James Holzhauer’s luck ran out.
That’s not meant as a slight on his conqueror, Emma Boettcher, who played a magnificent game on March 12 (the date on which the June 3 episode of Jeopardy! was recorded), got zero questions wrong, and might well be poised for a long reign herself. But Holzhauer, the Las Vegas-based professional sports bettor who’d shattered records throughout his 32-game winning streak, didn’t do a single thing wrong on this day. He was his usual aggressive self, he had the most correct responses of the three contestants (26 including Final Jeopardy, compared to 22 for Boettcher and 14 for third-place finisher Jay Sexton), and he employed proper betting strategy in Final Jeopardy.
He just got a little unlucky. Holzhauer discovered the first Daily Double on the very first clue of the game, limiting the amount he could win to a mere $1k. And Boettcher uncovered both Daily Doubles in the Double Jeopardy round.
Both played flawlessly (and Sexton played pretty darned well himself). Boettcher ran better. Boettcher won.
It was a poetic way for the historic march of the boldest gambler in Jeopardy! history to end. Holzhauer is the first to admit that, on top of all his trivia knowledge, buzzer skill, and fearless wagering, he ran above expectation over the course of his first 32 games.
Lady Luck never needed to bail him out. But she was generally on his side.
Until she wasn’t.
And Holzhauer exited with class (immediately high-fiving Boettcher) and good humor (after the show aired, he changed his Twitter avatar to an image of “Weird Al” Yankovic in the 1984 “I Lost On Jeopardy” music video), solidifying his position as, frankly, the best ambassador the sports betting industry could possibly have asked for.
The face of sports betting
These are vital times for the world of sports betting. The form of gambling has been legal in states not named Nevada for barely a year, and it’s growing rapidly — and facing the sort of scrutiny that comes with that.
In previous decades, candidates to be the public face of sports gambling included the likes of Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, Billy Walters, and Biff Tannen — a disgraced football analyst, an incarcerated insider trader, and a fictional villain, respectively. Maybe some of their negative qualities have been overblown, but the truth is that sports betting could use a better frontman for this new era.
If James Holzhauer hadn’t come along when he did, someone like a “Vegas Dave” Oancea might have been the cultural touchstone.
Instead we have “Jeopardy James,” and we’re lucky we do.
Thanks to @James_Holzhauer, mainstream world now understands professional gambler isn’t code for scum. Can be humble, gracious, family-oriented, honorable and wicked smart. Great run.
— Adam Levitan (@adamlevitan) June 4, 2019
For millions of people who didn’t know prior to this spring that (a) professional sports bettors existed or (b) they could be young, analytical types rather than crusty degens, Holzhauer serves as a paradigm-shifting point of reference.
Shout out to the #Holzhaters
Jeopardy James was not universally loved. His personality and playing style did not sit well with everyone. There was a backlash, a wave of viewers who found him too robotic, who hated his smile, who resented his singular focus on winning (especially when he would frequently cut off Alex Trebek’s banter to get to the next clue), who felt he sucked the drama out of the game show, who didn’t care for the cold, calculating nature of the brainiac crushing the dreams of two unfortunate challengers night after night.
And they had a point. The ratings suggest that the number of pre-Holzhauer viewers who tuned out was dwarfed by the number of new regulars tuning in, but there was a certain monotony to many of his games.
Perhaps Holzhauer’s run ended at the perfect time — it was long enough to whip up mainstream interest in Jeopardy!, but not so long that it could indicate the game was “solved” or allow a majority of viewers to turn against him.
You can’t deny this: Holzhauer’s downfall on Monday’s episode achieved a level of drama that couldn’t be found in the five-and-done era. (Assuming, that is, you stayed away from the internet, where some outlets, who shall not be rewarded with a link here, were determined to spoil the result.) It was not only one of the best games of Jeopardy! ever played (the only incorrect answer came from Sexton late in the game, when he took a meaningless stab), but if you didn’t know the outcome going in, it carried an “is this really happening?” air from the moment Boettcher took the lead early in Double Jeopardy through the reveal of her Final Jeopardy answer. That edge-of-your-seat quality would never have been possible if not for the “boring” dominance established by Holzhauer over the previous weeks.
If by chance you hated what the mercilessness of Holzhauer’s style and skill did to your beloved Jeopardy!, these 22 minutes of television were your payoff.
Holzhauer’s Jeopardy! legacy
Much has been made already this week with regards to how close Holzhauer came to breaking Ken Jennings’ record for regular-season winnings on the show. Indeed, he seemed poised to surpass Jennings’ $2,520,700 mark, achieved over 74 victories, in his 33rd show. Instead, Holzhauer, counting the $2k he won for second place on Monday, finishes with $2,464,216, about $56k short.
Holzhauer’s defeat, the result of just a hint of variance biting him, underscores what a remarkable, perhaps untouchable, achievement Jennings’ 74 wins is. It’s fair to say that Holzhauer, by coming up 42 wins and a few dollars short, doesn’t get to claim Jeopardy! GOAT status.
What he does get to claim is a whole lot of money (which he has already received, ahead of schedule), and a single-day record of $131,127 that might just stand forever. In fact, if you look at the all-time single-day-winnings rankings, you’ll find that the first 16 spots are all held by Holzhauer. Roger Craig, whose $77k was the record holder for nine years, has fallen to 17th place.
Amazingly, Craig’s $77k score is just $55.75 ahead of Holzhauer’s average win size, which settled after 32 victories at $76,944.25.
Holzhauer is No. 2 all-time in consecutive wins and No. 2 all-time in regular-season money. We’ll never know how many players from the era where winners were sent out to pasture after five wins could have made magnificent runs, but it’s safe to say Holzhauer’s place in history as one of the best ever to phrase answers in the form of questions is secure.
We’ll have to watch in the weeks and months ahead to see if he revolutionized Daily Double betting or will go down as a historical anomaly in that regard. You have to assume some contestants will attempt to replicate his big-betting strategy.
But his greater legacy is as a rare Jeopardy! star. The show released a loving tribute video in the wake of his loss. He put a pep in Trebek’s step (at a perfect time, with the longtime host publicly battling cancer), and he made Jeopardy! a topic of water-cooler conversation again.
Sports betting is now his side hustle, essentially. James Holzhauer is, whether he changes his business cards to say it or not, a professional game show contestant and a professional celebrity.
Back on the day he walked into the Jeopardy! studio as a challenger, you probably could have gotten long odds on that outcome.