James Holzhauer Finally Lost Jeopardy!and Changed the Game for Good
It’s over. Thirty-three games, more than 1,100 correct responses, and $2,464,216 dollars after first taking the Jeopardy! contestant podium, James Holzhauer lost. While his run failed to match Ken Jennings’ for either longevity or earnings—he fell just $56,484 short—Holzhauer has left as indelible a mark on the game. How did he do it? By not treating Jeopardy! like a game at all.
“To me, that’s the story,” says Buzzy Cohen, winner of the 2017 Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions. “When he showed up he had a plan, he had practiced, as opposed to just walking into the studio and saying ‘all right, here it goes,’ which is how most of us do it.”
In fairness, the playbook Holzhauer drew from is well-worn. Most Jeopardy! clues are assigned a static dollar value, based on difficulty. But three so-called Daily Doubles, hidden from view, allow contestants to wager any amount of their winnings to that point. “My approach isn't complicated: Get some money, hit the Daily Doubles, bet big, and hope I run hot,” Holzhauer told WIRED in an email early on in his streak.
What sounds simple in theory becomes less so under the stage lights. And playing Jeopardy! to win is a different animal from playing to maximize your winnings. Even Jennings has acknowledged that during his own 75-game streak, he was “playing a game show like I had on my couch.”
Holzhauer, a gambler by trade, approached Jeopardy! like a sport. The distinction matters. Think of it like bowling: You know that to roll a strike, you need to knock down all of the pins. You’ve even bowled plenty of strikes yourself. But to string 12 strikes together requires preparation, dedication, and endurance. Holzhauer exhibited all three.
“He’s a bit of a perfect storm, where he has the sports gambling and sabermetrics background, but also has been doing trivia for a long time,” says Cohen. “It’s not like he just picked it up.”
You can slice Holzhauer’s Jeopardy! dominance any number of ways. He holds the 16 highest-scoring games in Jeopardy! history, and won more money faster than had previously seemed possible. Even his loss is a testament to how he played the game: Holzhauer finally went down not because he whiffed on an outlandish wager, as some had suspected he might. He didn’t flail on the Final Jeopardy round. In fact, he barely missed any responses at all. In most ways, it was a routine Holzhauer game.
But Holzhauer was up against Emma Boettcher, a user experience librarian who knew the playbook—and executed against it—as well as he did. Holzhauer led off the game by finding the first Daily Double, betting the max, and getting it correct. Business as usual. But in the Double Jeopardy round, Boettcher took control of the board early, hunted for Daily Doubles, and found both before Holzhauer could. When it mattered most, she went all in.
Which raises interesting questions about what, if anything, Holzhauer’s reign means for Jeopardy!’s future. Will he be its Dick Fosbury, transforming how the next generation of players wager and win? Or are he and Boettcher outliers, staccato blasts before the usual rhythm again takes hold.
“It’s sort of like, Steph Curry came along and is draining threes. But if a player tomorrow decides to just shoot threes, you’re going to have a lot of misses,” says Cohen.
Rumors of Holzhauer's loss began circulating online Friday, and it was confirmed after the episode aired this morning in Montgomery, Alabama, per the Washington Post.
As for Holzhauer, don’t expect him to be separated from his buzzer for long. Jeopardy! has long invested in the afterlives of its most successful contestants, regularly running tournaments where luminaries like Jennings and Cohen and Julia Collins compete against one another. It’s a place where everyone knows the playbook, and everyone knows the answers. He’ll fit right in.
And who knows? With any luck, he’ll face off against Brad Rutter, whose all-time Jeopardy! winnings of $4,688,436 dwarf even Jennings’. Rutter has also never lost a game of Jeopardy! to a human opponent. (Damn you, Watson!) Which is to say, there are plenty of records left for Holzhauer to beat. And plenty of contestants—starting with Boettcher—who know how to beat his.