Former ‘Jeopardy!’ champ explains James Holzhauer ‘game-changing’ phenomenon

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James Holzhauer competing on “Jeopardy!”

James Holzhauer, pictured here on the set of “Jeopardy!” on April 17, broke the $1 million winnings mark on Tuesday and ran his grand total to $1,225,987 on Thursday. | Jeopardy Productions, Inc. via AP

Eddie Timanus, who compiles the college coaches polls for USA TODAY Sports, was a five-time winner on “Jeopardy! in 1999 and a Tournament of Champions semifinalist in 2000. He offers his take on the remarkable run of current “Jeopardy!” champ James Holzhauer:

I’ll admit it: From the moment he was introduced on “Jeopardy!” as (cue Johnny Gilbert voice) “a professional sports gambler from Las Vegas, Nevada,” I was intrigued. This guy won’t be afraid to bet big, I thought.

Sure enough, when James Holzhauer uncovered his first daily double and used his now-familiar phrase, “All the chips,” I had a hunch we were about to see something special. Even so, I wasn’t quite prepared for the true game-changer we’ve witnessed on the show over the last three weeks.


‘Jeopardy!’ champ James Holzhauer breaks $1M winnings mark

Even as early as Holzhauer’s fourth victory, host Alex Trebek was wondering aloud if it was too early to project whether Ken Jennings’ record 74-day winning streak might be in, well, jeopardy. Nope, it definitely was not too early. Having already surpassed the $1 million mark in earnings, Holzhauer is on pace to overtake Jennings’ total in regular games in fewer than half the number of appearances.

Jennings did eventually lose, and Holzhauer will as well. But the fortunate challenger who unseats him is probably going to need some help from Holzhauer himself. We’ll delve deeper into that below, but first, here’s a quick primer on what has made him such an unstoppable force.

I don’t use the term “game-changer” lightly. It gets bandied about in sports contexts quite a bit, although generational talents who actually alter the way their particular game is played aren’t that common. But Holzhauer is playing the game as no one else has, up to and including Jennings.

First and foremost, a successful “Jeopardy!” player has to have a broad trivia knowledge base. From what I’ve observed, Holzhauer, 35, doesn’t appear to have many holes in that regard. Of equal if not greater importance, however, is a contestant’s ability to master the buzzer, or, to use its proper name, the signaling device. According to statistics compiled by Andy Saunders at, Holzhauer successfully rang in first nearly 57 percent of the time through his first 14 wins. That’s a phenomenal percentage with two other competitors trying to do the same.

But it’s his approach to the board that’s made him a true game-changer. While many players, myself included, prefer to play categories from top to bottom and try to stick to them, Holzhauer clears the big-dollar clues first. Thanks to his ability to ring in first consistently and rarely miss, he usually has a considerable total built up by the time he uncovers a daily double. He finds most of them since he’s able to maintain control of the board for long stretches, and, as we’ve seen, he’s not afraid to bet big. A sports gambler, indeed, but perhaps betting on himself is the safest wager of all.

That’s how he’s been able to accumulate scores that have been unprecedented in the show’s history. He already owns the six highest single-day finishes. Speed, instinct, confidence and knowledge — pretty SICK, wouldn’t you say?

So, what will it take to dethrone him? It will only happen if someone is within striking distance of him going into Final Jeopardy. That is to say, a score of at least half the leader’s total. Thus far, all of his games have been locks. There are a couple of ways this could happen.

It’s conceivable someone quick enough to beat him to the draw a few times could keep the game close. But it isn’t easy for a challenger playing his or her first game to match that kind of efficiency with the signaling button. Timing is everything, and experience only makes timing better. So it’s probably going to require Holzhauer to actually miss on one of those big wagers. Then, of course, the challenger would have to deliver a correct response on the final clue and hope the champ misses. To date, Holzhauer has only missed one Final Jeopardy. As I said, it would take quite a bit of good fortune.

Many fans are curious how Holzhauer would stack up against other super champs of the past like Jennings or multiple tournament winner Brad Rutter. Knowing a good thing when they see it, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the show’s producers make such a match-up happen one day.

Some folks on social media have even been kind enough to include me on that list. While I appreciate the sentiment, I’m reasonably sure Holzhauer would be the windshield and I the bug. I don’t have the exact figures, but I suspect my buzz-in percentage topped out at 30 percent on a good day. So for now, I’ll just enjoy watching to see how much this guy ends up taking home.

Eddie Timanus, USA TODAY


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