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‘Jeopardy!’ star James Holzhauer enlightens at Las Vegas conference

Updated May 30, 2019 - 11:01 pm

James Holzhauer acknowledged Thursday that luck has played a big role in his “Jeopardy!” winning streak, and that he didn’t know the answers to numerous Daily Doubles fielded by other contestants.

Holzhauer went all-in on several subjects during a wide-ranging panel at the International Conference on Gambling and Risk Taking at Caesars Palace.

The Las Vegas resident, riding a 31-game win streak with total earnings of $2,382,583 on the popular game show, touched on his background and life as a parent, professional sports bettor and “Jeopardy!” sensation.

Holzhauer, 34, was on a panel with Andy Bloch, a member of the famed MIT blackjack team that was featured in the book “Bringing Down the House” and inspired the movie “21.”

The pro gamblers joked that it was a good thing the event was in the conference center because they probably wouldn’t be allowed in the Caesars Palace casino.

“It’s a good thing we’re not holding this down in the sportsbook,” Holzhauer said. “I might not be here.”

In becoming a national phenomenon, Holzhauer, a math whiz with a genius IQ, hopes he’s helping to change the perception of gamblers from a negative one to positive one.

“My perception of a professional gambler has always been a positive one,” said Holzhauer, wearing shorts, sneakers and a Shohei Ohtani Nippon Ham Fighters baseball jersey.

“It’s an important time for sports gambling because it’s spreading to a lot more states now. If I can be a positive face for it, that would be really good.”

Holzhauer’s sudden rise to prominence also appears to have changed his father’s perception of him.

“My dad sent me an email, ‘From a proud dad for the first time in a long time,’” he said jokingly.

Before becoming a pro sports bettor, Holzhauer played a lot of online poker — often skipping classes at the University of Illinois to do so — and said he learned valuable life lessons along the way.

“It’s one thing to skip class to play poker, but if I’m learning how to think in the real world playing poker, then maybe that’s more valuable than a college education could’ve been,” he said.

Holzhauer’s groundbreaking betting strategy on “Jeopardy!” has been well-documented, as has the fact that he’s credited his gambling skills with helping him dominate the show. But Bloch and Holzhauer took a deep dive Thursday into how they control their emotions under high-stakes pressure.

“After I joined the MIT Blackjack Team, we would have these practices to try to get rid of the emotions,” Bloch said. “One of the things about betting $10,000 of your college tuition on one hand of blackjack, you would just think of a poker chip. They aren’t real money. They’re just toys. They’re just chips.

“I’ve learned to think in terms of expectation, not necessarily what the actual value is.”

Holzhauer said he uses a similar thought process on “Jeopardy!” that gives him a huge advantage over his opponents.

“I’m thinking it’s 11,000 chips, not $11,000 you’re betting,” he said. “It’s a tournament, and you only see the money if you actually win. The second- and third-place prizes are fixed.

“I had a game where someone had 54,000 chips (in second place), but they only had $2,000 to show for it. You’ve got to be ready to put your chips in the middle.”

Holzhauer has correctly answered 68 of 72 Daily Doubles on the show for net earnings of $629,783 and is 30 of 31 in Final Jeopardy, where he has hit his past 25 clues. He said he bets big on those categories because the odds are heavily in his favor.

“I bet sports all the time and very rarely get in a spot where someone offered me even money on something I’m going to get right five out of six times,” he said.

Even the most skilled gambler needs a little luck, and Holzhauer — who is $138,117 from the regular play record of $2,520,700 set by Ken Jennings of Edmonds, Washington, in 2004 — said he’s no different.

He tried out for “Jeopardy!” every year since 2006 before finally making it on the show this year. Holzhauer told Bloch he was fortunate he made it when he did because he was better prepared.

“I feel like I’ve been lucky in a lot of ways,” he said. “I still haven’t really lost a giant bet yet. People complain about how boring the games are, but there have been at least seven or eight times that if one clue goes the wrong way, I could lose.

“And there’s been an abnormal number of times that someone else hit a Daily Double I did not know, and that would’ve been really costly to me.”

Asked about utilizing betting skills in other areas of life, Holzhauer said he’s introduced his 4-year-old daughter to analytics.

“I try to teach my kid the value of cost-benefit analysis: What can you get out of this and what’s it going to cost you. So far, it didn’t work so well,” he said. “She tried to dart across traffic to get a dandelion on the other side of the road. So we’re not quite there yet.”

Holzhauer said he’s working on a first-person essay about his life.

“It will probably get published when ‘Jeopardy!’ is all over,” he said.

That might be awhile.

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