Check your local listings: For the past three and a half weeks (and counting), history has been made on your television. “Jeopardy!” history, that is.
The transcendent exploits of the trivia game show’s current champion, professional sports bettor James Holzhauer, are difficult to overstate. After winning 18 consecutive games, he has laid claim to the eight richest single games ever played. His total winnings are now above $1.3 million, second all-time behind only one player — the immortal Ken Jennings.17
FiveThirtyEight has previously hosted an ad hoc debate (point; counterpoint) on the unbreakability of Jennings’s 74-show winning streak. Regardless of whether Holzhauer takes Jennings down on that front, it’s Jennings’s money record, his iconic $2,520,700, that now appears to be in real … jeopardy.
Because even relative to Jennings, James Holzhauer is already the greatest “Jeopardy!” player who ever lived.
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Holzhauer is winning about $74,000 per game on average, more than twice the $34,000 that Jennings averaged during his run. At this rate, Holzhauer will eclipse Jennings if he wins just 17 more games — and he’s likely to do that, according to a model built by The Jeopardy! Fan, a blog written by … well, you know. The model uses contestants’ scores going into Final Jeopardy to predict whether they will win their next game and how long their streak will last, and it projects that Holzhauer’s streak will extend nearly 48 games. That analysis also gives Holzhauer a 15 percent chance of winning at least 75 games, which would eclipse Jennings’s DiMaggio-ish streak.
“Jeopardy!,” like any other self-respecting competitive pursuit, has the analytics to help make sense of Holzhauer’s run. Take, for example, his “Coryat score,” named for the former contestant Karl Coryat, who conceived of the method. A Coryat score is a player’s score on “Jeopardy!” if all of the wagering is disregarded (so, Daily Doubles count for their base value on the grid, and Final Jeopardy doesn’t count at all). It is an unofficial calculation meant to provide a metric for “hopefuls playing along at home to gauge their scores against the contestants playing on the show.” Jennings’s average Coryat during his run was $27,861; Holzhauer’s is $29,567. Or we might consider “batting average” — the ratio of a player’s correct responses to his possible correct responses. Jennings’s batting average was .597; Holzhauer’s is .586. (For context, the batting average of a typical contestant in the seasons before Jennings’s and Holzhauer’s runs began was around .280, and a typical Coryat score was less than $11,000.) According to these measures, Holzhauer and Jennings are quite comparable — and very good.
But the two all-time greats diverge dramatically when it comes to wagered clues. And this is where Holzhauer shines. There are four opportunities to wager in a game of “Jeopardy!” — the three Daily Doubles and the Final Jeopardy round. Jennings found 71 percent of his games’ Daily Doubles, answering 83 percent of them correctly; Holzhauer has found 78 percent of his games’ Daily Doubles, answering 90 percent of them correctly. Jennings got 68 percent of his Final Jeopardy clues right; Holzhauer has gotten 94 percent right. (Jennings told me that Final Jeopardy clues are easier now than they were in his day.)
And thanks to the J! Archive, a fan-maintained archive of the show, and Jacob Bovee’s J-Archive-Parser, we can chart just how dramatically their Daily Double wagering has diverged. It’s here that Holzhauer has set himself far apart, even from a legend.
Last week, I wrote that Holzhauer isn’t breaking “Jeopardy!,” so much as he is “Jeopardy!” — he is the final, full embodiment of its long-term strategic trends. Driven by a gambler’s instincts and armed with historical data about the game’s board, Holzhauer hunts down Daily Doubles and bets huge when he finds them.
Below is an illustration of how much each player wagered on their Daily Doubles as a function of how much cash they had at the time. The higher the dot, the bigger the risk — and the reward.
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Note the series of diagonal lines in Jennings’s data. Those exist because Jennings liked to use Daily Doubles as an opportunity to bring his overall score to a big round number. If, for example, he had $16,200 going into a Daily Double, he might have wanted to boost his score to $20,000, and so would wager the difference, $3,800 (precisely what he did on Sept. 7, 2004). For each dot in any diagonal group, its coordinates (Daily Double wager + amount of cash that he had at the time of the wager) add up to one of those nice round numbers, like $15,000, or $20,000, or $25,000 and so on.
“Absolutely right, I bet for round numbers,” Jennings told me in an email. “By the second round, the game would usually be well in hand, so I could just bet to bump my score up to some easy-to-compute ‘next tier.’ With a comfortable lead, there’s more risk in the downside (a missed Daily Double and suddenly a competitive game) than advantage in the upside (a big payoff).”
Holzhauer’s approach is more extreme, and far less regular, exhibiting none of the decreasing tendencies of Jennings’s. Credit his sports betting background. “I would say my bet sizing is based on intuition, but my heuristics are very specific to me,” Holzhauer told me last week via email. “Quickly calculating the right bet size based on my perceived edge is my job in a nutshell.”
As some wondered whether “Jeopardy!” could remain solvent during Holzhauer’s historic and lucrative winning streak, Jennings himself acknowledged his divergence from Holzhauer.
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I don’t feel I get enough credit for making small, sensible Jeopardy wagers, which helped the show with its prize budget.
— Ken Jennings (@KenJennings) April 23, 2019
“I think there are some games where I should have bet more aggressively on the Daily Double in the first round, but I never played to maximize winnings, the way James is,” Jennings said. “I did get letters from poker players telling me that I was leaving so much money on the table. In hindsight, I think I’m temperamentally suited to smaller wagers, but I also think playing a low-drama, comfortable game helped create the long streak.”
Other commentators — a rather misguided lot, in the opinion of this reporter — have lamented that Holzhauer is so good that he’s sucked not only the money but also the charm out of the game.
“Sadly I was not programmed to feel joy,” Holzhauer joked in response.
But at least one reporter — and plenty of other “Jeopardy!” watchers — are finding joy nonetheless.
From ABC News: