Q&A with ‘Jeopardy!’ champ James Holzhauer: Strategy, nerves, and the best bet he’s ever made
Is he unstoppable?
Whether or not you’re a regular “Jeopardy!” fan, you’ve likely tuned in recently to watch #JeopardyJames: The Million-Plus Dollar Man.
James Holzhauer, a 34-year-old professional gambler from Las Vegas, just keeps on winning.
In his 20-game winning streak, he’s racked up $1,528,012. After Wednesday’s (May 1) episode, Holzhauer is now tied for the second-longest winning streak in the 35 years of “Jeopardy!,” according to the show.
He stands behind Ken Jennings (74 wins) and is tied with Julia Collins.
Weeks ago, he set the all-time record for single game winnings — and then broke his own record.
He’s currently only behind Jennings in terms of most overall winnings. Jennings won $2,520,700 in 2004 over 74 days. If Holzhauer were to keep going at his current pace, he’d have nearly $5.5 million by day 74.
On April 17, Jennings tweeted: “This is absolutely insane. I’ve always wanted to see someone try ‘Jeopardy!’ wagering this way who had the skills to back it up.”
So what makes him so good? Holzhauer knows game theory, and he’s familiar with a technique called the Forrest Bounce, in which contestants leap from one category to another rather than working through them sequentially. He also starts with big-money questions; by the time he finds the Daily Double (as he is wont to do), he’s got a pile to play with. He’s lightning-fast on the buzzer and has nerves of steel. Combined, these traits have led to stunning — and quick — success.
(For the record: Ashland’s Adam Levin, 46, gave the champ a run for his money on the April 29 episode, losing by just $18.)
We caught up with Holzhauer via e-mail.
Q. What made you want to try out for “Jeopardy!”?
A. I had wanted to be on the show since childhood, and I’ve taken the online test every year since they started offering it.
Q. You start from the big numbers and bet it all on Daily Double. Was that something you always had in mind to do?
A. It was always my plan to go big on “Jeopardy!,” and I’m glad I was able to stick to the plan under pressure.
Q. Were you nervous at all?
A. I knew I might get nervous on stage, so I practiced closing my eyes, snapping my fingers three times, and picturing me and my daughter having fun at a snow festival we’d just been to. It worked.
Q. How did you first learn about the Forrest Bounce strategy?
A. I read Chuck Forrest’s book [“Secrets of the Jeopardy! Champions”] but I would not say I actually use the Forrest Bounce — it is designed to confuse the opponents, and that is not my goal. You may notice that in Double Jeopardy I generally do not switch categories unless I’m specifically looking for a Daily Double.
Q. How has your life changed since “Jeopardy!”?
A. Lots of people recognize me now. Almost everyone has been very respectful, which I appreciate. And some very interesting doors are opening for me, but I can’t talk too much about them now.
Q. What do you plan to do with the winnings?
A. I plan to donate a bunch of my winnings to local children’s charities, give some to college savings for my family, and send my father and his wife to the US Open this summer.
Q. What’s Alex Trebek like in person?
A. Alex is an incredible professional, a master of his craft. It’s even more impressive to watch up close. What surprised me is that he has a potty-mouth in the postgame chats.
Q. What’s the best bet you ever made in gambling?
A. The best bet I made that won was on the Tampa Bay Rays — who had never had a winning season in franchise history — to advance to the 2008 World Series.
Q. You’ll likely face Ken Jennings and other former champs in a Tournament of Champions. Nervous?
A. I don’t want to speculate on any potential “Jeopardy!” special events, but I know I won’t be scared of anything.