James Holzhauer didn't break 'Jeopardy!' He mastered it, just like his successor, Emma Boettcher.

He did what everyone who goes on the show does, myself included: He used strategy, smarts and hard work to win.
Image: James Holzhauer on Jeopardy!
James Holzhauer and his winnings after 32 rounds on Jeopardy!Courtesy of Jeopardy Productions Inc.
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By Christy Karras

When I was a contestant on “Jeopardy!,” I didn’t employ the strategies that made James Holzhauer the second-most-winning champion (and one of the most maligned) by the time he ended his run Monday night. I didn’t jump around the board looking for Daily Doubles, and I didn’t wager staggeringly high amounts to knock competitors out of contention long before the game reached its final round.

When I was on the show, I was too overwhelmed to give much thought to which clue to choose next or how much to bet if I landed on a Daily Double. As even the best players acknowledge, entering the “Jeopardy!” pressure cooker is surreal. The lights, the music, the studio audience — and knowing you’ll have to beat the buzzer and two worthy opponents — are a lot to handle. So like most contestants, I followed the usual rhythm of answering low-value clues first. That could be why I won a mere $32,600 over two shows.

I do not begrudge James his 32 wins and $2,462,216 in cash. In fact, I admire his acumen.

But I do not begrudge James his 32 wins and $2,462,216 in cash. In fact, I admire his acumen. As I watched James’s powerhouse performances, I was amazed at his calm execution of a well-honed strategy. And I certainly don’t think he “broke” the game, as so many have accused him of doing. He simply mastered it.

James’s approach might have driven some armchair pundits crazy (one columnist called his run “a thrilling achievement, and deadly dull television”), but they should recognize that he was only deploying many of the skills employed by big winners who preceded him. Arthur Chu gained notoriety by jumping from category to category looking for Daily Doubles rather than moving sequentially through one category at a time. And, like James, Ken Jennings famously seemed to know a whole lot about everything as he established himself as the record-holder of most “Jeopardy” wins (74) and cash accumulated ($2.5 million).

If you can pull it off, James’s strategy is undoubtedly an ideal way to play the game. It might not be ideal for all viewers, but those watching at home should recognize that he was only doing what all players seek to do: maximizing his chances in every aspect of the game, the questions, the wagers, the buzzer. Nobody just walks into that studio in Culver City and randomly wins a bunch of money on “Jeopardy!” As far as I can tell, “Jeopardy!” mega-players have all studied trivia. They’ve all practiced buzzing in. They’ve all gone in with a strategy.

Alex Trebek and Christy Karras.Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

Similarly, when I decided to try out for Jeopardy, I analyzed my strengths and weaknesses in popular categories. I was a history major and now work in publishing, so history and literature were strengths. Geography was my weakness, so I tried to gamify studying up by downloading study apps and timing myself as I filled in blank maps.

I also worked on wagering, pausing “Jeopardy!” each night before the final round and writing out the best betting strategy for each contestant based on how much money he or she had, then checking myself against “Jeopardy!” College Championship winner Keith Williams’s very helpful The Final Wager website. (Incidentally, the case studies on that website also help explain why James’s final bet was the right one.) My engineer husband built a replica of the show’s buzzer system as a Christmas gift the year before I got “the call” so I could practice ringing in. I wouldn’t have won at all if I hadn’t prepared for it. I doubt many others would have either.

Of course, game for game, James took it to another level, consistently breaking records for single-day winnings. He did it by playing fast and going big, denying his opponents chances to uncover the all-important Daily Doubles he used to accumulate huge pots of cash. No one has ever placed so many big bets on “Jeopardy!” or so fearlessly taken massive risks. And his prowess on the buzzer seemed preternatural.

But this wasn’t a violation of how the game is supposed to be played. As I drew on my history and literature education, he drew on his own background as a professional gambler who knows what to bet when and how to throw off opponents. This was key to his success, as he explained to The Atlantic, “I actually increase my chances of winning by making seemingly overaggressive bets.” But he also prepared specifically for “Jeopardy!” for years. He practiced standing in dress shoes and buzzing in to answer questions.

The best proof that what he did isn’t an outrageous shattering of “Jeopardy!” norms: His successor as of Monday night, librarian Emma Boettcher, used essentially the same approach — and she didn’t come to it by following his lead, because she had never seen him play before she entered the studio. “Jeopardy!” is taped months in advance, so no one who faced James would have seen him on TV beforehand.

Which is why I think that this style of play may become the new normal for the show. Everyone who goes on “Jeopardy!” now has James as a template for how to best exploit the game. Knowing that Ken Jennings created flashcards to study before his tidal wave of wins showed me that there was a path to learning enough to be able to answer questions from popular categories. Knowing that he practiced standing behind a podium (in his case, his recliner) and ringing in convinced me that I’d better do the same.

In the post-James world, wagers are likely to be consistently bigger, and strategy will be ever more important. Taken together, this means winnings may, on average, be higher, too. (Don’t worry about Jeopardy’s parent company, Sony Pictures Entertainment, going broke from having to make big payouts: The show is so cheap to produce compared to scripted TV or even many reality shows that it can afford to pay out Holzhauer-size amounts every night. And viewers love winners. The ratings during his run were some of the best in “Jeopardy!” history.)

In the post-James world, wagers are likely to be consistently bigger, and strategy will be ever more important.

And of course, contenders will continue to plot their path to “Jeopardy!” dominance over months and even years. Like James, Emma’s a long-time student of the game. She even wrote her master’s thesis on it. As an information sciences student at the University of North Carolina, she wrote a 70-page analysis of ways to determine the relative difficulty of any given “Jeopardy!” question based on how it was written.

More important, Emma also proves that James is not superhuman. He’s a guy who learned the game, just as he’s learned every game he’s played professionally for years, and he learned it well.

If I’m feeling philosophical, I might even note how that essentially squares with what we know about life in general. We’d like to think that those who are more successful are just smarter, more talented, inherently better. But while I’ve run into plenty of savants in my day, I’ve rarely found that to be true.

Instead, as with anything in life, it’s the people who put in the time and the effort who come out ahead. Nobody is born being good at “Jeopardy!,” just as no one is born being good at pitching a baseball. And it’s good to remember that both James and Emma tried out for the show multiple times before they finally made it. They kept applying, kept strategizing, kept learning. And that’s what kept them winning.