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Professional Gambler Deconstructs “Jeopardy!”

Professional Gambler Deconstructs “Jeopardy!”

“Can’t talk,” I breathed into my phone Thursday night at 7:45. “Jeopardy’s on!”

That’s when it hit me: I’m turning into my mother.

I’m pretty sure she looked forward to our daily phone calls when she had cancer in 1998. Unless they came during “Jeopardy!” that is.

I always tried to remember when the show came on at her house, but I was a working mother with two kids - born just 17 months apart. I spent most of a decade in a fog. Sometimes I transgressed.

When I did call Mom during that sacrosanct half hour, she would pretend to listen while I told her about something impossibly cute one of her grandchildren had done that day. 

When she’d respond with, “What is the Barber of Seville?” or “Who is Estes Kefauver?” I knew she hadn’t heard a word.

“I’ll call back later,” I’d say.

“Mmm-hmm,” she’d reply.

Unlike my mother, I like “Jeopardy!” but I’m not an addict. Yet for the past couple of weeks I’ve found myself blocking out that half hour every night much as my mother did. Shoot, I’m not proud of this, but I’ve even watched the end of the insipid “Wheel of Fortune” so I wouldn’t miss a second of the recent episodes of “Jeopardy!”

The reason? James Holzhauer - a sports gambler from Vegas - who is mowing down his opponents and piling up massive amounts of loot.

Look, the fun thing about this show is that people come from all walks of life and bring their expertise with them. English teachers rampage through literature categories. Lawyers buzzsaw their way through legal terminology. Musicians blast their way through opera answers.

But a professional sports bettor who reportedly took a year off to cram for Jeopardy? He’s a trivia machine, who’s turned his hapless opponents into mute losers with his deconstruction of the game board coupled with his speed and bodacious bets.

In an interview last week, Holzhauer said he haunted the children’s section of the library to fill his brain with facts.

Don’t laugh. Back in 2006, a local guy named Christian Haines, an assistant to Rep. Bobby Scott, had a four-day “Jeopardy!” winning streak.

In an interview at the time Haines told me that he prepped for the show by watching lots of TV. Especially “The Simpsons.” 

Holzhauer combines his encyclopedic knowledge of trivia with a technique that involves starting at the rich bottom of categories, to accumulate a large sum of money before making outrageous bets on the Daily Double. He also answers at a breakneck pace. By Final Jeopardy, Holzhauer’s usually so far ahead his opponents are dialing for an Uber.

I suspect this gambling man is driving up the TV ratings. His daredevil approach to the game is breathtaking.

Who isn’t enjoying this?

One cranky person: Washington Post opinion writer Charles Lane, who, it turns out, came in an embarrassing third when he was on the game show in 1991. Lane is a Harvard man. Holzhauer graduated from the University of Illinois where he reportedly joked that he majored in online poker and rarely went to class.

Ivy League snobbery may be behind the grumpy piece Lane penned for the Post about how this “Jeopardy!” phenom - who’s win streak began on April 4th and who’s pocketed more than $1 million - is ruining the game: 

“… Holzhauer substitutes cold, calculating odds maximization for spontaneous play. His idea is to select, and respond correctly to, harder, big-dollar clues on the show’s 30-square game board first. Then, flush with cash, he searches the finite set of hiding places for the “Daily Double” clue, which permits players to set their own prize for a correct response — and makes a huge bet. Responding correctly, Holzhauer often builds an insurmountable lead before the show is half over.

Dazed and demoralized opponents offer weakening resistance as his winnings snowball. And, with experience gained from each new appearance on the show, Holzhauer’s personal algorithms improve and his advantage grows.

In short, this professional gambler from Las Vegas does not so much play the game as beat the system. What’s entertaining about that?”

You’ve got to be kidding, Mr. Lane. What’s entertaining about Holzhauer’s game? 

Absolutely everything. 

NOTE: Jeopardy’s annual teacher tournament is on for the next two weeks. Holzhauer will be back after that. Beginning  May 20, don’t call, text or email me from 7:30 pm until 8! 


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