Ken Jennings Broke Down What Makes ‘Jeopardy!’ Champion James Holzhauer’s Strategy So Smart


James Holzhauer is the Jeopardy! champion currently putting the limits of a 30-minute game show to the test, and the show’s most famous contestant has plenty to say about his current run. Ken Jennings won $2,520,700 on Jeopardy! over 74 games and is considered the greatest player in the show’s history.

Jennings, after all, is the one who was allowed to face off against an artificial intelligence designed at least in part to play on the Alex Trebek-hosted show. And in the years since his massive run on Jeopardy! he’s commented on a number of big runs by his fellow contestants. And what Holzhauer is currently doing is certainly newsworthy. He’s dominating the show in a way few have, and his massive betting efforts have changed the way some think of the show.

Friday’s win, giving him a dozen straight, is a great example of how dominant he’s been. He actually had a slow start, going into the negatives at times. But big bets on the Daily Doubles and again at Final Jeopardy gave him yet another win and $35,006, a paltry win total compared to the now $851,926 he’s amassed over the course of six hours of television.

Wired did a great job of explaining why what Jennings thinks of Holzhauer is important. It’s not just that the two have quickly become two of the show’s biggest stars. They actually have a lot in common when it comes to how they wager.

Statistically speaking, Jennings and Holzhauer are near mirrors. Jeopardy! home players keep tabs on what’s known as their Coryat score, named after two-day champion Karl Coryat. In a blog post written shortly after his 1996 appearance, Coryat suggested the best way to measure one’s progress was to exclude wagers—in Daily Doubles and the Final Jeopardy round, players can bet a portion of their winnings—from final tallies. Through 11 games, Jennings and Holzhauer have average Coryat scores of $29,127 and $29,400, respectively.

What Jennings has to say about Holzhauer is all positive, too. He already spoke on Twitter about how his run is “absolutely insane” and questioned betting on the show given its results are a loosely-kept secret. But according to his interview with Wired, Jennings said he was so focused on being comfortable in the game that he couldn’t imagine putting up big numbers during his time on the show. In his words, it “could not have been further from my mind.”

I would never have had the stomach for those kinds of bets. You’re going to have to be comfortable with losing the average American income on a single trivia question a lot of the time, and then have to come back five minutes later and play another game with that in the back of your mind. Psychologically, my peace of mind was built on just playing my game—a lot lower stakes, fun game, let’s pretend we’re all here to have fun. James is under no such illusion.

One key thing Jennings points out is that filming Jeopardy! is a grind: five episodes are filmed in a day, and the break between filming isn’t long. But if you’re smart, there’s a “home field advantage” to being the champion that good players can utilize. Jennings described the two inexperienced players as “fresh meat” and said knowing the format, buzzer and how TV works can give you a jump on them.

And he noted Holzhauer’s strategy — which includes picking up the top money first and working up the board to the lowest questions later, limits the opposition’s chances of catching up.

That’s honestly one of the smartest things James is doing, going for the high dollar values early. Not just because it enables bigger wagers, but because he’s taking money off the board while he’s the most comfortable player, and everybody else is still finding their legs. It’s really, really smart. I’ve never seen it before.

Jennings said he’s always expected someone to challenge his record, and he’s certainly interested in seeing how things play out. And it’s really cool for someone so famous for doing something on a game show openly rooting for his streak to be replicated.

“I’m very excited. As a fan of the show, I’m actually rooting for James or anybody who can take a swing at that record,” Jennings said. “It’s bizarre to me that it’s still a one-off.”