James Holzhauer Is Shattering Records In The World Of 'Jeopardy!' NPR's Audie Cornish speaks with The Ringer's Claire McNear about James Holzhauer, the Jeopardy! contestant who set the one-day record for winnings.
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James Holzhauer Is Shattering Records In The World Of 'Jeopardy!'

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James Holzhauer Is Shattering Records In The World Of 'Jeopardy!'

James Holzhauer Is Shattering Records In The World Of 'Jeopardy!'

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to the world of "Jeopardy!" where 34-year-old James Holzhauer is shattering show records.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

JAMES HOLZHAUER: What is Bangkok?

What its Kyoto?

What is Kyrgyzstan?

What is curiosity?

What is dead cat?

ALEX TREBEK: Answer there - the Daily Double.

CORNISH: As of now, Holzhauer has won eleven straight games and recently set the record for most money won in a single day with a total of $131,000. The Ringer's Claire McNear has been looking into Holzhauer's strategy. She joins us in the studio. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CLAIRE MCNEAR: Thanks so much - great to be here.

CORNISH: Just how much better is this contestant (laughter) than everyone else?

MCNEAR: He's really just a phenomenal player in a few different ways. Speaking specifically about his results, he not only has the highest single score ever. He's now the top four. He's got number one, number two, number three, number four. And he's now second in all-time regular season winnings after just Ken Jennings, who won $2.5 million back in 2004. And that was over 74 games. So he is winning more faster than any "Jeopardy!" contestant ever has.

CORNISH: Now, I just assume they're just smarter than us. But is - there's also some strategy involved, and I gather he's got an interesting one.

MCNEAR: There is. There's quite a bit of strategy. So what's kind of caught a lot of people's attention with him beyond the fact that he just keeps winning is he's a professional sports gambler in his non-game-show life. And he takes a very aggressive betting strategy when he plays "Jeopardy!" He hunts for Daily Doubles. He starts at the bottom of the board, the high-scoring clues. So that's how you get these totals that are just so much higher than what you normally see.

CORNISH: And there's a whole thing about buzzing strategy. Tell us more.

MCNEAR: Yeah, so what sets apart players like James and Ken Jennings is not just, you know, how much they know or their gambling strategy. It's that James and other players like him are really, really good at the buzzer. And the way the buzzer works on "Jeopardy!" is kind of complicated. Alex Trebek reads a clue, and the moment he finishes the last word, there is a "Jeopardy!" staffer who manually flips a switch that turns on some lights that tell the three contestants that they cannot ring in. And at that point, they can hit their buzzers and try. But if they hit their buzzers even just a moment too early before that light has gone on, they're briefly locked out of the system for a quarter second, which is usually enough time for somebody else to get in ahead of them.

So it becomes extremely important to be able to predict how, you know, Trebek is going to finish the sentence and also have a sense of when the guy operating the lights is going to hit the switch.

CORNISH: What does Holzhauer attribute his success to?

MCNEAR: I mean, he studied. He read a book called "Secrets Of The Buzzer" by this guy Fritz Holznagel, who was a '90s "Jeopardy!" champion and has come on the show a few times since. And he came up with kind of a general rubric of best practices that, you know, cut his buzzer reaction time in half, stuff like use your thumb, and always watch where that light is going to turn on. Just stare at that. Wait for that to happen - even something like chug a cup of coffee before you go on the stage because he said that shaved, like, five one-thousandths of a second off his reaction time.

CORNISH: Is there something about his style of play that has kind of shaken up the culture of "Jeopardy!" so to speak?

MCNEAR: A little bit. I mean, you know, "Jeopardy!" purists always want to see players kind of start at the top of the board and slowly move their way down. But a lot of players kind of move away from that now knowing that the Daily Doubles often sit at the bottom of the board.

I spoke to a few players about kind of what has helped James have so much success, and they said that he has a lot of experience gambling large amounts of money. It probably doesn't faze him as much to put $30,000 on the line as it would like most people. He's done that. He does that for his day job. So I think that helps him a lot.

CORNISH: That's Claire McNear, writer at The Ringer. Thanks for your enthusiasm.

MCNEAR: Thank you so much for having me.

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