doesn’t bother warming up with lower-value questions; he springs early for the ones worth the most money and hunts for Daily Double bonuses, the better to accumulate a larger betting pool for the Final Jeopardy round.

That strategy is “honestly one of the smartest things James is doing, going for the high dollar values early,” Jennings told Wired. “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.”

Bolstered by his success in the game’s first two rounds, Holzhauer is then able to make remarkably high bets during Final Jeopardy, as his two opponents are left to work with the more meager amounts of cash they’ve accumulated by comparison. This gives him lots of room to swing big, depending on his confidence in the Final Jeopardy category. So far, he’s answered 95 percent of his Final Jeopardy questions correctly (as of May 21), and maintains an average take-home of $77,798 per game, with his largest earnings in a single night totaling $131,127 on April 17. Altogether, he’s made $1,867,142 during his 24-episode tenure, a number that continues to climb.

For context, Jennings won $2,520,700 across 74 games in 2004. Now, 15 years later, Holzhauer is more than halfway to matching Jennings’s haul in about a third as many games.

Any good game show contestant will successfully employ some degree of strategy, but Holzhauer’s status as a professional sports gambler gives him a key advantage. The Las Vegas native has spent years honing his skills at and tastes for betting high in ways that may seem reckless to many Jeopardy viewers but can yield hugely successful returns.

“The fact that I win and lose money all the time helps desensitize me, so I can write down $60,000 as the Final Jeopardy wager and not be trembling at the thought of losing that money,” Holzhauer recently told the New York Times.

“And thinking: ‘This isn’t a trivia question. It’s a coin flip that’s going to land heads for me a lot more often than it’s going to land tails, so I’m going to bet as much as I can on heads.’”

On average, Holzhauer wagers $27,012 on the Final Jeopardy clue. And in all but one game so far, he’s won that round. But strategy isn’t everything — he obviously wouldn’t have made it this far without the knowledge to back it up. His responses are accurate 97 percent of the time, according to Jeopardy’s official stats.

Holzhauer has also proven himself to be highly skilled in pressing the buzzer at just the right moment, a notoriously difficult part of the game. Jeopardy’s own website explains how integral a contestant’s buzzer reflexes are to actually winning; that’s because the game’s buzzer system temporarily locks out players who press the buzzer too early, before the board lights up to signal that they can ring in. The threat of a delay requires players to be extremely precise, and Holzhauer credits several of his wins to nailing his buzzer timing.

Jennings told Wired that he’s “gobsmacked” by Holzhauer’s level of play. “Statistically, he’s playing at as high a level as anyone who’s ever played the game,” Jennings said. “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.”

But is Holzhauer a Jeopardy contestant worth rooting for — or is he somehow “breaking” the game?

Interest in Holzhauer’s winning streak and Jeopardy strategy has remained predictably high; Nielsen’s live viewership data says that since he started dominating the game, Jeopardy’s ratings have climbed weekly, averaging 12 million viewers per episode during his fourth full week on the show. (During the first week of April, right before Holzhauer started breaking records, Jeopardy had an average of 9.6 million viewers per episode.)

People are clearly enthralled by Holzhauer’s winning streak, and understandably so. With every game he plays, he gets closer to matching Ken Jennings’s historic earnings on Jeopardy, and the narrative of one incredibly smart guy threatening to surpass the record of another incredibly smart guy — while making an astronomical amount of money in the process — is undeniably compelling. A similar sense of drama and spectacle was what made Jennings’s 2004 run on Jeopardy appointment TV: He was winning so much, and staying on the show for so long, that viewers couldn’t help but wonder if he would ultimately “break” the format for good.

On the surface, Holzhauer’s performance on Jeopardy so far is similar to Jennings’s — Jennings also bulldozed through game after game, on his way to an eventual 74 straight wins. He also regularly buzzed in before his competitors had a chance to, and rarely gave an incorrect answer.

But there’s a key difference between Holzhauer and Jennings that’s left many Jeopardy devotees questioning whether Holzhauer is a champion worth rooting for. Jennings’s run on the show is fondly remembered today because he was an outgoing, jovial presence — someone you’d be happy to have a beer with after his latest victory. Holzhauer ... isn’t quite that.

Throughout his more than three weeks on Jeopardy, Holzhauer has consistently come off as focused on the game — not intimidating, necessarily, but not quite charming. He doesn’t banter much with Jeopardy host Alex Trebek, nor does he have any defining personal style or affect, like some memorable former champions did. Instead, his focus is strictly on sweeping the game board, which he darts around at a velocity his competitors can’t keep up with.

By contrast, Jennings was no disruptor; he simply relied on his vast knowledge and knack for obscure trivia to lead him to victory, making jokes and pleasant conversation with Trebek along the way. (Jennings recently penned a touching tribute to the longtime host, who revealed his stage-four cancer diagnosis in March.)

Above all, Jennings was easy to like. Watching him win was a pleasure because viewers got to cheer for an all-around nice guy — as opposed to a cold, calculated trivia night robot.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer captured this sentiment well in 2004, during Jennings’s lengthy run:

Had [Jennings] flogged us with his preternatural smarts all these months, letting his brainiac achievements swell up his head, would we care as much as we do? Highly doubtful. We might be wishing him ill and rolling our eyes at his family’s tabloid crucifixions at the grocery store checkout. ...

Instead, chalk up one for the good guys, for Jeopardy! and, most of all, for a much-needed celebration of brains.

Holzhauer doesn’t immediately scan as a Jennings-esque nice guy. Instead, he may read as more like Arthur Chu, another renowned, forceful Jeopardy winner. Chu won 11 consecutive games in 2014 and made headlines for how much money he won — enough to become the record-holder for what was then the third-highest total earnings in the show’s history. (He has since fallen to seventh place.)

But Chu’s Jeopardy legacy now centers on the methods he used to win all that money — ruthless tactics that earned him the label of “Jeopardy villain” from viewers who found his persona and style of play to be the antithesis of Jennings’s. Like Holzhauer, Chu used game theory to boost his chances of success, a strategy that some believed was unsportsmanlike even though Chu wasn’t breaking any rules. Essentially, his approach rubbed people the wrong way because it didn’t align with the established familiarity that lies at the heart of Jeopardy: “We’re comfortable, like an old pair of shoes,’’ as Trebek put it to the New York Times in 2002. ‘’We don’t come on with a splash.’’

Chu not only hunted around for Daily Doubles and wagered in ways both aggressive and seemingly unbeatable — again, much like Holzhauer is doing now — he was also considered both disrespectful and dismayingly nontraditional. As the Washington Post explained in 2014:

For one thing, he sometimes plays to tie, not win, thereby guaranteeing he brings a lesser competitor to challenge him the next day. He skips around the board looking for Daily Doubles, gobbling them up before competitors find them, in the process monopolizing all the high-value questions.

Most unforgivably to many, Chu tries to squeeze in the most questions per round by pounding the bejesus out of his buzzer and interrupting Alex Trebek.

Chu’s disregard for the agreeable mundanity that otherwise defines Jeopardy fit perfectly into the trope of contemptible reality TV villain — but on a game show, of all places. And he leaned into it, embracing the “villain” label and offering brash defenses of his play style.

“I can understand it’s less pleasant to watch,” he told ABC News about his reputation at the time, “but the producers weren’t paying me to make the show pleasant to watch. If you were playing for fun, you could talk about poor sportsmanship, but within the rules, it’s about winning. If you don’t like it, change the rules.”

On the one hand, Holzhauer has encountered a much lesser degree of vitriol than Chu. He’s a much less abrasive presence on the show and in public, coming off as unassuming and affable, if not overly warm and friendly.

On the other, he definitely has his detractors.

“Sure, there’s been backlash,” he told me. “My friends keep complaining about the lack of drama on Jeopardy lately.”

Critics have accused him of making Jeopardy boring as he continues to win, because it’s not fun to watch the same person steamroll everyone around him.

And Variety recently called him “bad” for the show:

He is simply a more advanced player, a perfect one, seemingly sent from the future to dominate the show, and his personality as a TV character is frustratingly difficult to know, even by the standards of the breezily quick thirty-minute game show. More than most contestants, he is there to complete a mission. (His shout-outs to family and friends, written on each Final Jeopardy card, are the only real glimpses we get of the Holzhauer who existed before he took the “Jeopardy!” stage.)

Whether you feel that Holzhauer is an asset or a detriment to Jeopardy may depend on how you view his strategy. Is it “breaking the game” to flout the patterns established throughout decades of Jeopardy history, in favor of picking off the priciest clues? Jeopardy has consistently been a forum for all kinds of folks to show off their smarts, giving the impression that any viewer with a knack for trivia (and a solid sense of timing) could join in and do the same. But Holzhauer’s style of play leaves other contestants at an impasse; his strategy is incredibly difficult to mimic, and challenges many long-held notions about what it takes to succeed on the show.

Jeopardy could theoretically benefit from a strategic shake-up, to be sure; it’s still a game show, after all. But Holzhauer’s strategy has exposed some of the game’s “limitations.” There’s no built-in mechanism for ushering out repeat winners in favor of new ones; there’s no rule against prioritizing clues based on their dollar amounts, or against hunting for Daily Double bonuses. And before Holzhauer arrived, these types of issues were rarely discussed, if they came up at all. Until he started blowing everyone else out of the water every night, there was little reason to think new rules would ever be necessary.

There’s also the question of whether Jeopardy can afford Holzhauer’s enormous payouts.

“James’s performance, I’m sure, is causing grief for an accountant somewhere,” Bob Boden, formerly the programming head of Game Show Network, told the Atlantic, explaining that game shows tend to set their prize budgets based on existing average wins. Holzhauer’s winnings are way above average, night after night; in that sense, he may be literally breaking Jeopardy’s bank with his high earnings.

Holzhauer, for his part, recognizes that the way he plays Jeopardy deviates from the norm. “I definitely play the game like a gambler who’s not afraid of losing,” he told me. But he also subtly pointed out that he’s simply applying strategy to skills that all Jeopardy contestants must have: “None of that would matter if I couldn’t ring in on time and get the questions right,” he said.

Holzhauer has already made history — but his legacy is still in process

Although Holzhauer still isn’t quite close to eclipsing Jennings’s record, the gap continues to close with each game he plays. Likewise, the longer his streak continues, the more pressure he’s under to keep winning. And he’s already had his inaugural brush with defeat: On April 29, Holzhauer’s champion status was threatened for the first time when his fellow contestant Adam Levin came shockingly close to beating him. Levin had $53,999 at the end of Final Jeopardy — just $18 shy of Holzhauer’s winning total of $54,017.

Just look at Holzhauer wiping his brow with relief at the end of the game:

Watching someone nearly end Holzhauer’s streak — and seeing Holzhauer’s response — brought some drama back into the game, while also humanizing the straitlaced champion. In that Final Jeopardy moment, Holzhauer broke a sweat and showed many viewers that he’s more than the laser-focused trivia machine that many people seem to view him as.

The more games he plays, the more potential there will be for these types of humanizing moments, just as there will also be potential for him to lean into one persona or another. Since Jeopardy tapes well in advance, Holzhauer already knows how far he’s gone — but he’s not saying yet, of course.

“I’m certainly never going to be happy about bowing out, but I’m quite proud to have made it this far already,” he told me.

In the meantime, viewers’ appetite for finding out how this story ends only continues to grow, and the question of whether Holzhauer will be remembered as a Jeopardy friend or foe persists. His winnings are far more outsize than his onscreen persona, leaving it to viewers to decide: Is a trivia champion who plays the game like a gambler, who blows all other contestants so far out of the water that they might as well be in a different ocean, what we want to see?

Or is the thrill and novelty of Holzhauer’s winning streak doing irreparable damage to Jeopardy’s established presence as simple, straightforward comfort viewing, something we can turn on every night and play along with, without too many surprises?

Is there a chance that Holzhauer is exposing Jeopardy’s seams, revealing the game to be easily manipulated, less about academic smarts than it is focused strategy?

Once he finally loses, will Jeopardy put new rules in place to limit future contestants who may try to replicate his success?

Just like Holzhauer’s Jeopardy run, the search for an answer continues, its stopping point unknown.