#912: How Uncle Jamie Broke Jeopardy : Planet Money James Holzhauer took data, probability and a lot of practice with a fake buzzer, and turned it into a fortune on a game show.
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Episode 912: How Uncle Jamie Broke Jeopardy

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Episode 912: How Uncle Jamie Broke Jeopardy

Episode 912: How Uncle Jamie Broke Jeopardy

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/722198188/722215780" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

KENNY MALONE, HOST:

Maybe you've heard that this guy named James Holzhauer is absolutely dominating "Jeopardy!"

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

ALEX TREBEK: You've become a celebrity now because of your accomplishments on "Jeopardy!" It's going to be a lot of pressure on you.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: Thank you. I appreciate that.

MALONE: James is sort of a relative of mine. Thirteen years ago, his only sibling, Ian, married my only sibling, Julie. And since then, I have been keenly aware that James is kind of a better version of me.

We're the same age, but James skipped a grade. We were both math majors. I still have nightmares about it, but James apparently didn't even need to go to class and made money playing online poker in the meantime. I went into public radio. James got really good at analyzing sports data, became a very successful sports gambler, retired at, like, 27, traveled the world, climbed Mount Fuji in a typhoon. And, look; I can handle being less cool than Jamie, but now there are nieces and nephews involved.

Here, you want to sit down?

JACK HOLZHAUER: Sure. Wait; is this recording?

MALONE: Oh, yeah. For sure.

JACK: Oh.

SCARLETT HOLZHAUER: What? Not yet.

MALONE: This is Jack and Scarlett. And James and I are their only uncles. And it is irrationally important to me that they think I am the cooler uncle. And this recording was the moment I was sure I had won. Jack and Scarlett were visiting me in New York. I let them play video games, "Zelda: Breath Of The Wild." I had just taken them to the "Harry Potter" play on Broadway. And now I had gotten them into a real NPR studio.

JACK: You interview me first.

SCARLETT: Fine. OK. Hello. So, Jack, do you have any hobbies?

JACK: I like playing "Minecraft" and watching Uncle Kenny play "Zelda."

MALONE: Watching Uncle Kenny play "Zelda." Of course, two months later is when James shows up on "Jeopardy!"

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: James Holzhouser (ph) is our - Holzhauer.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: Try saying it for 34 years.

TREBEK: (Laughter).

MALONE: Now, in the beginning, I felt like this isn't going to matter. Like, kids don't care about trivia. It's boring to them, right? It's not like James is going to - I don't know - find a way to use this national platform to, like, send messages directly to Jack and Scarlett, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: The game was a runaway for our champion, James. Let's see if he came up with a correct response. He had Madonna and happy birthday, Scarlett. Pretty soon, you're going to run out of birthday friends.

MALONE: Yeah, the past month - not great for the uncle war.

(SOUNDBITE OF HUGH ROBERT EDWIN WILKINSON AND STEVEN GUY HELLIER'S "WAY TO MARS")

MALONE: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Kenny Malone. And what makes Uncle Jamie so great at "Jeopardy!"? No, seriously, what makes James Holzhauer so good at "Jeopardy!"? Today on the show, I talk to all kinds of "Jeopardy!" champions to find out what they did to get so good at the show and about how James Holzhauer has completely reinvented the game by applying techniques of statistics and probability that he developed as a professional gambler, a math prodigy and, you know, the best uncle in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: James Holzhauer is from Las Vegas. He is a professional sports gambler.

MALONE: April 4 - James episode No. 1.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: What does that mean exactly?

JAMES HOLZHAUER: Oh, I will bet on anything. Why? You looking for a little action on the Cup this year? I like the Lightning.

TREBEK: Oh, really? No, I'm not looking...

MALONE: James has unretired from gambling. And I just want to point out here the Tampa Bay Lightning wound up getting crushed - one of the few things James would get wrong on "Jeopardy!"

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: Here we go. Categories now in play are the highest capital city...

MALONE: Watching this first episode, we are all very nervous. The returning champion is really quite good, a guy named Alex. And it's clear right away, Alex is playing the traditional style of "Jeopardy!" Remember, "Jeopardy!" is played on this giant grid. And Alex starts in the top row with the easiest, least valuable clues.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: And finally, you're going to love it, don't tread on meme. Alex.

ALEX KORAL: Let's start with highest capital city for 200.

TREBEK: Canberra. Kathmandu. Kingston. Alex.

KORAL: What is Kathmandu?

TREBEK: Good.

KORAL: Capital city - 400.

MALONE: So you know, Alex stays in the same category and then moves to the next clue - slightly harder, slightly more valuable. But as soon as James gets control of the board, he does something totally different.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: James.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: What is Addis Ababa?

TREBEK: Yes.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: Ballpark cuisine - 1,000.

MALONE: He goes right to the hardest, most valuable clues.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: James.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: Who are the Diamondbacks?

TREBEK: Yes.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: You three - 1,000.

MALONE: See, he jumped to a whole new category again, directly to the hardest clue. And I'm checking Twitter as this is on TV. And parts of "Jeopardy!" Twitter hate James' style. It is jarring. It is hard to play along at home to it. I will later learn that this style is key to how James has been able to rack up unprecedented amounts of money.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: Yes, and now the last clue.

MALONE: So this first episode is wrapping up.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: "I Dreamed A Dream" from this show. Alex.

KORAL: What is "Les Miserables"?

TREBEK: You're right. And that takes you to 18,000. Ordinarily, that would be remarkable, but James has 40,412.

(APPLAUSE)

TREBEK: It's a runaway game.

MALONE: It's a runaway game, Alex Trebek says. James has such a huge lead that nobody can catch him in Final Jeopardy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: Players, here's your clue.

(SOUNDBITE OF PING)

TREBEK: The Jordan, Bear and Weber rivers deposit over a million tons of minerals into it annually, much of that chloride and sodium. Thirty seconds. Good luck.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS BELL MUSIC'S "THINK!")

MALONE: I was aware that at some point, James decided to get very good at trivia. He had been on this other show called "The Chase" and done absurdly well. But clearly, on "Jeopardy!" it is not just about trivia. James is using some sort of strategy. There are tactics here.

So the question I had was, like, what does it actually mean to be good at "Jeopardy!"? What specifically are you good at? That was the question I wanted to find answers to. After, of course, this episode was over.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: James had turned this game into a runaway. Did he get the correct response, though?

MALONE: Up pops the Great Salt Lake on his screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: He most certainly did.

MALONE: But Uncle Jamie has written a little extra something.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: Happy birthday, Jack. All right.

MALONE: [Expletive] is a version of my reaction that evening.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: And your wager will add 3,268.

MALONE: James wagered 3,268 - March 26, 2008, Jack's birthday. James and I share four nieces and nephews.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: Yes, and happy birthday, Pete.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: And happy birthday - we're down to Katy now.

MALONE: He would get to each of them at least once.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: Happy birthday, Scarlett, again.

MALONE: You ready to go? You want to roll?

KEN JENNINGS: Yeah. I am recording now.

MALONE: Why don't we start - why don't you just introduce yourself for me?

JENNINGS: I'm Ken Jennings.

MALONE: Ken Jennings is the greatest "Jeopardy!" champion of all time. But to understand what made him great, you have to understand that he got on the show at a key moment in its history.

JENNINGS: For the first 20 years of "Jeopardy!" contestants would get bounced after winning five times.

MALONE: Right.

JENNINGS: I think towards the end, you would get a car, and see ya. And...

MALONE: Here's a car. Drive away.

JENNINGS: Literally, get in the car, and we don't want to see you again.

MALONE: Yeah.

JENNINGS: And they change their format to what we currently have, which is a player can win - a champion can win indefinitely, after I tried out in 2003, before I went on the show.

MALONE: Ken says anecdotally, he heard the show was like, oh, it would be cool if someone won - I don't know - 10 games. Ken would win a lot more than that. And let's be clear. It's partly because he is better than an average contestant at trivia. But according to Ken himself, that advantage is marginal because by the time people get on "Jeopardy!" they're very good. Most contestants know most of the answers.

And so according to Ken, the big advantage is the ability to buzz in before everyone else.

JENNINGS: The deal with the buzzer is this. The buzzer is not live until Alex finishes reading the question. And if you buzz in before your buzzer goes live, you actually lock yourself out for a fraction of a second. So the big mistake on the show is people who are all adrenalized and are buzzing too quickly, too eagerly.

MALONE: OK. To some degree, "Jeopardy!" is kind of a video game, and a crappy video game where it's, like, light goes on, press button - that's it.

JENNINGS: (Laughter) Yeah.

MALONE: Is that true?

JENNINGS: I do like to think of it as a beautiful art and not a really crappy video game.

MALONE: Ken says the art comes in with internalizing the rhythm of Alex Trebek. Ken grew up in South Korea, and he says the only English language station there played "Jeopardy!" right after school. So from a young age, like a second language almost, Ken internalized Alex Trebek's voice - how he reads clues, what it sounds like when he's about to finish reading the clues.

So when Ken gets on "Jeopardy!" he is very good at the buzzer. He is getting in first on 60% of the clues. And then the more he wins, the more practice he gets on the buzzer. And the new contestants - they are just like lambs to the slaughter. After 48 wins, the show steps in and institutes more in-depth buzzer training for new contestants.

JENNINGS: And it really did make a difference. As soon as they did that, you could see the aptitude gap really lower. And the market became a lot more competitive.

MALONE: I mean, did they tell you they were going to do this? Were you pissed?

JENNINGS: (Laughter) I don't think anyone ever said, hey, Ken, we're going to let the challengers practice more. It did not anger me. I mean, I was flattered. You know, it's like the NBA adding different, like, lane violations to stop Wilt Chamberlain from doing those tip-ins.

MALONE: Ken wound up winning $2.5 million over 74 straight "Jeopardy!" games. No one has come even close. The next closest is James, who is currently at 22 games. So arguably, the increased buzzer training has evened out the competition. But savvy players practice the buzzer before they get on the show. They know that "Jeopardy!" is a trivia game second and a kind of crappy video game first.

James episode No. 4 - we need to talk about Daily Doubles.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: He's a professional gambler who's used to betting large amounts. If he hits those Daily Doubles, watch out.

MALONE: Daily Doubles are the hidden clues that let a player wager as much of their money as they want. There are three of these per game. And in this game, James found every single one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: Yes.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: Architecture - 800.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAILY DOUBLE SOUND EFFECT)

TREBEK: Answer there for the Daily Double.

(APPLAUSE)

MALONE: This was not a fluke. I'd been watching James, at this point, for four episodes, and he consistently found most of the Daily Doubles, like, at a rate that seemed statistically impossible to me. And then when he found them, he would wager enormous amounts of his money. So this Daily Double, for example, this is late in the game. James has a huge lead, and lots of contestants in this situation would wager, like, nothing. Preserve the lead and keep that money. It will turn into real money if you win. But in this case, James bet so much, you can hear one of the audience members whistle in disbelief.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

JAMES HOLZHAUER: It's $25,000.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

TREBEK: All right. Here's the clue. In Andalusia, Arabic calligraphy represents this style named for medieval visitors from Africa.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: What is Moorish?

TREBEK: Moorish is right.

(APPLAUSE)

MALONE: James did not miss a single Daily Double clue throughout this game. He had bet huge, and as a result, at the end of the first two rounds, he had won a huge amount of money.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: James.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: What is Austin?

TREBEK: You are right. And that takes you to $72,600.

(APPLAUSE)

MALONE: Seventy-two thousand six hundred, Alex Trebek says - the one-day record is $77,000.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: Forty-four hundred off the one-day record, James.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: OK. I'll try.

(LAUGHTER)

TREBEK: Final Jeopardy, coming up.

(SOUNDBITE OF DING)

TREBEK: Ironically, it's a metaphor meaning a huge step forward, but this two-word process only occurs on a subatomic scale - 30 seconds. Good luck.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: James is going to break this record. But what will make headlines the next day is how brutally, yet thoughtfully, James breaks the one-day record.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: Seventy-two thousand six hundred going into final for you, James. We need to find quantum leap. We do. Happy birthday, Bodger (ph)?

JAMES HOLZHAUER: Booger.

TREBEK: Booger.

MALONE: His nickname for his daughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: And how much did you risk? Thirty-eight thousand three hundred fourteen - a new one-day record - $110,914.

(CHEERING)

MALONE: Not only had James destroyed the existing "Jeopardy!" record, he wagered so that the new record would be his daughter's birthday - 11/09/14 - November 9, 2014.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: He's back tomorrow. Join us then.

MALONE: How are you feeling about the record falling?

ROGER CRAIG: I'm - you know, I'm totally cool with the record falling. I think it's great.

MALONE: Roger Craig won $77,000 in a single "Jeopardy!" game - the record that James obliterated.

CRAIG: A lot of people texted me or called me or whatever and said condolences. And they were really sad. And I was like, I get to just say I have the highest score other than James Holzhauer, so that's going to be my claim to fame there.

MALONE: Roger will also always be famous as one of the first players to approach "Jeopardy!" as a data problem - an approach that was impossible until there was data.

Let's start with the "Jeopardy!" archive.

CRAIG: Sure. The "Jeopardy!" archive is - it's an online website that all these super fans - God bless them - created. They have tapes of the show. And put all the questions and answers into a webpage for each episode of "Jeopardy!"

MALONE: All right. I'm going to pull it up here...

CRAIG: OK.

MALONE: ...A random, like, episode. Oh my. It's laid out like a board.

CRAIG: Mmm hmm. And then if you mouse over the dollar amount of the clue, it will reveal the answer.

MALONE: This is incredible.

CRAIG: So I knew about it in two either 2005 or 2006 - you know, very soon after decided to scrape it and download the website.

MALONE: Download every single clue.

CRAIG: Yes. There were 200,000, 250,000. I think now it's up to 300,000.

MALONE: Two hundred fifty thousand.

CRAIG: That's right. Yeah.

MALONE: Roger has a Ph.D. in computer science, and he was curious. Like, now that I've downloaded all of "Jeopardy!," what categories is this show actually asking about?

CRAIG: So the most frequently at a high level is history, geography, literature.

MALONE: Yeah - not surprising, probably, I guess, those three.

CRAIG: Yeah. That's the bread and butter of the show.

MALONE: But Roger says you can then dig down into those categories. Like, within history, you need to know American history. And then within that, you need to know the presidents, like, backwards and forwards. Equally important, this analysis showed Roger the kind of stuff that wouldn't be worth his time to study.

CRAIG: That's right. So it's much more important to know Abraham Lincoln and "Phantom Of The Opera" than it is to know all the cheeses that they might ask about.

MALONE: The "Jeopardy!" archive is a huge innovation. It has allowed a whole new generation of players to hunt for these exploitable parts of the game.

MONICA THIEU: So here is all my scraping code. Luckily, I just - I ran it once. It took, like, half an hour. I was, like, I'm going to go, like, make some dinner, come back and then this will be done.

MALONE: What dinner did you make in just a half an hour? Send me the recipe.

THIEU: (Laughter).

MALONE: This is Monica Thieu. She won "Jeopardy!'s" 2012 college tournament as a high schooler taking college classes. Her half-hour dish, by the way - cacio e pepe

THIEU: So what I'm going to do here - this should work. Come on little laptop. Let's go.

MALONE: You can do it.

Monica is showing me how she scraped 10 seasons of "Jeopardy!" archives to look at Daily Doubles. Are they placed randomly? Is there a pattern?

THIEU: So here we go.

MALONE: OK.

THIEU: All you really have to do is look at this top row to see the Daily Double never comes up in the top row.

MALONE: Yeah, never.

Turns out, Daily Doubles - not randomly distributed at all.

THIEU: But, essentially, you can see this same pattern pop up, that row three and row four are most likely to have Daily Doubles.

MALONE: Daily Doubles are way more likely to show up in the row with the second-hardest clues and the row with a third-hardest clues. And if you know this, you can go Daily Double hunting, bouncing from category to category in the second and third to last rows. Monica has used this strategy. Roger Craig used this during his record game. It is also the key to James Holzhauer's game. This is how he seems to find a magical number of Daily Doubles.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: James Holzhauer, whose 17-day cash winnings total $1,275,587.

MALONE: So James episode number 18 - things are starting to get absurd. Alex Trebek just starts the show this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. And welcome, everyone, to the James Holzhauer show.

MALONE: James episode 19 - he wins so profoundly that one of his opponents just writes this in Final Jeopardy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: Now over to Libby Wood. She had $7,400. Her response was, what is congratulations to James?

(LAUGHTER)

TREBEK: Yeah. I know the feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

JULIE HOLZHAUER: Nope, I didn't see anything. Don't tell me anything.

MALONE: Hey.

JULIE HOLZHAUER: Did you get a haircut?

MALONE: I've started Facetiming with my sister, brother-in-law and the kids during "Jeopardy!" and it is sincerely the best part of James' run. Although it occasionally does just turn into Uncle-Jamie-is-awesome stories.

JULIE HOLZHAUER: Scarlett was telling me about how her substitute today...

SCARLETT: Oh, right...

MALONE: Scarlett's substitute teacher told a kid he should go on "Jeopardy!" like the James guy.

SCARLETT: Then I said, oh, yeah, that's my uncle.

KATY HOLZHAUER: (Unintelligible).

MALONE: Then the 3-year-old weighs in.

What's her turn mean?

JULIE HOLZHAUER: Katy, what - who was on TV at school - at preschool?

KATY: Uncle Jamie.

MALONE: Oh, my God.

SCARLETT: What?

MALONE: It is hard to overstate just how dominant James has become. He is still on the show. It's just on break right now for the teachers tournament. But as of this writing, James has won 22 straight games and $1.7 million. He is averaging nearly $77,000 an episode, nearly as much as Roger Craig's old record.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: Walked out of the Louvre with it - James.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: What is the "Mona Lisa?"

TREBEK: Yeah.

IAN HOLZHAUER: OK, so hold on.

MALONE: OK, hold on, my brother-in-law says. We have this tradition where we pause the game right before Final Jeopardy. We try and figure out whose birthday James will wager based on his lead and what he can safely bet.

I HOLZHAUER: He could do 30 comfortably.

MALONE: Yeah, I'm using a - $36,494

I HOLZHAUER: Yeah.

JULIE HOLZHAUER: Closest to Jack's.

I HOLZHAUER: Hey, Jack, why don't you come here? I don't know what Uncle Jamie's going to bet, but it could be your birthday again for, like, the fifth...

MALONE: After the break, we talk to Uncle Jamie.

You - do you - I don't even remember what the - how good your memory on what the answer actually was.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: The first - the first episode, the answer was Great Salt Lake.

MALONE: Yeah. And then you wrote...

JAMES HOLZHAUER: I wrote happy birthday, Jack.

MALONE: And I believe Alex Trebek was like, and happy birthday, Jack. All right. And I was just like, oh [expletive]. Like, this is a whole new level of thing that I can't touch.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: I will tell you, I went to go visit the kids the week before I was on "Jeopardy!" and they still accidentally referred to me as Uncle Kenny a good 20% of the time. So I think you're doing just OK.

MALONE: That's sweet of him to say, of course. All of that is before he was on "Jeopardy!" But James has been trying to get on "Jeopardy!" since 2011. He's taken the online test, like, 13 times, got called for in-person auditions once for "Sports Jeopardy!," twice for real "Jeopardy!" and then finally last January, he got the call. Congrats. You have three weeks to prepare. So James would cue up episodes of "Jeopardy!," play along at home with a makeshift mechanical pencil buzzer wearing shorts but also the dress shoes he was going to wear on the show.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: I think that's - that was possibly more important preparation than actually learning any facts or figures.

MALONE: The buzzer timing.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: I think making sure you're comfortable in your elements. And also I discovered I really needed Dr. Scholl's insoles for my dress shoes, so...

MALONE: I assume at this point in your career, you're not wearing dress shoes a tremendous amount.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: No. They are in the closet specifically for use on game shows and maybe weddings.

MALONE: You don't even see them on TV. That's the stupid part.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: I talked to them about this. You know, can I just wear some jeans and tennis shoes back there? I'd be a lot more comfortable, but they said no.

MALONE: When you talk to other "Jeopardy!" champions about James, they will say that he is the quintessential modern champion. He's great at the buzzer and getting better. James says Guitar Hero helped with that. He's got an absurdly broad knowledge base. James says he studies the kids' books versions of things - only what he needs to know, plus pictures. But the way James has broken "Jeopardy!" is how he is using Daily Doubles because, to a gambler, a Daily Double is an absurdly good deal that would be irrational to bet small on. This requires a bit of explanation. So remember that a Daily Double allows James to wager the money he's earned. For every dollar he bets, if he gets the clue correct, he wins a dollar. Bet 10,000, win 10,000.

And that has, like, a name in gambling parlance, right?

JAMES HOLZHAUER: Yeah. We call it an even money proposition, when you get paid the same amounts for winning as you will lose for losing.

MALONE: Bet a dollar, make a dollar at a casino is usually the payout for playing roulette and betting on black. Just about half the time, black is going to come up. About half the time, it won't. Even money payouts are for things that are like a coin toss, where you're going to be wrong about half the time.

Thing about a Daily Double - it's paying out even money as if a player's going to get it wrong half the time, but that is definitely not true for most players. And it is certainly not true for James.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: And, you know, in my career, if I find an even money proposition that wins 52% of the time, I'm very happy, whereas on "Jeopardy!" the average contestant gets 70% of their Daily Doubles right. And, you know, I think that I have to be over 80 percent. So if I found an opportunity like that in my work, I would bet as much as the sportsbook would let me.

MALONE: Yeah. You'd go borrow - I mean, it's the kind of thing you - if you could borrow money to do it, it'd be like, this is probably a good thing to invest in.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: Exactly, yeah.

MALONE: Yeah. Hitting a Daily Double with no money is relatively useless. And this is why James does that kind of crazy thing at the beginning of every show. He intentionally avoids the rows where Daily Doubles tend to be. But he does not start with the easiest, least valuable clues.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: What I do that's different than anyone who came before me is I will try to build the pot first. You know, the Daily Doubles actually don't come up that much in the thousand-dollar clues, but those are where the big money is, obviously.

MALONE: Yeah.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: And maybe the opponents are not ready for this - to answer the big-money questions right away. They don't feel comfortable with it but, you know, it's in my comfort zone. So that was possibly an advantage there.

MALONE: Yeah. In an ideal game then, James would work his way across the bottom, thousand-dollar row, rack up money while his opponents are still kind of in a daze. Then he would find a Daily Double and bet everything. Within five minutes of play, he has opened up an insurmountable lead.

And you can see James manage his risk based on how much game is left. So early on, he'll take huge shots because the upside is that he can basically put the game away. The downside is, yeah, he loses a lot, but there is a ton of game left. He's very good. He will probably catch up. Toward the end of the game, though, James is more risk-averse. There's less time to recover from a bad loss.

By the way, this is how you're supposed to manage your retirement portfolio - riskier stocks when you're younger, safer bonds when you're heading into retirement. James, the sports gambler, has a different analogy.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: I get mad at football coaches who are afraid to call for a big play early in the game, you know, because they want to still be in the game at the end, and then it turns out they have no chance but a Hail Mary or something similar to that at the end.

MALONE: Yeah.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: Really, they would've done better to do some more gambling earlier. For me, it's about gambling earlier so I don't have to sweat Final Jeopardy so much.

MALONE: Yeah. Well, look, man; I am, 99.9% of the time, just very happy for you.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: Well, look at it this way. If I lose to Ken Jennings in their death match, maybe we'll both be second and third place to Uncle Ken after that.

MALONE: Oh, God. If he - yeah, if he starts elbowing into the family, I just...

JAMES HOLZHAUER: (Laughter).

MALONE: I think we'll just put together a concerted effort to stop that.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN FLORES, ET AL. SONG, "UNION")

MALONE: We would love to hear how you or anybody else cracked a different game show. You can email us. We are planetmoney@npr.org. We are @planetmoney on Instagram and Twitter.

Today's episode was produced by Darian Woods. Alex Goldmark is PLANET MONEY's supervising producer. Bryant Urstadt edits the show. Special thanks this week to Andy Saunders, who runs the amazing website thejeopardyfan.com, which is where I've gotten buzz-in statistics, and also to Matthew Amster-Burton. And I just want to say Ken Jennings has a new book out. It is called "Planet Funny," not consciously inspired by PLANET MONEY, Ken says.

We've got a new newsletter. You can subscribe at npr.org/planetmoneynewsletter. I'm Kenny Malone. Thanks for listening.

Hey. Sorry, everybody.

GUY RAZ, BYLINE: Hey.

MALONE: I am here. My apologies. Guy Raz, can I ask a quick favor...

RAZ: Of course.

MALONE: ...That I may or may not - I can give you the long backstory, but my...

This is Guy Raz, host of a podcast called How I Built This. They put our shows together and put them on the radio. So during this James run, I was whining to my sister about being the less cool uncle. And she goes, at least you know Guy Raz. Why do the kids care about Guy Raz? Because Guy Raz hosts a kids podcast called Wow in the World.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RAZ: Wait a minute. These packages are addressed to Mindy, not Guy Raz.

MALONE: Yeah. Apparently, the nieces and nephews love Wow in the World, love Guy Raz.

RAZ: Perfect. All right, here we go. Hey, Scarlett. It's Guy Raz here.

Hey, Jack. It's Guy Raz here.

MALONE: Birthday messages for everybody.

RAZ: Hey, Katy. It's Guy Raz here.

Hey, Pete. It's Guy Raz here from Wow in the World. And I just got out of a time machine only to discover that it is your birthday. So happy birthday to you. Mindy sends her regards, and so does Reggie and Dennis and the whole gang on Wow in the World.

MALONE: Hey, Guy, in that time machine, have you learned anything about - I don't know - "Jeopardy!" or anything?

RAZ: No, and I haven't even heard of it.

MALONE: Interesting.

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