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How a Pro Gambler, James Holzhauer, ‘Cracked’ the US Game Show Jeopardy With Game Theory


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Q. Everyday, as I follow the news, watch television and movie dramas  I keep hearing more and more about game theory and game-based thinking. Why is this so? Now I’ve heard that a player is dominating the game show Jeopardy.

A. As you know if you read my blogs I have had a passion for game theory and game-based thinking for over two decades, study it daily, and created my own approach (Harrison’s Applied Game Theory) to the concept. Life has always been systematic in some way and now with algorithms, and system based analysis running everything from telemarketing services to auto repair it was only a matter of time before game-based thinking filtered into pop culture and prime time television.

If you haven’t heard a game theorist in dominating and setting unheard of records on the game show Jeopardy. This is not a surprise to anyone familiar with game theory – A term used to mathematically describe why and how individuals and organizations strategize and/or behave within a specific environment or system.

Game theory shows how to make the best decisions when one or more people, places, or things might affect the outcome of the decision.  The most skilled and effective game theorists are essentially responding instinctually to the natural law that tells them that when possible it is wise to apply mathematical concepts and computer models to effectively predict these behaviors.  Game theory based researchers, economists, and philosophers have been awarded over a dozen Noble Prizes over the past three decades. Now, a mathematics graduate –professional gambler, who knows game theory strategies has conquered the ultimate game show, Jeopardy


Here is the report from yesterday’s BBC News concerning James Holzhauer,  the man who used game theory to


Jeopardy: How a pro gambler ‘cracked’ a US game show

By Jonathan BerrBBC News


Jeopardy – the iconic US trivia game show where contestants must answer clues “in the form of a question” – has never come across a contestant quite like professional gambler James Holzhauer in the decades it has been on air.

Not only has Mr Holzhauer become only the second contestant in the show’s history to earn more than $1m (£773,000) in one go, he has also hit the milestone over his multi-game spree faster than anyone in the show’s history.

No one has come close to catching the Las Vegas sports bettor, who has been training for years for his moment in the spotlight.

“I’ve thought seriously about how to approach a potential Jeopardy appearance since 2012,” Mr Holzhauer told BBC News in an email during his winning streak.

“I did look into some statistics on how to best approach the game board, and that played a part in my strategy,” adds Mr Holzhauer, who holds a mathematics degree from the University of Illinois and prepared for the game’s more esoteric categories by reading children’s books.

Mr Holzhauer has been impressing fans and former players since 4 April with his calm demeanour and cat-like reflexes as he buzzes in with correct responses on 607 questions to clues from categories that range from the serious, like History, to the whimsical, like Occupational Verbs.

Most Jeopardy players focus on any particular category by solving the easy clues first, then work their way to the higher-value difficult ones. Mr Holzhauer takes the opposite approach.

His technique of targeting the “expensive” difficult clues first (as opposed to progressing from easy to hard) has triggered complaints from detractors who say it ruins the flow of the game, but praise from others who say he has “cracked the Jeopardy code”.

He also has made hefty bets on “Daily Double” questions where players can risk as much as their entire score in one answer (a so-called “true daily double”) – but rarely do.

This strategy of bouncing around the board – seemingly at random – in hunt for the “Daily Double” prizes is named the “Forrest Bounce” after former contestant Chuck Forrest. But unlike his predecessors, Mr. Holzhauer is willing to risk far more money.

Fivethirtyeight.com, a website dedicated to odds and polls, has dubbed Mr Holzhauer “the man who solved Jeopardy”.


Many, who can’t believe James Holzhauer success think he is somehow cheating. The truth is that he gets every double jeopardy.

He wins Daily Doubles, topping the previous record of $19,000 for these types of bets.

He also places heavy wagers on the show’s climactic final question dubbed “Final Jeopardy”.

Jeopardy’s staff, including long-time host Alex Trebek, reportedly are not fans of the “Forrest Bounce”, arguing that it disrupts the natural order of the show.

But regardless of how he picks his questions, he still must buzz in first – and most importantly – give the correct answers.

One thing that future contestants will not be able to copy from Mr Holzhauer are his shout-outs to friends and family during Final Jeopardy, a practice that the show’s producers no longer allow, according to an announcement he made on his Facebook page.

Though Jeopardy is a battle of wits, it can be physically and mentally gruelling since producers tape five episodes at a time, according to Brad Rutter, whose $4.8m in winnings over 14 years is the most of any Jeopardy player.

“You can study some stuff, but it’s not like there is any real canon of knowledge that you can sit down and memorize,” he told BBC News.

“You have to have a brain that works that way and pick it up over the years.

“There are a few things that come up all of the time like presidents and world capitals and Shakespeare that you would be well served to study before going on,” he advises.

Washington Post Columnist Norman Chad has likened Mr Holzhauer’s dominance to “the most fearsome, dominant individual-sport athletes of the past couple of generations such as boxer Mike Tyson, swimmer Michael Phelps and tennis player Serena Williams”.

Ken Jennings, whose own winning streak captured audience imaginations in 2004, tweeted: “This is absolutely insane. I’ve always wanted to see someone try Jeopardy wagering this way who had the skills to back it up.”


Jeopardy trivia facts

  • The 35th season premiered in September 2018
  • Holds the Guinness world record for most Emmy awards (34) won by a game show
  • The only other contestant to top $1m in one go was Ken Jennings, whose 74-game winning streak yielded $2,520,700

Image captionKen Jennings needed 33 games to break the $1m bar.

But is it good TV?

Not everyone is a Holzhauer supporter.

He has become a sensation on social media where some Twitter users are debating his skill, and even calling for him to run for president.

TV critics and Jeopardy fans are split on whether his success is thrilling or boring.

In a recent, column in Variety, TV critic Daniel D’Addario argued that Mr Holzhauer’s achievement was “a thrilling achievement and deadly dull television”.

Andy Saunders, who operates the independent site called The Jeopardy Fan, argues that Mr Holzhauer is good for the game and is making it even more exciting.

“There will be people who will try to emulate him,” Mr Saunders hopes.

Though Jeopardy is hugely popular, its history was rocky. The show survived two cancellations.

After current host Alex Trebek was hired in 1984, the “cerebral” test of wits wasn’t an easy sell and producers resisted pressure to dumb the show-down.

Data from Nielsen, cited by AdAge, indicates that an average of 10.3 million viewers tuned in during the first 12 days of Mr. Holzhauer’s run.

The show is now considered so iconic that its host’s recent announcement of his cancer diagnosis was national news.

“I wouldn’t say anything about Jeopardy has surprised me, other than Alex Trebek continuing to show up to work during his chemotherapy,” Mr. Holzhauer wrote in an email to the BBC.

“What a consummate professional.”


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