CREDIT: Jeopardy/YouTube

After 32 winning campaigns in a row, Jeopardy James Holzhauer was finally felled on his 33rd game on Monday, June 3, 2019 to user experience librarian Emma Boettcher. His total number of games won and money earned ($2,464,216) in regular, non-tournament shows are second to only Ken Jennings in Jeopardy! history. Of course, what is most impressive about his run was the unprecedented volume of his winnings, as he nearly surpassed Jennings’ money total ($2,522,700 in 75 games) in less than half the time. This begs the question: has Holzhauer changed the game permanently?

In assessing Holzhauer’s achievements, I’ve been thinking a lot about how it compares to past achievements of benchmarks that had once been deemed impossible. Before Holzhauer, no Jeopardy! contestant had ever won $100,000 or more in a single game. He did it six times. (His average of $74,673 nearly matched the previous one-day record of $77,000, set by Roger Craig in 2010.) Before Roger Bannister in 1954, nobody had ever run a mile in under four minutes. Since then, more than 1,400 people have. Will we similarly start seeing six-figure Jeopardy! wins on the regular henceforth?

Holzhauer’s run has prompted some viewers to ask a fundamental question about the appropriate goal for a Jeopardy! contestant. Should it be to maximize the number of games won or the total amount of money won? What I have long believed, and what Holzhauer has provided plenty of evidence for, is that this is a false dichotomy. His aggressive playing style, in which he chooses the high-value clues first and bets big on the Daily Doubles, not only increases the total amount he can possibly win, but it also increases his odds of winning on any given day. Holzhauer took a lot of big risks, but he knew that the odds were always strongly in his favor. As a professional gambler, he surely realizes that the best bet is the one that you have the most knowledge about. When betting big on Jeopardy! clues, he is betting on himself. He knows a lot, and he knows that he knows a lot. Let’s say that there’s an at least 80% chance that Holzhauer knows the correct response to some random clue – any gambler would love those odds. (Also, contestants should always bet it all on the first round Daily Double, because even if you get it wrong, there is still enough money remaining on the board to build up an insurmountable lead.)

The model of preparation that Holzhauer has provided is clear: beef up knowledge of your weak spots, practice with a mock buzzer, and play aggressively. It requires a fair amount of work to emulate, but it doesn’t take much effort to know what that work is. The question is: how many future players will actually have the stomach for it? I would guess that the answer is: more than there would be otherwise, but just how many is hard to say. Over the course of defeating James and going on to win two more times, Emma Boettcher was similarly strategic and aggressive (though not quite as aggressive as James), but she clearly had already formed a plan before she ever knew about her legendary opponent. We won’t really know what the James Effect will be until a few months from now, when we start to see episodes with contestants who got to witness James’ run before their own appearances.

I am inclined to think that we will indeed see future $100,000 winners, but if too many contestants follow in James’ footsteps, they could end up cancelling out each others’ efforts. In a one-mile race, any or all of the competitors can possibly finish under four minutes. But it is highly unlikely that two players could end up over $100,000 in a single Jeopardy! game, and even if it that were to happen, only one would keep that total, while the other would receive the standard second place prize of $2,000. (It’s worth noting that the highest second place total ever, $53,999, was set during Holzhauer’s run by Adam Levin.) Just consider the game in which Emma beat James: all but one clue was answered correctly, and the maximum was wagered on two out of the three Daily Doubles, but the winner ended up with only $46,801. An impressive total, sure, but less than half a grand.

So, what do you think, folks? How many more $100,000 winners will we have by the end of 2019? Over the next 10 years? Over the next 35 years? That’s a bet that I would be very interested to know what James Holzhauer is taking the over/under on.

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