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Jeopardy: How a pro gambler 'cracked' a US game show

James Holzhauer Image copyright Jeopardy Productions Inc
Image caption Professional gambler James Holzhauer
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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, writes Jonathan Berr.

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.

'Cracking' the rules

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".

According to the website, Mr Holzhauer has wagered $25,000 twice on 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.

Is the strategy paying off?

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 memorise," 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.

Image copyright Brad Rutter
Image caption Brad Rutter has won more money on Jeopardy than anyone else

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 copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ken 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."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Trebek speaks to contestants from Canada before a taping

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