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Is Jeopardy! in Jeopardy?

As regular readers of this publication know, we are avid followers of all the major sports. These days we don’t much follow football, what with all the head injuries and domestic violence charges and endless video review delays, but we still keep a keen eye on basketball and baseball and any sport where someone is doing something no one’s ever seen before.
Perhaps our very most favorite televised sport is the quiz show Jeopardy!, and lately it’s been the most riveting half-hour of entertainment in America’s daily popular culture. For the past 18 episodes has starred James Holzhauer, whom you might well have heard of by now because he’s playing the game like no one’s ever seen before. Watching this guy play Jeopardy! is like watching Babe Ruth play baseball or Wilt Chamberlain play basketball or Barry Sanders darting around a football field. There are numbers to back that up.
In Babe Ruth’s first year as a daily player he hit 45 homes to shatter the record of John “Home Run” Baker, who earned the nickname by smacking a mere 15 homers over a season. Chamberlain had a year when he averaged 50 points and 25 rebounds and more than the regulation 48 minutes of playing time per game. Sanders wisely retired just short of a head injury and some all-time records, but watching Holzhauer dart around all the arcane trivia on a Jeopardy! board reminds us of that.
Until Holzhauer came along the average winning score on Jeopardy! was around $20,000, which is a nice chunk of change for a half-hour’s work of answering trivia questions, and the record for a single-day score was around $73,000, which is even better. So far in his 18-game winning steak Holzhauer is averaging around $70,000 per game, and he holds the game’s top five single-day records, with a best of more than $130,000, and only a couple of challengers have come close to toppling him.
Although Holzhauer is surely driving the Jeopardy! accounting department crazy, the advertisement department is probably loving him, as the show’s ratings have been spiking with each of his victories. Holzhauer is a handsome and physically fit 34-year-old, and although he’s supremely self-confident and always smiling a slightly smug smile he doesn’t come across as arrogant or cocky. He’s always introduced as a professional sports gambler from Las Vegas, but he makes bets that pay off according to the dates of his apparently very happy marriage and the birth of his obviously beloved daughter, and he always send a shout-out to his parents and siblings and family and friends when he nails the Final Jeopardy question.
As much as he endearingly seems a family and friend values sort of guy, Holzhauer is also very much a Las Vegas sports gambler. He likes to go for the hardest and most high-dollar questions first, and rack up the big money on the way to the Daily Double questions he routinely gets, which allow a contestant to wager all of his earnings, and he always seems to know the answer. He’s usually several times ahead of his nearest competitor going into Final Jeopardy!, where you only need double the score to be assured of victory, and he usually calculates to the dollar how much he can afford to wager and then nails the question, racking up another record-setting total.
Of course Holzhauer’s dominance has spurred a controversy, as some people will always resent excellence. Holzhauer’s been in all the newspapers, and some of them are griping that his unorthodox strategy and astounding immediate recall of general information just aren’t fair. When one player is so clearly better than all the rest, the critics snipe, it takes all the fun out of the game.
Call us old-fashioned, but we still think there’s something to be said for unsurpassed excellence in any old thing that humans pursue, including the accumulation of knowledge and a quick recall of it on afternoon quiz show, and a self-confident willingness to bet 20 grand or so on the answer to a trivia question. Nor does Holzhauer’s talent diminish our interest in the game. Most days Holzhauer wins by the same lopsided lengths that Secretariat won the Triple Crown at the the Preakness, but we still well remember that display of all-time excellence.
On Monday Holzhauer found himself in a tight game, and it was better television than anything Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association has on offer. One of the challengers was some endearingly boring and balding middle-aged egghead with impressive academic credentials, exactly the sort who usually wins on Jeopardy!, and he gave the champion a hell of run. Holzhauer took a double-digit lead by winning a big wager on a Double Jeopardy question, but his challenger landed on the next Daily Double, and although he’s clearly not accustomed to wagering double-digit sums he had no choice but to go in big to stay in the game, and after he gulped hard and correctly answered the hard question it went down to a dramatic Final Jeopardy!
Holzhauer was up a few thousand more dollars at that point, and when he correctly answered the Final Jeopardy! question he had a mere $18 more than his formidable opponent, who had also correctly answered and wagered enough that he would have easily won in an ordinary game and if only Holzhauer had gotten a very rare question wrong. Not since the great Boston Celtics versus Los Angeles Lakers rivalry back in the ’80s have we watched anything quite so riveting.
Our main sporting obsession these days is the blood sport of politics, but we don’t find anyone there of Ruth’s or Chamberlain’s or Sanders’ or Secretariat’s ability, much less Holzhauer’s. We hope all the games will go on, however, and that no matter how jealous human nature might be we continue toward a greater excellence in every weird thing that humans do..

— Bud Norman

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