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Requiem for a champion:Thoughts on James Holzhauer’s “Jeopardy!” run

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As of Monday night, James Holzhauer and I finally have something in common: We both lost on “Jeopardy!” Granted, it took 33 games for Holzhauer to go down and it took me, well … one … but still.

What is arguably the most dominant streak in game show history has finally come to an end. The 34-year-old professional gambler fell to Emma Boettcher, a librarian from Chicago. After 32 wins in a row – the second-longest streak in the 35 seasons of the venerable program – Holzhauer finally fell.

But it wasn’t in the way I expected.

As a former contestant, a lot of people have asked me about Holzhauer’s run. And I’ve generally told them the same thing – that he’s impressive as hell and I hadn’t seen the slightest indication that he was going to lose any time soon. That his combination of knowledge retention, unconventionally efficient strategy, buzzer acumen and sheer brass … betting fortitude makes him an essentially perfect contestant.

When asked about how (if?) the end would come, I’d say something about him needing to get burned by a couple of big Daily Double bets and not know the answer in Final Jeopardy while also facing a contestant who approaches or matches his own game-specific skills.

Turns out, only the latter needed to be true.

That’s the thing. We’re talking about the end of an epic run, of how an unprecedented run of dominance reached its conclusion, yes. But make no mistake – James Holzhauer didn’t lose that game.

Emma Boettcher won it.

Oh, and spare me your galaxy-brained takes on how the fix was somehow in. Certain individuals out there are pointing to Holzhauer’s seemingly out-of-character low wager in Final Jeopardy as somehow proving that Holzhauer took a dive. Quite the contrary; he was doing what he’s done since he first walked onto that set – maximize his chances. He was behind, so he was betting strategically – he mathematically could not beat her if she doubled up, so he instead ensured that he would have enough to win if she whiffed on FJ and the third-place contestant got it right.

Anyone watching that episode play out could see that Holzhauer understood what was happening even as it was happening. He played as well as ever – he didn’t miss a question – but he hit the first Daily Double on the first question, negating his shot at opening an overwhelming early lead. And in Double Jeopardy, Boettcher found both DDs and capitalized on them. She played the game aggressively and displayed broad knowledge and a quick buzzer trigger and took the champion down.

(It’s worth noting that even the third-place contestant – an engineer named Jay Sexton – landed at 22,000. That’s a number that wins a lot of games – at least in the pre-Holzhauer era. He got 13 correct answers in a matchup against the greatest player of all time and the person who finally beat that guy; in another time, another place, who knows?)

Boettcher’s final score for the game was $46,801 – it was a victory well-earned.

For his part, James Holzhauer ends his “Jeopardy!” career with 32 victories, second on the all-time list to the still-staggering 74-game run of Ken Jennings. His total winnings of nearly $2.5 million land just shy of the Jennings mark. Holzhauer now holds down every single slot on the all-time single-game “Jeopardy!” scoring top-10 list … and the next six as well. He’s as a good a player as we’ve ever seen.

And he still got beaten.

That’s the blessing and the curse of a game like “Jeopardy!” Every single person who winds up on that stage is someone with the potential to be, if not a Holzhauer or a Jennings, at least a multiple-time champion. There’s a reason they all make it that far. Aside from the otherworldly outliers, it’s a pretty level playing field. From there, it just comes down to the breaks. Do the categories fit your strengths or your weaknesses? Do you have the requisite buzzer quickness? Do you find the Daily Doubles?

Do you know who invented the ballbarrow?

That’s the thing – it can all unravel because of one unknown answer. That can be the difference between a multi-show run and a one-and-done. To go up there 32 times, under the lights and in front of the cameras, and not just win but dominate is just … wow. It’s an incredible thing, one of the greatest accomplishments in the storied history of game shows.

But while Holzhauer might be gone, tune in anyway, for the show must go on.


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