“Jeopardy!” champions use statistics and game theory to win millions

Just making it onto the show “Jeopardy!” is challenging enough. But winning the day once you’re in the studio is even more difficult.

Unless you know how to play the odds.

Recently, 11-day “Jeopardy!” champion James Holzhauer secured his place in the annals of “Jeopardy!” fame. The 34-year-old sports gambler from Las Vegas has broken nearly every “Jeopardy!” record there is, including the highest one-day winnings record with the $131,127 he brought in on April 17.

He’s giving the infamous Ken Jennings a (literal) run for his money.

Read more: ‘Jeopardy!’ contestant James Holzhauer broke his own single-game record with a perfect game

But Holzhauer’s impressive daily totals are no accident. While certainly his impressive trivia knowledge contributes to his back-to-back success, his 11-day, $771,920 total has more to do with how he plays the game than the answers he gets right or wrong.

Holzhauer’s “Jeopardy!” hacks

To start, he focuses quite a bit on hitting the show’s iconic buzzer at just the right time, The Ringer reported. Holzhauer grilled “Jeopardy!” producer Maggie Speak about the specifics of the buzzer timing, trying to pinpoint precisely when a Jeopardy! staffer activates the switch that enables contestants to ring in after host Alex Trebek finishes reading the clue.

If Holzhauer hits the buzzer just a hair too soon, he knows he’ll get locked out for about a quarter of a second, which tends to be enough for a competitor to get a buzzer in edgewise, according to The Ringer.

What’s more, Holzhauer goes for the high-value clues first. He tends to answer these correctly, aggregating a lot of money very quickly in the game. Then, when he comes across a Daily Double, he bets big, often doubling his total (and subsequently doubling it again).

The tips and tricks aside, however, there’s no question that Holzhauer’s foundation of superior trivia knowledge helps him take home the win again and again.

On April 17, when he broke his own one-day winnings record, Holzhauer played a perfect game. In “Jeopardy!” terms, that means every question he buzzed in for he answered correctly. He said a big part of his preparations for the game show involved reading children’s books.

All told, Holzhauer sits in second place for all-time regular-season earnings — behind Ken Jennings, who won 74 games in a row to take home $2,520,700 in 2004.

On April 18, Jennings gave Holzhauer some well-deserved kudos. “This is absolutely insane. I’ve always wanted to see someone try Jeopardy! wagering this way who had the skills to back it up,” Jennings tweeted.

Using game theory to bet on Final Jeopardy

Holzhauer isn’t the only famous “Jeopardy!” champion who’s gamed the game.

Arthur Chu, a 35-year-old columnist from Albany, New York, carried an impressive 11-day winning streak in 2014.

The columnist’s strategy was less rapacious than Holzhauer’s; Chu had only netted a comparatively meager $298,200 when he was finally dethroned.

Arthur Chu won a total of $298,000 over 11 days.

But Chu’s goal wasn’t to win the most money per day. Rather, it was to give himself the highest probability of being able to return to the show the next day and play again using game theory.

He achieved this by modulating the way he placed his Final Jeopardy bets. Chu made waves during his 11-day streak because instead of betting to win, he purposefully wagered an amount that would result in a tie if both he and his trailing competitor correctly guessed the Final Jeopardy clue. Leading contestants often bet $1 more than the tying wager.

But in the event that they get the clue wrong and their opponents get it right, sometimes that means losing the game by just $1.

There were a few instances in which Chu wagered to tie when he didn’t have to, and both he and his competitor moved on to the next day of play. To Chu, that’s no harm, no foul and better than risking a loss. He said he knicked this strategy from Keith Williams, a former “Jeopardy!” champion who now runs The Final Wager blog.

The hunt for Daily Doubles

Chu was also apt at scouring the board for Daily Doubles — consistently selecting higher-value clues from the bottom of the board, but bouncing from category to category to do so — using what’s known in the Jeopardy annals as “The Forrest Bounce,” named after former champion Chuck Forrest who utilized the technique.

But when he came across a Daily Double in a category he knew nothing about — “The Sports Hall of Fame” for instance — Chu bet small. Pitifully small.

Even though Chu answered this piece of sports trivia incorrectly, losing a cool $5, it benefited him in the long run. He stopped his competitors (who might have more sports know-how than he does) from having the opportunity to bet big and answer correctly.

Bouncing from category to category has the added benefit of throwing off his opponents who may have hit their stride in a single category.

Brad Rutter, Larissa Kelly and David Madden with Alex Trebek, winners of the first-ever “Jeopardy!” team championship, Tuesday, March 5, 2019 in in Burbank, Calif. With $1 million at stake, a big Daily Double bet by Rutter positioned his team for a runaway victory as the quiz show’s “All-Star Games” ended Tuesday. Rutter and teammates Larissa Kelly and David Madden split the top prize. (Carol Kaelson /Sony via AP)
Associated Press

Holzhauer employs the same Daily Double strategy hunting — instead of working his way down an entire category — he bounces around.

But Holzhauer has become less of a polarizing figure than Chu was (many “Jeopardy!” fans took umbrage with Chu’s seemingly blasé playing style, calling him a villain); Slate went so far as to say that Holzhauer could be the “Serena Williams” of “Jeopardy!”

The Las Vegas gambler currently holds the top four slots in single-day winnings, beating the existing $77,000 record set by Roger Craig in 2010.

On Friday night, Holzhauer will palm the buzzer for a 12th time on “Jeopardy!” If he plays his clues right, he could walk away with another night’s worth of winnings, bringing him even closer to the $1,000,000 mark.


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