Meet The Man Who Mastered “Jeopardy!” By Ignoring Conventional Wisdom

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Submitted by Bill Rice Jr., a freelance writer in Troy, Alabama. He can be reached at [email protected]. A version of this story originally appeared in The American Conservative.

For all practical purposes, the manner in which contestants have played “Jeopardy!” has not changed since Art Fleming provided the game show’s first “answer” 55 years ago. That is, until James Holzhauer took his place behind the podium earlier this year.  

After winning 22 consecutive games by an astounding average margin of $64,913, one question must be asked: Had every one of these contestants been playing this game the wrong way?

If this is indeed the case,“a professional sports gambler from Nevada” may have shown the world what’s possible when a template – never challenged or questioned over half a century  – is blown up and replaced by another strategy that produces vastly superior results.

By now millions of Americans are familiar with James’s unorthodox “Jeopardy!” strategy. Unlike 99.9 percent of the game’s previous contestants, he starts at the bottom of the board and goes sideways.

“It seems pretty simple to me: If you want more money, start with the bigger-money clues,”  Holzhauer explained in an interview with Vulture magazine. He told NPR “What I do that’s different than anyone who came before me is I will try to build the pot first” before seeking out the game’s Daily Doubles. He then “leverages” his winnings with “strategically aggressive” wagers (read: wagers far larger than any contestant before him was willing to make).

This strategy – along with the fact he’s answering 96.7 percent of the clues correctly –  has allowed James to build insurmountable leads heading into Final Jeopardy. He can then be ultra-aggressive with his Final Jeopardy wagers, including one of $60,013. It was this wager that allowed James to establish his current single-game record of $131,016. (James now holds the Top 12 all-time records for one-game winnings). 

In 22 episodes, James has earned $1.69 million. Given that each show takes about 24 minutes to play, James is averaging $192,045/hour. 

How could a strategy that really is “pretty simple” – one that on a per-hour basis generates more income than any job in America – have been eschewed by approximately 25,000 previous contestants? 

There are several possible answers to this question, none of which speaks particularly well of America, or Americans.

One is that most people are afraid to challenge “conventional wisdom.” If something’s been done the same way for decades by everyone, no one thinks that it can be done differently. And/or people have observed that those who do challenge the Status Quo (“Who is Galileo?”)  aren’t always celebrated, at least in their own times.  

Holzhauer’s contrarian approach to “Jeopardy!” has clearly rubbed many Americans the wrong way.

Washington Post columnist Charles Lane labeled Holzhauer a “menace” who is guilty of violating the “unwritten rules of the game,” a view endorsed by CNN host Michael Smerconish.

Other pundits accused Holzhauer of using tactics that are “unfair” or “bad for the game.” He’s been called divisive, polarizing and controversial, someone who has “destroyed the quaintness of the game” and given America “deadly dull television.” Some speculate he’s “gaming the system,” perhaps even cheating. Many message board posters have pledged to boycott the  show until the “robotic” Holzhauer is defeated.

The opposite view –  thankfully held by more Americans if message board posts are a gauge – is that James is a sensation whose accomplishments should be celebrated. According to one story, he’s the “man who solved ‘Jeopardy!’

Another depressing possibility is that the overwhelming percentage of Jeopardy contestants (and, symbolically, the population writ large) is incapable of performing contrarian analysis, or of approaching a project or puzzle in a unique way.  Americans have either known for decades that “Jeopardy!” was being played the wrong way but were too chicken to play it correctly, or James Holzhauer is the only American who figured the game out.

It’s too soon to tell if future contestants will emulate James’s strategy. For what it’s worth, over the past two weeks, 16 contestants have competed in Jeopardy’s “Teacher Tournament” and every contestant reverted to the game’s normal style of play. Such is the enduring power of conformity, of not challenging conventional wisdom.

But what if conventional wisdom is wrong? And how often is it wrong?

According to Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson, the answer is “almost always.” 

Indeed, Samuelson wrote an important if largely overlooked book on this very subject in 2001. The book’s title:  Untruth: How The Conventional Wisdom Is (Almost Always) Wrong.

Samuelson’s thesis is that people or organizations with an “agenda” often create problems or a “crisis” that are exaggerated or not problems at all. The “solutions” policy makers give us typically make things worse. 

One can take his premise and run with it … and it holds. A few conventional wisdom examples:

  • To protect our freedoms and save lives, America must invade, occupy or attack nation after nation, countries which pose great threats to our country and/or our freedoms.
  • Man-made climate change is the greatest threat to our planet and its inhabitants and can and must be reversed at all costs.
  • Donald Trump will never be elected president of the United States.
  • Donald Trump will drain the swamp.
  • Russia “hacked” an election.
  • There’s only one way to play “Jeopardy!”

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Or, if not all wrong, at least not all sacrosanct.

Examples where conventional wisdom is often wrong could also be easily identified in the fields of science, health, economics and education. The point: if conventional wisdom really is “almost always wrong,” someone (or a lot of someones) need to expose this.

In the grand scheme of things, disproving the postulate that there’s only one way to play “Jeopardy!” might not seem like a big deal.  It could be, however, if a rare “eureka!” moment opened the floodgates of independent thought among more Americans, a development that might qualify as a tectonic shift in any quest to shatter a sub-optimal Status Quo.

As I was researching James, I learned the fascinating identify of one of his sources of inspiration.

“Do you follow hot-dog eating?”

This out-of-left-field question came after a reporter with Vulture asked James to respond to the charge he had “broken” Jeopardy.

“No. Can’t say I do,” the interviewer responded.

James: “About a decade ago, nobody ever thought someone could eat more than, like, 25 hot dogs in ten minutes. But this guy named Takeru Kobayashi came along and he shattered the record by so much that people realized there was a new blueprint to do this.” 

Here I was looking (in vain) for sports analogies to compare James’s paradigm-shifting strategy and it’s James himself who (of course) had the answer.

It wasn’t Secretariat winning by 31 lengths, or Bob Beamon breaking the long-jump record by almost 22 inches, or Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100 points in an NBA game who transcended what everyone thought was possible. These athletes were simply doing the same things they’d always done, just far better, at least on one occasion. 

The example that caught James’s attention – and gave me my perfect analogy – was the story of a 130-pound Japanese man with the goal of eating a mind-boggling number of hot dogs.

Freakonomics Radio – an outfit that appreciates what’s possible when a puzzle is looked at in novel ways – did a podcast on the great Kobayashi.

Through intense study and trial-and-error experimentation, Kobayashi discovered that if he ripped the hot dog in two, squeezed each piece into a ball, dipped the balls in water (thereby breaking down the starch), squeezed out the excess water and tossed each ball into his mouth his stomach could tolerate many more dogs. These simple innovations helped Kobayashi double the existing record his first time out. 

But here’s the kicker, one that offers hope for the world. Once Kobayashi smashed the record, his fellow competitors didn’t quit. They didn’t demand the rules be changed. They simply adapted their techniques and raised the level of their game. Today, an American once again holds the hot-dog-eating record72 wieners in 10 minutes!

The lesson is as obvious as Kobayashi’s bulging abdomen. When someone does think outside the box, when someone proves that performances once thought impossible are in fact easily obtainable, new levels of excellence become possible.

Back to James: “… So I’d be interested to see if there was a new paradigm in (‘Jeopardy!’). If someone comes along and breaks my record, and attributed it to my style, that would be really great,” he told Vulture.

When someone finally cures cancer, my wager is it will be someone like James Holzhauer, or Takeru Kobayashi. It will be someone who looks at all the work that’s come before him and says, “This doesn’t make sense. There’s a better way to approach this.”

Over the last two months James Holzhauer has been trying to teach Americans that eye-opening accomplishments are possible if one ignores or rejects conventional wisdom that is, in fact, wrong. The more Americans who absorb this lesson the better. But really it might take just one future James Holzhauer to improve our world. Let’s hope he or she’s been watching.

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