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'They're going, Oh, s---'; inside the Jeopardy! James juggernaut

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Does Jeopardy! champ have a front office future? (2:34)

Scott Van Pelt understands why professional sports teams would be interested in hiring James Holzhauer for a front office job. (2:34)

It's a Monday morning in February, and James Holzhauer is standing on stage next to Alex Trebek, the iconic host of "Jeopardy!" Together, they gaze out at the studio audience.

"Look at them," Trebek tells Holzhauer, pointing to the challengers being picked out of the audience for the next match.

"They're going, 'Oh, s---, we have to face James next.'"

Everyone is still buzzing about what just happened: Holzhauer, a 34-year-old professional sports bettor and dedicated family man from Las Vegas, had just authored the most prolific single-day performance in "Jeopardy!" history. He missed only one question, hunted out all three Daily Doubles -- nailing each of them -- and capped it all with the largest Final Jeopardy wager ever.

In the storied, 35-year history of "Jeopardy!" no one had ever won more than $77,000 on a single show. Holzhauer had just earned $110,914.

Casual and quirky, in a maroon dress shirt and with short brown hair and a big, white toothy grin, Holzhauer had begun with the $1,000 clue in the "Light" category. Correct. Next was the $1,000 clue in "Pale Ail." It was the Daily Double, and Holzhauer asked for the window limit, meaning all-in. Right again. He finished the round with $13,000 and went for the jugular in Double Jeopardy.

He found the first Daily Double of the second round with his second pick and mimicked pushing all his chips into the pot, risking $14,500 on "American History." His answer ("Jesse James") came instantly, doubling his stack to $29,200. But a bigger bet would come minutes later.

Hidden behind the $800 clue in "International Architecture & Design," he landed the second Daily Double with $46,800 at his disposal. Tilting his head to the left, he squinted, smiled and limited himself to a $25,000 wager.

In response to, "In Andalusia Arabic, calligraphy represents style named for medieval visitors from Africa," Holzhauer quickly replied, "What is Moorish?"

"Moorish is right," Trebek said with emphasis.

The crowd applauded and let out a collective "wooh."

Holzhauer cracked a small grin as his winnings grew to $71,800. Contestant Sameer Rai, a freelancer from Los Angeles, twisted his head and shoulders to his right and leaned back slightly, looking down the podium at Holzhauer as if to ask, "Who is this guy?" Rai clapped and nodded, acknowledging greatness.

Holzhauer went into Final Jeopardy with $72,600, with Rai in second place with $7,000. Holzhauer ran the numbers in his head. He could bet $58,599 without risk of losing the game, but it was important to him to do something for his 4-year-old daughter. He calculated how much he would need to wager to end up with an amount to match her birthday, Nov. 9, 2014. A successful bet of $38,314 would give him $110,914 or 11/09/14.

The Final Jeopardy category was "Physics Terms." The clue: "Ironically, it's a metaphor meaning a huge step forward, but this 2-word process only occurs on a subatomic scale."

No issue for Holzhauer, who correctly wrote, "What is Quantum Leap," adding "Happy birthday Booger <3" for his daughter. When his wager was revealed, the crowd squealed, and the legend of Jeopardy! James was born.

Only a few shows later, Holzhauer broke his own record, earning a whopping $131,127 and correctly answering all 40 questions he buzzed in for, along with a $60,013 wager on Final Jeopardy. Social media has been buzzing about the gambling dad who some say is breaking the game. But who exactly is this guy?


Roughly a decade ago, in an Irish pub inside a casino in Henderson, Nevada, a core group of eight friends, almost all from the poker community, would post up at one of the longest tables in the joint at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays for trivia night. A $150 bar tab was at stake.

They were a trivia dream team.

Poker pro Jameson Painter was a regular on the team, as was Leo Wolpert, an attorney and accomplished poker player and former "Jeopardy!" contestant -- and one of the victims of Ken Jennings' record 74-game win streak on the show in 2004. When not traveling, Holzhauer was the ace and the perfect teammate, mostly because he wasn't a big drinker.

The trivia group often named the team something related to current events or "The Simpsons." Rarely was the team name appropriate for publication. A lot of the group met on the popular online forum "Two Plus Two."

There was normally pregame drinking at a friend's place close by before the walk over to the Green Valley Ranch Resort. The drinking continued at Quinn's, the pub inside the casino. Sobriety was limited on the team, but it didn't diminish its performance.

The level of competition at the bar was high, but the other teams knew who the big dogs were. There was usually another regular team made up of gamblers, who were good but also realistic about whom they were facing.

"We'd have side wagers with them," Painter said, "but we'd [spot] them a few questions. [Our winning percentage] was, I don't know, high 80s, low 90s."

"His time as a square was very, very short." Jameson Painter

Painter and Holzhauer go way back. In eighth grade in Illinois, they were the only two students to qualify for both the state geography and state math competitions. They eventually met playing hearts and spades at a card club at the University of Illinois. The twice-a-week club quickly turned into a five-day-a-week home poker game with 10-cent ante, $2 max bets.

The poker game is where Holzhauer began honing his gambling chops, but he grew his sports betting bankroll with the 2006 World Baseball Classic.


Baseball was Holzhauer's favorite sport coming of age, the Chicago Cubs his favorite team. He could rattle off home run totals for many of MLB's career leaders and has always been a fierce fantasy sports competitor.

"He's very good at fantasy football and fantasy baseball," said Robert Mulherrin, who has been playing in fantasy leagues with Holzhauer since they were in high school. "Right now, I'd say on his full-keeper baseball team, of the top 100 prospects, he has eight or nine of them. His team got older, he's rebuilding right now and his team is completely stocked up."

Baseball was also the first sport Holzhauer learned to bet, with Painter explaining to him how American odds worked to get him started. "His time as a square was very, very short," Painter said. "2006 was the big year for him as it turns out."

The inaugural World Baseball Classic took place in March 2006, right before the start of the MLB season. Team USA and the Dominican Republic were listed as commanding betting favorites, but Holzhauer disagreed.

Believing the round-robin format of the tournament and variance in baseball had skewed the odds, he bet heavily on each team except the U.S. and Dominican Republic to win the tournament. It worked. Presumed underdogs Japan and Cuba reached the championship game. He had significant action on both teams.

"I think it worked out where he increased his bankroll by 50 percent," Painter said.

After graduating with a degree in math from the University of Illinois, Holzhauer moved to Las Vegas in 2008 to bet professionally on sports. He says he "retired" in 2011 to start a family with his wife, Melissa, who also has a high-level trivia mind and won $28,000 during a 2014 appearance on "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" They moved back to Las Vegas with their daughter in 2015, and Holzhauer resumed his sports betting career.

Holzhauer says he has built predictive models for baseball, NFL and college basketball, but now focuses largely on in-game betting. While he has maintained his poise on "Jeopardy!" he has been known to lose it when he sweats betting decisions.

"Even though I'm used to losing bets every day," he told ESPN in an email. "I am NOT calm when I sweat a game. My daughter learned to say, 'They're not even trying to cover!' before her second birthday."


In 2004, Ken Jennings, a 30-year-old software engineer from Salt Lake City, won 74 consecutive "Jeopardy!" games, racking up a record $2.52 million in winnings.

No. 2 on the career winnings list? Jeopardy! James, and he did it in only eight games.

He's won nearly $1 million more than Jennings through his first 22 games.

"To me, it's clear that he's one of the top players of all time already," said Roger Craig, a past "Jeopardy!" champion who held the single-day winnings record of $77,000 before Holzhauer.

On Holzhauer's 10th show, he broke his own single-game record by winning $131,127. And that's not all.

• According to fan site thejeopardyfan.com, the median winning score for all regular-play games dating back to October 2004 is $20,001. Through 22 games, Holzhauer is averaging $76,864.

• Through 22 games, Holzhauer has 803 correct responses and 27 incorrect.

• Through 22 games, only two contestants have entered Final Jeopardy with a chance to catch Holzhauer.

• Through 22 games, Holzhauer has found 49 of the 53 Daily Doubles available in the first two rounds. His average wager on Daily Doubles is $9,261, more than three times Jennings' Daily Double average bet.

"I'm used to gambling," Holzhauer told Vulture.com. "To me, these are just points on the scoreboard and not actual dollars. That mind-set was very helpful for me."

"I think that James has managed to demonstrate how 'Jeopardy!' can be played as perfectly as it might be possible," Andy Saunders, an aficionado of the show who runs thejeopardyfan.com, told ESPN.

To prepare, Holzhauer took a similar approach to his sports betting strategy: He looked for little edges, tricks, techniques that his competitors might not be using. He asked himself, "What can I do differently than the average contestant that will give me an edge?"

A tennis-shoes-and-jeans guy, Holzhauer practiced by watching "Jeopardy!" episodes in dress shoes. Sometimes wearing shorts and a T-shirt or his Vegas Knights jersey with dress shoes, he'd often wonder, "Why do they make you wear them if no one can see behind the podium?" He told ESPN these dress-shoe rehearsals were his most important preparation, other than studying subjects that he thought were likely to come up.

To learn subjects he found uninteresting, he went to the library and read children's books for their simple, picture-heavy content. On the show, he always starts at the big-money questions and has a familiarity with which topics normally hold the Daily Doubles.

To combat nerves, Holzhauer snapped his fingers three times and visualized going down an ice slide with his daughter in the snow any time he got overwhelmed on stage.

"This was perhaps an ironic choice," the proud father said, "since parenting is easily more nerve-wracking than 'Jeopardy!'"

To perfect his timing with the buzzer, he read an e-book by former "Jeopardy!" champion Fritz Holznagel, who emphasized focusing on the lights on the side of the board that light up when the buzzers have been activated, rather than attempting to anticipate when Trebek will finish reading the question. Holzhauer has signaled in first 57.19 percent of the time through 15 games.

"Today, 60 percent in a single game is an elite level, and 50 percent over a series of games would also be elite," said Saunders, the show expert of thejeopardyfan.com. "He's mastered the timing of the signaling device and has used that in order to control the game, forcing his preferred strategy onto the other players."


Holzhauer's dominance has been rough on the competition. For many, getting on "Jeopardy!" is a bucket-list item, with having to face potentially the best ever player a cruel, humbling plot twist.

Marshall Shelburne, a computer programmer from Los Angeles and lifelong "Jeopardy!" hopeful (and brother of ESPN NBA reporter Ramona Shelburne), watched Holzhauer win $40,412 in his debut. Shelburne would be next to face Jeopardy! James.

"My main emotion during the game was frustration. There were many, many times where I felt ... like I timed it just right, hit it right on the lights, and every single time he was one step ahead of me." Marshall Shelburne

"That's an extraordinarily high total," Shelburne told ESPN. "It was definitely intimidating to watch that."

Shelburne and fellow competitor Satish Chandrasekhar gave Holzhauer a run for his money. Chandrasekhar was within striking distance going into Final Jeopardy but came up $16,000 short of Holzhauer's final total. It has been one of the two victories in Holzhauer's 22 wins in which the outcome hasn't been decided by Final Jeopardy.

"What makes him such a tough competitor and how he's essentially broken the game is that his reaction time is superhuman," Shelburne said. "Most contestants on 'Jeopardy!' know, I would say, 80 to 85 percent of the correct responses. It really comes down to who is able to successfully coordinate their buzzer press with when they're able to buzz in.

"My main emotion during the game," Shelburne added, "was frustration. There were many, many times where I felt ... like I timed it just right, hit it right on the lights, and every single time he was one step ahead of me."


Holzhauer is back home in Las Vegas, and "Jeopardy!" is done taping until fall. But the episodes are just now airing, with the media blitz just revving up and his fame skyrocketing. America is witnessing one of the most dominating performances in any competition ever.

"Just like in pro sports, winning by a large margin over less experienced competition is much more predictive of intrinsic ability than squeaking by evenly matched competition," said Craig, now an artificial intelligence consultant. "And that's what James has done so far."

A few days ago, an Illinois radio station was offering a bounty on his contact information and requests were pouring in from everywhere. TV producers called his wife and his parents, asking them to persuade Holzhauer to come on a variety of shows.

He says he has been taking it all somewhat in stride and is looking forward to some family vacations ahead. On a recent Friday, he was wearing a Vegas Knights jersey, ahead of a playoff game against the San Jose Sharks, when a woman came up to him and said, "Gotta play better tonight, that last game was painful."

Holzhauer replied, "OK, I'll do my best" and then realized that the woman was also wearing a Knights shirt.

"It occurred to me that she might not be talking about 'Jeopardy!'" Holzhauer said.

But everyone else is.