Plenty of Jeopardy! champions have rung up six-figure payouts. But until James Holzhauer put up his $110,914 total on Tuesday, no one had done it in a single game. He did it with with smarts—but also with a nearly flawless command of Jeopardy! game theory .
The Jeopardy! board is arranged in a grid featuring 30 total clues across six categories. You’ll often see players work their way through a single category, from easiest clue to hardest—and least to most valuable—before moving on to another column and repeating the process. That’s one way to play, sure, in the same way that a light jog is one way to complete an Olympic steeplechase course.
Holzhauer does not jog. He blitzes the bottom of the board, where the hardest and most valuable clues reside. He staggers from category to category, stalking the invaluable Daily Double clues that let players bet any portion of their winnings to that point. And he goes all in as often as he can.
“My approach isn't complicated: Get some money, hit the Daily Doubles, bet big, and hope I run hot,” Holzhauer said in an email to WIRED. And if you think he sounds more like a gambler describing his craft than a game show contestant, that's no coincidence: Holzhauer, a Nevada resident, bets on sports for a living.
“I don't have a mental block about betting $38,314 on one trivia question. It's only money.”
While he says he developed his playing style on his own, Holzhauer acknowledges similarities to other past champions. His darting around the board is a variation of what's known among Jeopardy! aficionados as the “Forrest Bounce,” named for Chuck Forrest, a storied contestant in the '80s who pioneered the technique to catch opponents off guard. Holzhauer and other contemporary Jeopardy! elites deploy it instead to find Daily Doubles—the same reason they typically focus first on the middle and bottom of the board. And the previous single-game record holder, Roger Craig, also got there by betting it all when he had the chance.
“What I saw was basically someone who took a playbook that has existed and executed it flawlessly,” says Buzzy Cohen, winner of the 2017 Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions. By pure chance, Cohen was in the audience for the taping of some of Holzhauer's episodes. “The shift isn’t necessarily in the strategy, the shift is in the execution, and that’s a harder thing to wrap your head around after one game.”
Pulling it off also involves more than just knowing the answers. Most people at that level do. Holzhauer supplements a near-encyclopedic command of trivia with a quick buzzer finger and a gambler’s fortitude. “The real advantage I draw from my job is that I don't have a mental block about betting $38,314 on one trivia question,” he says. “It's only money.”
That amount isn’t arbitrary; it’s how much he wagered in the Final Jeopardy round of his record-setting game, to get a final tally that invokes his daughter’s birthday: November 11, 2014. Wednesday marked Holzhauer’s fifth win. His leads have so far been so comfortable that he can afford, literally, to get a little playful. “I did want to lock each game up before Final Jeopardy, to avoid losing to a bad bounce in that round,” he says. “I often see sports teams playing to force overtime instead of trying to win in regulation, and it makes me shake my head.”
Holzhauer also excels at an underrated aspect of the game: a firm grasp of what he doesn’t know. In the first four games of his streak, he missed only four of the 133 clues he rang in on. Since Jeopardy! deducts money for incorrect responses, restraint is a virtue.
“Everyone guesses once in a while, but I think that’s probably one of the biggest shifts that people need to make going from watching at home to being on the show,” says Cohen. “It’s not a hard and fast rule that you should never guess, I don’t think that’s true. But in a lot of scenarios people tend to guess when they shouldn’t.”
Command of Jeopardy! game theory doesn’t make Holzhauer unbeatable; even 74-game-winner Ken Jennings lost eventually. And his approach does have inherent risks, which you could see early on in his Wednesday match-up. (Spoilers ahead, for regions where it hasn’t yet aired.)
In the single Jeopardy! round, Holzhauer once again bet it all on a Daily Double. This time, though, he whiffed on the clue in Holidays and Observances. He went for the Articles of Confederation instead of the Bill of Rights, dropping him back to zero. Bet big, lose big.
But that same incident also underscores why going all in at that point makes sense, regardless of the outcome.
“Even if he answers wrong, he isn't at a significant deficit,” says Benjamin Soltoff, a lecturer in computational social science at the University of Chicago, who has dug into the Jeopardy! archives for data-driven analysis about the effects of the Forrest Bounce on the game. “He is certainly not risk-averse, but given his knowledge base and skills using the clicker, it's a relatively safe strategy for him.”
Holzhauer went on to recoup his losses by the first commercial break, and he won Wednesday’s match in a blowout.
“I think that it’s a really sound strategy. I am all for those bets,” Cohen says. “He can certainly back up his bullshit.”
Holzhauer has had trivia success before, both on a short-lived US version of the popular UK competition The Chase and in the highly competitive 5x5 contest in the Trivia Championships of North America. But those skills have never been on display to such a wide audience. In Holzhauer, Jeopardy! fans have the rare opportunity to watch a player who sees the game with perfect clarity, plays it with ambition, and draws from as deep a well of trivia as anyone. There's a reason he already has a dedicated fan page.
“I think most people who bother to study Jeopardy! game theory are going to arrive at similar conclusions about how to best play the game,” Holzhauer says. “Not everyone is going to take that step, of course.”
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