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James Holzhauer loses, talks about ‘Jeopardy!’ streak

Updated June 3, 2019 - 7:32 pm

We can no longer have nice things.

Two weeks after the “Game of Thrones” finale reignited debate over spoiler protocol and the proper interval before discussing how things come to an end, the New York Post published a story divulging the outcome of Monday’s historic “Jeopardy!” episode — a full day before it aired.

“Reporting” on leaked footage of Final Jeopardy that had been circulating online, the tabloid didn’t invoke a warning or even give the story an ambiguous headline.

On Sunday evening, typing “Holzhauer” into a search engine, as viewers have been doing for the better part of two months, returned the following: “Viral ‘Jeopardy!’ clip appears to show James Holzhauer’s defeat.”

‘I figured it would happen’

Monday was shaping up to be an absolutely massive day for the game show.

With the Las Vegas-based sports bettor having ended Friday’s episode less than $60,000 shy of Ken Jennings’ all-time “Jeopardy!” streak of $2,522,700, Monday looked to be the day the 15-year-old record would fall.

After all, Holzhauer was averaging more than that during his 32 victories, when he’d dominated the game like no one before. And America loves a good record-breaking. It’s why people who can’t tell you what a furlong is become invested whenever there’s a horse running for the Triple Crown.

Then that story hit, describing Holzhauer’s defeat in detail, and the floodgates opened. By Monday morning, the news was everywhere. (Until today, the Review-Journal posted results only after the show’s daily 4:30 p.m. embargo.)

In a series of emails Sunday, Holzhauer said he was less than pleased that the leak spoiled the outcome for viewers, but he wasn’t surprised.

“I figured it would happen,” he wrote. “Honestly, I’m happy people kept the lid on this as long as they did, considering this taped 12 weeks ago.”

A modest wager

It was the first of 10 games to be recorded that week. Two days, five shows per day.

His preparation was the same as before any other show, even though he entered it on the cusp of history.

“I knew I was playing a winning strategy and didn’t see any need to change anything,” Holzhauer wrote.

Then he ran into Chicago librarian Emma Boettcher.

Holzhauer trailed her by $3,200 — $26,600 to $23,400 — going into Final Jeopardy. The man known for bringing his bold sports gambling style to the show bet just $1,399.

After reading Holzhauer’s correct response — “Who is Kit Marlowe?” to the answer about whose premature death the line “A great reckoning in a little room” in “As You Like It” refers — Alex Trebek seem surprised when the number was revealed. “His wager? A modest one for the first time,” the host announced.

When Boettcher also had the right question, Holzhauer’s fate was sealed. There was no way he could catch her. He walked over to high-five her while her total, $46,801, was being announced.

“No regrets,” he wrote of his final performance. “I played great, but Emma played better and hit the Daily Doubles when it counted. If anything, I’m happy it took an elite performance to knock me out. So many other great ‘Jeopardy!’ champs lost by beating themselves.”

A new champ

After 32 wins, losing didn’t sink in right away.

“Alex Trebek always shakes the champ’s hand first, and it was weird when he didn’t head straight for me,” Holzhauer wrote. “Back in the green room, one of the producers called out ‘champ’ to get Emma’s attention, and I reflexively turned my head to respond. That was when it really hit me that I’m not ‘champ’ anymore.”

As for his conservative bet, Holzhauer said it was a safeguard against finishing third.

“In Final Jeopardy, I could only win if Emma answered incorrectly, as she was surely going to bet enough to cover my potential all-in wager. She was clearly a strong player, so I had to hope for a difficult question.”

His $1,399 was to ensure that, even if he was incorrect, the other contestant, Atlanta research engineer Jay Sexton, couldn’t pass him.

“No one likes to lose, but I really felt like I was playing with house money at that point, so I never got upset about it. As I headed off the stage, I actually had to comfort the contestant coordinator, who was sad to see me go.”

A ratings winner

Take a moment to think about how remarkable all of this was.

How many game show contestants can you name besides Holzhauer?

There’s Jennings, of course. Maybe Charles Van Doren of “Quiz Show” infamy. (This doesn’t count people such as Tom Selleck and Arnold Schwarzenegger, “The Dating Game” alums who became famous for other reasons.)

And honestly, when was the last time you heard anyone talk about “Jeopardy!” on a regular basis? The real show, not the “Saturday Night Live” sketches featuring Darrell Hammond’s crazed Sean Connery.

Yet during the first week of May sweeps, the show achieved its highest ratings in 14 years.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, “Jeopardy!” averaged 13.28 million viewers for the week beginning April 29. That was better than the same-day audiences for every prime-time series during those seven days, including the nonstreaming viewership for “Game of Thrones,” which was 11.8 million.

During the annual teachers tournament that pre-empted Holzhauer’s run the following week, ratings dropped 27 percent.

“I’m a little surprised at how much attention ‘Jeopardy!’ is getting, but I’m glad to see so many eyes on the program,” Holzhauer wrote. “Hopefully the viewers will stick around. It’s a fabulous show.”

A tidy sum

He may have come up short of Jennings, but Holzhauer’s final tally of $2,464,216 is nothing to sneeze at.

Twice a year since 2000, “Survivor” contestants have starved themselves and been exposed to the elements for up to 39 days for just the chance to win $1 million, a prize that, even accounting for inflation, still sounds exotic.

Contestants on ABC’s prime-time “Match Game” battle it out for a shot at — cue Dr. Evil voice — $25,000.

Given Holzhauer’s 33 “Jeopardy!” appearances, that works out to $74,673 a show. According to Variety, that’s nearly what Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown made for each episode of the first season of “This Is Us” ($75,000). Based on published reports, that’s also significantly more than “Jeopardy!” host Trebek ($43,478).

At $74,673 per game played, that’s approaching Marc-Andre Fleury money ($84,559).

Figuring 22 minutes per episode, based on screen time, that’s roughly what Robert Downey Jr. ($500,000) earned for “Iron Man.”

One more record?

Holzhauer bows out of “Jeopardy!” with 23 of the 27 highest daily totals, earned from a brazen style that may have changed the game forever.

“I certainly didn’t break the show; nobody could ever break it,” he wrote. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I’ll be excited to see if players are more aggressive. … I find my style more exciting to watch, so I’m hoping someone out there tries it.”

Even though he’s no longer chasing Jennings, there’s one more record he can break. Through an assortment of special events, including the show’s annual Tournament of Champions, Brad Rutter amassed the overall “Jeopardy!” mark with $4,688,436.

He can’t comment on future appearances, but a Tournament of Champions without Holzhauer doesn’t make sense. “It’s hard to imagine saying no to ‘Jeopardy!’ if they invite me back,” he said.

As for the past, he’s simply thankful.

“The best part of the experience has been having money and a platform to give back to the community of Las Vegas and seeing the impact the donations are having,” Holzhauer wrote. “To the fans, I want to say thanks so much for your support, and I hope I did a good job representing Las Vegas and sports gamblers.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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