The Answer Is… James Holzhauer

Jeopardy James & And The Tournament of Champions

Jeopardy’s Tournament of Champions have always been something I would block off two weeks in my calendar for, no matter what else is going on. In the past year, I have mentioned just how important Jeopardy has been in my life, and in many ways, their nearly annual Tournament has always been a source of intellectual exercise and good fun.

But the 2019 Tournament was significant for two reasons. First, there was an unspoken fact that Alex Trebek, who has struggled with pancreatic cancer all year, might not be around for future ones. There was also a visual reminder — the winner of the Teacher Tournament Larry Martin had also passed away from the disease shortly after winning. All the competitors wore purple ribbons in memoriam. There was also an undercurrent of affection for Trebek that is not always present in these tournaments — one contestant, out of the running in Final Jeopardy wrote down ‘We Love You, Alex!” and Trebek’s voice broke at the acknowledgement of it. That’s not to say the matches haven’t been fun — one category poked fun at an ongoing Conan O’Brien gag of Trebek’s pronouncement of ‘genre’, and at one point when the word came up in another category, he leaned into it, and got a huge laugh.

The more interesting reason was the fact that James Holzhauer, the Vegas gambler who had come within inches of beating Ken Jennings’ all time record for money won in normal play during a 33 game winning streak, was competing in it. When he made to the finals (something that should’ve surprised no one), Alex pointed out that if he won, he would win $250,000 for four days work. He had averaged more than $70,000 per win in his initial appearance, so Alex naturally asked how it felt to come back for a pay cut. Holzhauer remarked that he was a gambler, and he ‘played to win even in penny-ante games.

Much of the focus was on Holzhauer during the quarter and semi-final games, and as a result, the traditional approaches — starting at the top of a category and working your way down — didn’t apply. Not just for Holzhauer, but for every else. Everybody was starting at the bottom and leaping around the board, looking for those Daily Doubles. This worked against Holzhauer in his first two games — he only managed to find two Daily Doubles — but it was also clear he was taking a somewhat different approach then before. He was still looking at the bottom of the board, but when he found the Daily Doubles, he bet a bit more conservatively than he usually did. (He even made fun of it, saying once: “Let’s make it a truly disappointing $1109.” He got it right, though.)

As should surprise no one, Holzhauer made it to the finals. There were, however, two x-factors. First, his incorrect response in Final Jeopardy in his semi-final match caused him to play in the second dais instead of the first where he had been so dominant for so long. (Alex even referred to him as James Holzhauer ‘is our champion’ during the interview segment. Old habits die hard even for him.) Second, the only contestant to ever beat him in a game, Emma Boettcher had managed to qualify for the TOC as well. She proved she was still as good as ever, and was competing in the Finals as well.’ Filling out the slot was Francis Barcomb, winner of another Teachers Tournament, who had earned his spot by being fortunate enough to have a science question be the subject of his Final Jeopardy. Barcomb is an eleventh-grade physics teacher.

In Game 1, James got off to a fast start, but when he hit a Daily Double and went all in, he failed to answer a question about Oscar Wilde correctly. (Not to brag, but I knew the answer to that question. Happens to best of us some time.) This only momentarily slowed him down, though, and by the end of Double Jeopardy, he had amassed $37,412. Emma was a distant second with $13,200.

Final Jeopardy had to do with Old Testament Books. ‘By Hebrew word count, this longest book of the Old Testament bears this name that led to a word for a long complaint or rant” The correct response: “What is Jeremiah?” from which we get the word, jeremiad. Francis was incorrect. Emma got it right, and wagered everything. Holzhauer got it right as well. Boetticher had $26,400, which was still more than $20,000 behind James’ first game total.

Alex brought up almost casually his discussion with James before the final game, saying that James had built up a cushion because ‘he knew he would need it… against Francis and Emma.’ Truer words were never spoken. Once again, James got off to a fast start in the Jeopardy Round, but his lead over Emma was never quite as large as it could’ve been. Then, in Double Jeopardy, things got interesting.

Emma managed to find the Daily Double in Female Firsts, With the score $16,000 to $8600, she went ‘all in’ on a clue that asked for what film Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director. (The Hurt Locker) For the first time in the entire tournament, someone was ahead of James. James regained momentum, and hit the Daily Double in the category ‘R’ Chitecture and wagering $8,615. He then got it wrong by failing to remember one of the most elementary rules of Jeopardy! — when something’s in quotation marks, it will be at the start of the clue.

James couldn’t recover, and entered Final Jeopardy trailing Emma by just under $4000. I could do math quickly, and for the briefest of moments, the unthinkable seemed possible — Emma could upset James if she wagered enough, responded correctly, and if James got an incorrect answer in ‘International Disputes’.

The Final Jeopardy answer was involved ‘A dispute over Etorofu, Habomai, Kunashiri and Shikotan has kept these two countries from ever signing a World War II Peace Treaty.’ I won’t keep you in suspense: “What is Russia & Japan?” All three of them knew it. And James wagered more than enough to come away a quarter of a million dollars richer.

Francis spent most of the tournament no doubt feeling like so many people who had to go up against Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, numbers 1 and 2 in all time money wins. James still comes away from this as merely the third greatest Jeopardy player of all time, though it must be noted he has done something that the latter never has done — won a championship tournament. As for Emma, for nearly achieving the impossible, she deserves not only the $100,000 she got for second place, but surely to be considered among the greatest Jeopardy champions of all time, something I might not have been willing to attribute to her before this tournament.

One final suggestion for the producers of Jeopardy! I realize the Jeopardy All-Star Games were earlier this year, but given the events of the past few months, perhaps another super-tournament might be in order in the next year or so. Maybe one could limit to all living Tournament of Champion winners and everyone else who has managed to win more than five games since the rule change. People would no doubt like any excuse to see Austin Rogers and Julia Collins again, and it would be nice to see 18 Game winner Jason Zuffernetti prior to his Tournament of Champions appearance. James Holzhauer has already proven himself as one of the greatest. Now he should have to compete against the other GOAT. I know I’d watch, if for no other reason that this Tournament has proven once again that sometimes the impossible can be made possible — at least on Jeopardy!