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The Incomparable Dominance of James Holzhauer’s ‘Jeopardy!’ Run

That the venerable game show could necessitate a spoiler alert speaks to the incredible impact of Holzhauer’s winning streak. (This is a spoiler alert, by the way.)

ABC/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

It is a truth on Jeopardy!, as much as anywhere else observing a rate of 9.8 meters per second squared, that what goes up must come down. Watching James Holzhauer play these last two months, however, you could think that might not be the case—he was so good at trivia, at wagering, at Daily Double sleuthing, at the buzzer, at dishing mild anecdotes about family members after the commercial break, that it could seem like his run might go on forever.

On Monday, he finally lost to Emma Boettcher of Chicago, leaving him with a 33-day total of $2,464,216, plus the $2,000 prize given to second-place winners—good for no. 2 in all-time regular-season earnings—and concluding a historic reign that saw the professional sports bettor, 34, break many of the venerable game show’s records. His loss was surprising on two fronts: First, that it happened at all (as recently as Monday morning, stories were citing experts who predicted a baffling 98 additional victories), and that it arrived with an extremely modest, and thus uncharacteristic, Final Jeopardy wager by the usually high-rolling Holzhauer, who lives (where else?) in Las Vegas. He bet just $1,399 on the final clue—a sum so low that even host Alex Trebek seemed taken aback—compared with Boettcher, who wagered $20,201 to nearly double her score.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Holzhauer’s exit—a whimper and not a bang—was the result of a bad bet. In reality, though, he got boxed in. Take it from a member of the Jeopardy! subreddit commentariat, u/KiernanProud: “James knew that Emma was going to bet enough money where if he had bet everything, she would still beat him by a dollar. The highest James could’ve earned, if he had bet his entire total, was $46,800, and she won with $46,801.” As a result, our resident math whiz did the best he could, wagering to win if Emma bet big and both he and she got it wrong. Neither did, both correctly identifying Christopher Marlowe as the author whose premature death was referenced by William Shakespeare in “As You Like It.”

The reason Holzhauer was in such a tight spot? This was the first time in 33 games that he didn’t enter Final Jeopardy in the lead—in large part because Boettcher got to the latter two of the three Daily Doubles before Holzhauer could, adding $10,600 to her final score of $46,801 and, because Daily Double–hunting is as much a defensive strategy as it is an offensive one, keeping Holzhauer from doing the same or worse. (Boettcher—who wrote, I kid you not, her master’s paper on trivia difficulty as shown in Jeopardy! clues—went all in on her first Daily Double, though she refrained from using Holzhauer’s all-but-patented push-the-chips-forward move.)

It’s difficult to put Holzhauer’s Jeopardy! skill in context, if only because the closest comparisons aren’t actually that close. The simplest way of thinking about his success is to consider that before his run, the highest-ever one-day record was $77,000, set by Roger Craig in 2010 and held up in the years since as a dizzyingly spectacular achievement; pre-Holzhauer, only seven players ever had topped $60,000 in regular competition. Holzhauer dominated so thoroughly that his average daily winnings over his run came in at $77,006.75, a simply staggering accomplishment. He owns the top 16 one-day records, plus 21 of the top 25, with a high of $131,127 reached in his 10th game. In terms of racking up money quickly, he’s the best Jeopardy! has ever seen, and the competition isn’t even close.

But in both all-time regular-season winnings and number of games won, he’s in second place to Ken Jennings, who won $2,522,700 over 74 games in 2004—a run that, until now, had never been even roughly challenged on either count. Jennings and Holzhauer had a great deal in common as competitors. The always delightful The Jeopardy! Fan maintained a rolling statistical comparison of the two throughout Holzhauer’s run, which revealed, among other things, that through the same point in their streaks (i.e., through their first 32 victories), they shared vast knowledge bases (Holzhauer was correct 97.15 percent of the time he rang in successfully, while Jennings hit 92.53 percent) and preternatural feels for mastering the all-important matter of buzzer timing (Holzhauer rang in first 58.31 percent of the time; Jennings 59.02). (I went deep on why that’s so important here.) They also tended to flatten the competition: 90.63 percent of Holzhauer’s victories were runaway games, meaning there was nothing his competitors could have done in Final Jeopardy to catch him except for hope he got it wrong, as were 84.38 percent of Jennings’s to the same point. They diverge on wagers: In those 32 initial victories, Holzhauer wagered an averaged of $9,091 on each Daily Double, nearly triple Jennings’s $3,211 average. The result of that, plus Holzhauer’s enthusiastic searches for Daily Double opportunities compared to Jennings’s more traditional top-down category approach? Holzhauer added $653,416 to his total in his first 32 games, while Jennings piled on just $145,899. (This being a place for the word “just” is another Holzhauer accomplishment.)

Another thing that Holzhauer and Jennings have in common: News of both their losses was leaked before the episodes could air. On Sunday night, a clip of Holzhauer’s doomed Final Jeopardy segment began to circulate. The stakes were already high going into Monday’s game: After Friday’s victory, Holzhauer was just (sigh) $58,484 shy of Jennings’s total regular-season record, a mark that was well within his reach. Certain writers with a fondness for blue, or at any rate ones who hear the Final Jeopardy music in their sleep, had already begun to prepare stories about the toppled record. But Jennings’s place at the top of the regular-winnings pole is safe.

For the most part, Jeopardy! operates under the honor system. Season 35, the one currently airing, finished taping on April 6; Holzhauer, then, lost more than two months ago. Contestants have to sign all sorts of legal documents promising to keep mum about their results—champions don’t see their winnings until after their final episode, i.e., their loss has aired, which turns out to be a pretty good incentive to keep the news to themselves. But the studio audience is under no such restriction: There’s no NDA passed around to those entering the Culver City lot. Instead, it’s a much cheerier, and dare I say more Jeopardy!-ish, kind of arrangement: Members of the audience are simply asked to keep the results to themselves for the benefit of those who will eventually watch at home. Generally, an audience will be partly made up of those who competed earlier in the day, and, during some high-stakes competitions—this year’s All-Star Games, for instance—the audience is filled with Jeopardy! staffers and assorted VIPs from Sony, CBS, and local affiliates. But mostly, the idea is this: If you respect Jeopardy! enough to see it in the flesh, the odds are pretty good that you also respect it enough to let it play out in TV time. An awful lot of people knew that Holzhauer lost, either because they saw it happen live or because they witnessed or played in games that he was no longer a part of. That we didn’t hear anything about it until the night before it aired, after the tape had been dispersed to the many affiliate networks that would air it Monday, speaks to just how considerate the greater Jeopardy! community is—contestants and fans alike.

In closing, let us take a moment to note how astounding it is that, on Monday, Jeopardy! became the sort of show that is subject to spoilers and spoiler alerts. That, too, is a credit to how impressive Holzhauer’s reign was. Jennings’s loss in Game 75 was famously leaked, too—and 15 years later, we still know his name and talk about what he managed to do. Holzhauer is a veritable sensation and all but sure to remain one for years to come.