I don’t know if this belongs on the sports page or not. I don’t know if this phenomenon gripped the average reader the way it did me, my friends and family.
But if you’re a fan of singular achievement — if you appreciate greatness regardless of the game — then you should know we just witnessed one of the most dominant runs in the history of competition.
Monday night, James Holzhauer’s 32-game “Jeopardy!” winning streak came to an end. The $2,462,216 he earned over that stretch fell just shy of the $2,520,700 Ken Jennings amassed over his 74 consecutive victories.
But if Ken was like Usain Bolt sprinting against average humans — James was like Secretariat sprinting against average humans.
Take this, for example: Before Holzhauer’s debut, the highest scoring round in “Jeopardy!” history was $77,000 by Roger Craig. Before his loss, Holzhauer was averaging $76,944.
Think about what it means to average the single-day record of a 55-year-old show. Is that not like dropping 100 points per game in the NBA, averaging a 58 on the PGA Tour or winning every horse race by 31 lengths?
The man has the 16 highest scores ever (including two over $130,000) and 23 of the top 27. His average margin of victory was $62,269 compared with Jennings’ $25,144.
Holzhauer essentially “broke” the game, as the kids like to say. But if this is broke, hopefully nobody fixes it.
A professional sports gambler by trade, James would start at the bottom of each category in hopes of accumulating as much cash as possible while searching for the Daily Doubles. Then he would find them and bet obscene amounts of cash, knowing he could make up for it if he missed.
$11,000 in the first round? Let’s bet it all. $41,000 in the second round? Let’s bet $25,000.
Holzhauer would so quickly distance himself from the competition that he would start betting in birthdays ($11,914 = Nov. 9, 2014) or anniversary dates. Critics complained he’d made the game boring, but given how “Jeopardy!” enjoyed its best Nielsen ratings in 14 years, the public said otherwise.
He definitely made a geek out of me. I would go onto “Jeopardy!” fan sites and learn terms such as Coryat (the amount of money a player would have earned if there was no wagering) and rebounds (answering correctly after an opponent missed). I would rave about the previous night’s performance to friends and co-workers, usually unsolicited. The standard text message to my dad every weeknight was, “Did you watch?”
I’m not even a regular viewer of the show, but when you’re seeing something that’s never been done before and might never be repeated, how do you turn away?
This was a guy who got 97 percent of his Final Jeopardy responses correct compared with Jennings’ 68. He was 95 percent on Daily Doubles compared with Jennings’ 85, and 97 percent when buzzing in compared with Jennings’ 92. I realize I’m one stat from making Dungeons and Dragons players look like NFL quarterbacks, but this was historic stuff.
Sadly, the streak came to an end Monday when James lost to Emma Boettcher. He had 25 correct responses and missed none. She had 21 and missed none. But she snagged both Daily Doubles in the second round, bet big, and took a slight lead into Final Jeopardy, where they both answered correctly. It was the highest total coryat (you know what that means now) in the history of the show, as there was just one wrong answer all night. In other words, a near perfect game was necessary to take out the king.
We’ll see Holzhauer again in the Tournament of Champions, and likely in a match between him, Jennings, and the undefeated Brad Rutter, who debuted when there was a five-game maximum for champs. We might even see Holzhauer in an MLB front office, as general managers have expressed interest in the math wiz/sports nut with unlimited knowledge.
But that month-and-a-half long run we just had? Hard to think we’ll see something like that again in our lifetime.
You never know where greatness is going to come from. Few thought Bobby Fischer would compel a country with knights and rooks, few thought a golfer would become the most popular athlete in the world, and few thought a gambler with a buzzer would be a nationally-recognized revolutionary.
But whatever form that supreme talent emerges as, it deserves recognition.
The most dynamic game-show contestant I’ve ever seen.
Who is James Holzhauer?