For more than two weeks, a professional sports gambler from Las Vegas has been dominating “Jeopardy!” with a calculated strategy, an affinity for risk-taking and a deft buzzer hand.
The contestant, James Holzhauer, 34, surpassed $1 million in total earnings Tuesday, becoming the second contestant to do so in “Jeopardy!” history and continuing his record-breaking streak.
Holzhauer won $118,816 in the game that aired Tuesday, having capped off his winnings by correctly answering this Final Jeopardy clue: “On May 1, 1869, these two men met at the White House, four years and three weeks after a more historic meeting between them.” (Can you guess? The answer is at the end of this article.)
On the show’s hall of fame, which documents the highest single-game winnings, Holzhauer now claims the top seven spots. Holzhauer’s earnings of $1.06 million so far amount to less than half of the $2.52 million that game-show legend Ken Jennings took home in 2004. But Jennings amassed that prize over 74 games, while Holzhauer took only 14 games to reach his total.
Holzhauer’s strategy boils down to this: Go for the high-value clues first, hunt for the Daily Doubles and, when he finds them, bet everything he has.
“I’m going to get the Daily Double right a lot more often than I’m not going to,” he said in an interview with ESPN on Monday. “I want to maximize that bet.”
Holzhauer has a trademark hand motion for his all-in bets: He pushes both hands forward like he’s moving all of his poker chips to the middle of the table.
There’s always a risk that those bets will explode in his face. In the ESPN interview, Holzhauer recalled a game last week during which he bet $8,400 on a Daily Double clue and ended up losing it all. (He flubbed one about the Tour de France.) But he made a point of not letting that shake his confidence.
“When I had $7,200 on the next Daily Double, I knew it was the right play to go all in again, and so I just did it,” he told ESPN.
“Not everyone’s going to be able to come in with that game plan,” he added, “and fewer still will be able to execute it.”
Before Holzhauer first buzzed in on April 4, the single-game record was held by contestant Roger Craig, who won $77,000 in a 2010 episode. Holzhauer first broke that high April 9 when he amassed $110,914 in one game.
Last week, he even surpassed that, with a $131,127 win. He will be going for his 15th win Wednesday. (Episodes are recorded in advance, but players are told not to publicly discuss results of games that have not aired.)
Part of how Holzhauer rakes in cash early on is by choosing the $1,000 clues toward the beginning of the game. Instead of watching his pile of cash rise incrementally with the easier $100 questions, he aims for the bottom of the board, opening up the potential to significantly increase his total if he lands on the coveted Daily Double.
Of course, strategy alone is not enough to guarantee “Jeopardy!” domination. For some contestants, speed at hitting the buzzer sets them apart. In practicing his buzzer game before the competition, Holzhauer told ESPN, he relied on the e-book “Secrets of the Buzzer” by Fritz Holznagel, a repeat “Jeopardy!” winner.
As for the sources of his knowledge, Holzhauer has said that an underrated strategy is reading children’s books, which he said are more effective than adult books because they cater to readers who might not be naturally interested in the subject matter.
Jennings, the reigning “Jeopardy!” champion when it comes to total earnings, has had only positive words to say about the contestant who could soon unseat him. Jennings told the magazine Wired that he’s “mystified” that no one has beaten his record yet.
On Twitter, Jennings joked that more people should appreciate his “sensible” wagers, which were small in comparison to Holzhauer’s gambles.
Others have speculated on social media that Holzhauer’s winning streak is stretching the game show’s budget. In response to that concern, a “Jeopardy!” spokeswoman said, “Contestant winnings are budgeted for every season, and James’ winnings are no different.”
Holzhauer may seem like a cool, calculated strategist (some have compared him to a robot), but in each episode he shows his softer side by paying tribute to his loved ones during the game.
His first record total, $110,914, resulted from a calculated Final Jeopardy bet to match his daughter’s birth date: Nov. 9, 2014. And he has written the sentimental notes at the bottom of his answers on Final Jeopardy, once saying hello to his niece and nephew and another time dedicating the game to his late grandmother.
During Monday’s Final Jeopardy, Holzhauer’s 13th show, he gave a shout-out to three friends, saying that he had exhausted his family members.
“You realize,” host Alex Trebek replied, “if you keep winning, you’re going to run out of family and friends to acknowledge.”
(The answer to Tuesday’s Final Jeopardy: “Who are Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee?”)