You might not know Jay Sexton’s name, but you likely know who he is. On March 12, 2019, he walked into a chilly studio on the Sony lot in Culver City, California, intent on checking off a lifelong goal by appearing on Jeopardy!. Sexton, now a 43-year-old senior research engineer at Georgia Tech, had spent two decades trying to get there. In college, he drove from Georgia Tech’s Atlanta campus to Durham, North Carolina, to try out for the quiz show. He never heard back, and in the years since, he’d gotten into the habit of taking the online contestant test almost every year, and watched in 2016 as his sister Susan got her own chance to play. (She came in third.)
Now, finally, Sexton’s day was here, but there was a problem.
“If life ever had a way of telling you this was not meant to be—you’re going up against the most dominant champion of all time and someone who wrote her master’s thesis on Jeopardy! questions?” Sexton says. “You just throw up your hands and clap: Whatcha gonna do?”
That morning in the Jeopardy! green room, Sexton and the other new contestants were introduced to a polite 35-year-old from Las Vegas named James Holzhauer, who sheepishly informed his challengers that he’d racked up 32 wins and $2.4 million so far. Holzhauer’s episodes wouldn’t start airing for another couple of weeks, so no one outside the studio had seen the player who’d been averaging almost $80,000 a game—a smidge below what had previously been the one-day record. “We thought they were pulling our legs,” Sexton says. “Like they’d gotten together with the champion and said, ‘Hey, let’s freak the newbies out a little bit.’”
For Sexton, things only got worse. When names were pulled from a hat to determine who would play that day’s first game (Jeopardy! tapes a full week of episodes during a single day), Sexton heard his own alongside Emma Boettcher’s—the University of Chicago librarian who had indeed written her thesis on Jeopardy! questions and whom Sexton had noted in the morning practice session as a particularly dangerous player. “You’re eyeing everybody, you’re sizing ’em up,” Sexton says. “After watching her practice I was thinking, ‘Wow, that Emma—I’d hate to go up against her, too.’”
If he was going to have any chance at all, he told himself as he walked onto the stage, he would have to do a few not-so-easy things: “I’m going to have to be smart, I’m going to have to be good on the buzzer, and then when I get a Daily Double, I’m going to have to bet possibly uncomfortably large numbers to keep up.”
On Thursday, the two-day finale of the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions will begin. It features one of the most exciting matchups in Jeopardy! history: a rematch between Holzhauer and Boettcher, as producers undoubtedly hoped might happen when they bent the rules for qualifying to allow Boettcher, 27, into the 15-person bracket even though she didn’t win the typically requisite five games (she won three). Holzhauer, whom Boettcher stopped just short of topping Ken Jennings’s regular-season winnings record, hasn’t played against her since that March game, which aired to colossal ratings in early June after news of Holzhauer’s loss leaked the night before. At the pair’s side will be Francois Barcomb, a high school physics teacher who is just the second winner of the semiannual Teachers Tournament to make it to the ToC finals. The three will face off for a $250,000 grand prize.
The Tournament of Champions presents a new set of challenges for dominant players, says Buzzy Cohen, winner of the most recent edition in 2017. Of course, the skill level of opponents in the ToC is much higher than in a regular episode. But players have also likely been able to watch their opponents’ first stints on the show, picking up on any unusual strategies and adjusting accordingly—the Jeopardy! equivalent of watching tape. All have had a chance to study their own performances—and eventual losses—to attempt to perfect their personal formula. And, lastly, since players are effectively competing for points instead of dollars, there’s less incentive “to blow everyone out of the water,” says Cohen. “You just need to have more than the next person.” In short, don’t expect Holzhauer, who is responsible for 21 of the top 25 one-day scores in Jeopardy! history, to attempt more of the same here: It behooves players just to try to make the game a runaway (see: keep control of the board and hunt for Daily Doubles)—assuming their opponents allow it. (Your jaw-dropper of the day: If Holzhauer wins it all, the $250,000 prize for playing four games over the course of the tournament would, at $62,500 per game, represent a substantial drop in average winnings.)
Cohen says he recently rewatched his initial Jeopardy! run from 2016, when he won nine games and $164,603. He realized that he’d been far from perfect. “I got lucky breaks,” he says. “Not necessarily that my opponents weren’t strong, but just that they made a mistake”—a bad bet, a misread category name, or a costly guess that ultimately helped Cohen win—“that at the Tournament of Champions level people don’t make.”
Boettcher and Holzhauer present a daunting challenge as hypothetical opponents. Cohen rattles off a list of strengths: “They really know their stuff,” he says. “They don’t guess unless they have to, like on a Daily Double. They don’t make those kinds of mistakes. And they don’t miss a lot—there aren’t a lot of questions that they’re sitting out on, especially high-level clues.” Oh yeah—and they’re both really good on the buzzer.
Sexton does not, perhaps, need to be reminded. But while he may have come in third back in March and taken home Jeopardy!’s $1,000 consolation prize (all three Daily Doubles were ultimately claimed by his opponents, and he confesses he had trouble mastering the buzzer), he was part of a momentous episode—and not just for the obvious reason. Thanks to the combined stellar performances of Sexton, Boettcher, and Holzhauer, theirs stands as the best-played game in Jeopardy! history: a single answer short of a perfect game.
Essentially, a perfect Jeopardy! game is one in which no player answers any of the 61 clues incorrectly and the players are never stumped. It’s never happened before: Jeopardy! is hard by design.
But by the time Sexton, Boettcher, and Holzhauer hit the first commercial break, they knew they had something special going. “We got to the end of the first round,” Sexton says, “and James turned to us and said, ‘Wow, y’all, we aced that round.’” (The “y’all” might be paraphrasing.)
Sexton was responsible for the lone whiff, deciding to guess on a clue he realized neither Boettcher nor Holzhauer was going to ring in on (a triple stumper would also have cost them the perfect bid). “I was like, ‘Are we really going to lose our perfect game on a top-line clue?’” He now refers to the clue in question as “the stupid, infamous cigarettes question.”
“At least if I’m going to lose,” Sexton says, “I lost in a historic game.”
Holzhauer’s place in the pantheon of Jeopardy! greats was secure even if he hadn’t bested Lindsey Shultz, Alan Dunn, Steven Grade, and Rachel Lindgren in the quarter- and semifinals. Boettcher, having decisively carved her way to the finals and proved that the Jeopardy! powers that be were right to bring her back, stands to extend her legend if she can once again be Holzhauer’s kryptonite. And Barcomb, who advanced to the finals in large part because of an audacious Daily Double bet late in his semifinal game and in fact enters the finals with the highest score of the three, has as good a shot as anyone at matching—or surpassing—them.
Asked if he has any advice for Barcomb, facing the same historically tough competition that he did earlier this year, Sexton says that the best thing to do is not to lose confidence. (Retroactive advice, admittedly, since the tournament taped two months ago, but the odds seem good that both will play again in the future.)
“Even if they get up to a big lead, don’t get intimidated,” Sexton says. “They’re not invincible. They’re not infallible. They’re extremely good, but they also cancel each other out a little bit.”
Oh, right, and there’s this: “If you hit that Daily Double, you’ve gotta be ready to make an uncomfortably large bid.”