Several people have asked me what I think of the current Jeopardy! champion, James Holzhauer. After all, I got run over by the great Ken Jennings, so I should have some perspective, right?
I usually compared Jennings to the 1927 Yankees. This guy isn’t the Yankees.
There are people who debate whether the ’27 Yankees were the best team ever, but nobody (except for a very few die-hards who like Man O’ War) thinks that Secretariat wasn’t the greatest horse to step on a racetrack.
I have not read articles about James, but I can state right now what makes him great: he is smart (the smartest contestant ever on the show), he is bold, and he is disciplined.
I usually tell people that most people who go on the show know roughly the same amount. The difference is luck (such as what categories show up) and reflexes. Not to be arrogant, but I know at least 80 – 90% of what Ken Jennings knew. The big difference between us? Jennings had lightning fast reflexes. But James seems to simply know more than other people.
James is bold: he often will bet very large amounts on Daily Doubles. Often, if the Daily Double shows up in Single Jeopardy or early in Double Jeopardy he will go all in. He rarely misses.
He also plays the smartest game I’ve ever seen. Most people work from the top of the category down. This allows your brain to warm up — it simply gets easier to answer the more difficult questions if you have been answering the easier ones. This is especially true of categories that are not based on facts but on wordplay or puns.
James works from the bottom up. This allows him to rack up points quickly but more importantly takes the high value questions off the table. Even if he loses steam later, it becomes impossible for the other contestants to catch up.
He is disciplined. He doesn’t goof off or even smile between questions; he answers quickly and requests his next question immediately — occasionally talking over Alex Trebek. (These games must be a nightmare for Trebek to pace.)
Jeopardy questions often have a “hook,” a slight clue, often hidden in the middle. Players often guess at those — and players who are behind guess more often (usually out of desperation). James does not guess, hence he doesn’t get questions wrong and lose points.
He’s amazing to watch, and as a former contestant I stand in awe of his achievements. Will he beat Ken Jennings’ record for winnings? Almost undoubtedly. Will he beat Jennings streak of wins? Maybe. Will he get beat? At some point. All champions have an off day, or an unlucky one. James will hit his at some time down the road. Even Secretariat got beaten once.
Until then… boy is he fun to watch.