By Meagan Flynn / The Washington Post
The 34-year-old from Naperville, Illnois, says he hasn’t studied anything extensively, except for the lyrics to every Led Zeppelin song and an exhaustive list of all-time home run leaders in Major League Baseball.
He plays a lot of bridge with competitors twice his age, and he gambles on sports in Las Vegas for a living.
But when he’s not doing that, you might catch him at the library.
Back in the corner where the children’s books are shelved, you’ll find James Holzhauer — Tuesday’s “Jeopardy!” champion who annihilated the show’s single-day winnings record by more than $30,000.
Holzhauer brought home $110,914 after reaching into his mathematics background to correctly answer “What is quantum leap?” in Final Jeopardy, marking his fourth consecutive victory on the show. He shattered the previous single-game winnings record of $77,000, set by Roger Craig in 2010. And with a total of $244,365 in regular-play winnings from the four episodes, his success has led the “Jeopardy!” die-hards to wonder whether he’s the show’s “next great champion.”
His secret? Those informational children’s books.
“They are chock-full of infographics, pictures and all kinds of stuff to keep the reader engaged,” he told The Washington Post via email. “I couldn’t make it through a chapter of an actual Dickens novel without falling asleep.”
Holzhauer took “Jeopardy!” by storm over the past week, missing only four out of 133 questions as he cruised to smashing victories, ESPN reported. He knew his ballpark cuisine, his country music, his 18th century science and Hollywood history. He even knew that “Sadie Lou” was a nickname for Sarah Lawrence College, because he and his wife had studied the etymology of the name “Sadie” while picking out baby names.
From his first appearance last Thursday, it was clear Holzhauer would wager big. “James Holzhauer is from Las Vegas,” host Alex Trebek said, introducing him. “He is a professional sports gambler. What does that mean, exactly?”
“Oh, I’ll bet on anything,” Holzhauer told him.
But on “Jeopardy!,” his bets weren’t always strategic. They were personal. For every big wager, the amount of money Holzhauer bet coincided with a date: his wedding anniversary, the birthdays for his dad, nephew and daughter. He won exactly $110,914 on purpose on Tuesday, planning it all along. His daughter was born on 11/09/14.
“Family and friends will always mean more to me than any amount of money or ‘Jeopardy!’ wins,” he told The Post. “I wanted to show them my love in an unconventional way.”
He had been preparing for his run at “Jeopardy!” for a long time. A really long time. Holzhauer said he had dreamed of being on the show since he was a kid, back when the Chicago Cubs and “Jeopardy!” were about the only two things his family watched on school nights. “More importantly,” he said, “I promised my dear Granny that I would appear on ‘Jeopardy’ one day, and I never take promises lightly. So here we are.”
He had always been somewhat of a whiz kid. In high school in Naperville, a western suburb of Chicago, he was part of a team that won the Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering state competition. He placed first in physics and second in mathematics — a background that would come in handy when “Physics Terms” was the Final Jeopardy category on Tuesday. He got his bachelor’s in mathematics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but he had his sights set on betting, melding his love of sports and knack for stats.
“I think it was a huge advantage that I don’t blink at gambling large amounts of money when I think I have a big edge,” he said. “I approach both sports betting and ‘Jeopardy!’ with the same attitude: What can I do differently than the average person to give myself an edge?”
It could be that he reads children’s books. It could also be his rigorous training watching back-to-back reruns of “Jeopardy!” on DVR for hours at a time — while standing in dress shoes, just so it feels real. “Dr. Scholl’s insoles should offer me an endorsement deal,” he said.
He had been well prepared for his appearance on “Jeopardy!” this week, in large part, because it wasn’t his first time on a televised game show before a national audience. In 2014, he first caught trivia lovers’ attention on Game Show Network’s “The Chase,” where he zipped through trivia questions about everything from impressionism to the sports film “Field of Dreams” to glaucoma, and helped his team win $175,000. US Bets reported that one commentator had offered this glowing assessment of his performance: “If in a hypothetical scenario, aliens attacked Earth and the future of Earth hinged on James’ ability to win a quiz, we would all be partying.” He also appeared on ABC’s short-lived “500 Questions.”
Holzhauer was already bent on cracking Craig’s single-game record the moment he got the call from producers asking him to appear on the show. The record-holding contestants are legends among “Jeopardy!” die-hards, archived like the big swingers on Holzhauer’s record-holding MLB list. “Jeopardy!” fan websites track every single player, recording their names into eternal game-show lore. By Monday, as Holzhauer was fresh off two straight wins, fans began questioning whether he was headed to the all-time leader board.
“Who will be the next great champion?” a “Jeopardy!” teaser asked.
“Based on two games, it must be James Holzhauer,” one fan wrote. “He plays like the other greats.”
“This guy is a beast!” another wrote.
“Is it too soon to start thinking about Ken Jennings comparisons?” Trebek asked after Holzhauer’s big win Tuesday, referring to the legendary contestant who won 74 straight games in 2004, the current record, and took home more than $2.5 million during that run.
The makings of Holzhauer’s record-breaking win on Tuesday was a mishmash of subjects including Asian cities, architecture, music festivals and American outlaws.
“In 1904 Oklahoma City policeman Joe Burnett killed Ed O’Kelley, who had killed Robert Ford, who had killed this outlaw,” went the first Double Jeopardy! round’s Daily Double.
“Who is Jesse James?” Holzhauer answered.
“In Andalusia Arabic calligraphy represents this style named for medieval visitors from Africa,” went the second Double Jeopardy! round’s Daily Double.
“What is Moorish?” Holzhauer knew.
And then came the Final Jeopardy! clue.
“You’re $4,400 off the one-day record, James,” Trebek told him.
“Okay, I’ll try,” Holzhauer said.
The clue came: “Ironically, a metaphor meaning a huge step forward, but this 2-word process only occurs on a subatomic scale.”
The bet: $38,314. With the correct answer of “What is quantum leap?,” he brought his total to $110,914.
“Happy birthday, Booger <3,” he wrote to his daughter, alongside his final answer.
“Since I could have bet more on Final Jeopardy,” he told The Post, “it’ll end up being the most expensive birthday gift I ever get my daughter.”
He said he celebrated the win “the same way I end every day: wiping my daughter’s butt and reading her a bedtime story.”
The book, he hoped, might come in handy down the line.