There are many ways to prepare to be on Jeopardy: watch the show, figure out a wagering strategy, practice buzzing in with a pen or a toilet paper holder. What you can’t prepare for is challenging a 10-plus day champion on a multimillion-dollar warpath, armed with a career as a sports better and a unique strategy honed by past experiences on other game shows.
That champ is James Holzhauer, an instant Jeopardy legend whose 20-plus day win record places him second behind Ken Jennings, who currently holds the record for the longest winning streak. Holzhauer’s aggressive betting strategy and impressive knowledge base have helped him earn more than $1 million in the blink of an eye, leading many to call him a wizard who may turn Ken Jennings into a footnote in history.
It all makes for really great TV. It’s also a nightmare scenario for contestants who’ve waited their whole lives to go on the show, only to run into a buzzsaw.
As a three-time Jeopardy contestant in October 2014, I can confirm: Nobody expects a buzzsaw. You don’t find out who the reigning champ is until you arrive at the Culver City Sony lot the morning of your tape day, about two hours or so before the cameras roll. My reigning champ had won two episodes — more than most people win, but nothing compared to Julia Collins, who now holds the third-place record for her 20-game streak. I was able to relax a little.
Holzhauer’s competitors can’t do that. “James came into the green room and every producer was patting him on the back, saying, ‘Hey champ,’” said Alix Basden, who came in second to Holzhauer on his 16th game. Holzhauer didn’t reveal his $850,000 in winnings or 13-day streak until the producers asked him to. When that happened, Basden said she “almost fell out of my seat. I was like, ‘Oh, so that’s how this is going to go’.” Robin Falco, who faced Holzhauer in his 17th episode, thought at first that the producers might be kidding. Another contestant remembers dropped jaws and laughter.
They’d soon find out what they were up against. Five episodes of Jeopardy are filmed each day, and producers pick which contestants play at random. If it’s not your turn, you sit in the audience and watch everyone compete. It can be a nerve-wracking experience for contestants who don’t compete until a later episode.
When I competed, I wanted to be on the first episode to avoid having to sit with my nerves for any longer than necessary. But most contestants who filmed on days where Holzhauer competed told me they hoped the opposite.
“I wanted to go later in the day so someone else could take him down,” Jasmine Leonas, who came in third on Holzhauer’s 18th game, said. And for competitors hoping to be the Arya to Holzhauer’s Night King, waiting until later in the day meant more time to hopefully master the champ’s strategy.
For Holzhauer, that strategy is an unusual one in Jeopardy history. He starts from the bottom of the game board where the highest-value (and hardest) clues are, rather than starting at the top of the board, which is the most common order. Ariana Mikulski, who faced down Holzhauer on his fourth episode, was practically in disbelief watching it happen. “I was living cognitive dissonance,” she said. “I had come in determined to not let any single person psych me out, but then I’m also watching his total dominance and bold wagers.” Mikulski came in third place on the episode where Holzhauer shattered the previous $77,000 single-day winnings record by scooping up $110,914.
In fact, most competitors haven’t attempted to use Holzhauer’s strategy, realizing they likely won’t win. “I went in geared up, but realistic,” said Laura Hertzfeld, who competed on Holzhauer’s fifth game. After all, the game passes in a blur, and strategy is easier executed from an armchair.
“It’s one thing to understand his strategy, and another to defend against it,” said Tyler Lee, a competitor on Holzhauer’s 17th game. “He’s playing the ‘optimal’ strategy. So you could do the same, but if you can’t play it better than he can, with the level of confidence that he has in the breadth of categories, then you’re just playing into his hands.” According to Falco, another factor is money, since Jeopardy does not pay travel costs for contestants on the show. “I’ve taken some flak for making a low wager on a Daily Double, but I had to stay in second place so I could afford plane fare and the hotel,” she said.
Someone who notably tried mirroring Holzhauer’s strategy — and very nearly won — was Adam Levin, who appeared on Holzhauer’s 18th game. Although nearly all of Holzhauer’s episodes have been runaways going into Final Jeopardy, Levin put up a fight so strong that Holzhauer only beat him by $18.
A key part of Levin’s near-victory? He was a holdover from the previous tape day and had watched Holzhauer’s massive Daily Double bets for five episodes. When Levin landed on one, he went uncharacteristically big with his wager. “I’m not generally the type who would’ve wagered $12,000 on a $13,000 total,” he said. “It helped me to see James in action.”
Given all of this, some sour grapes are understandable. Leonas competed against Holzhauer and Levin on her episode. “I felt like I was thrown into the Tournament of Champions,” she said. “I was frustrated, and I’m a little disappointed. It feels like I didn’t get to play a regular game of Jeopardy.” She and Falco noted that the fact that he was financially able to take a year off from his job as a professional sports gambler to study for Jeopardy, gave him a more than unfair advantage.
But Levin isn’t mad about his experience. “I showed he’s beatable,” he said. “It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and I wouldn’t do anything differently than the way I did it.” Basden agrees. “If I had to lose, I’m glad it was to him.” Hertzfeld knew that Holzhauer’s episodes would receive extra attention, so she used her platform for good: she’s raised nearly $1,900 for Stand Up to Cancer, inspired by Alex Trebek’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis.
I can’t say where I’d fall on the spectrum, but I do know this: I’m really, really, really glad Holzhauer wasn’t the reigning champ in the green room on the day I taped.
Terri Pous is a writer and editor based in New York City whose writing has been featured on BuzzFeed, Time, and the Week, among others. She’s a two-time Jeopardy champ and can be found sharing random facts and trivia on Twitter at @terripous.