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July 18, 2019

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How did James Holzhauer turn ‘Jeopardy!’ into his own ATM?

James Holzhauer Jeopardy

Jeopardy Productions Inc. / AP

This file image made from video shows “Jeopardy!” contestant James Holzhauer on an episode that aired on April 17, 2019. On his 14th appearance Tuesday, April 23, 2019, Holzhauer eclipsed the $1 million mark in winnings.

James Holzhauer has dominated “Jeopardy!” like no one else since the current version of the television game show premiered in 1984. He won again on the episode that aired Wednesday, pushing his total earnings above $1 million, second on the all-time list behind the legendary Ken Jennings.

And the remarkable thing is that Holzhauer, a 34-year-old professional sports bettor from Las Vegas, has reached that mark in just 15 games; Jennings’ $2.5 million came in 74 games.

Holzhauer is extraordinarily knowledgeable, of course, but his huge scores — he now holds the top seven best daily totals in “Jeopardy!” history — come largely because of his aggressive strategy. He seeks out the high-value questions first, and when he finds a Daily Double, which allows contestants to bet as much of their winnings as they like, he bets big.

His enormous winnings and vast margins of victory almost give the impression that he has broken the game.

Holzhauer spoke to The New York Times about his “Jeopardy!” strategy, betting on sports and his secret weapon for learning trivia. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Your strategy on “Jeopardy!” has drawn a lot of attention.

You could make an analogy to sports betting or poker tournaments. There are big advantages to having a lot of chips early on in a poker tournament. You can make plays that other people can’t.

When I was just getting started in sports, I didn’t have a huge bankroll, and there were times when I would see a good betting opportunity and didn’t have enough to put down on it.

Hitting a Daily Double on the first clue is nice I guess, but you can do a lot more damage if you have $5,000 in front of you already.

Did you plan this strategy from the beginning, or did it develop as you went along?

I definitely had the idea right away. You can see as soon as I get control of the board in the first game, I’m going for the $1,000 clues whenever I have the opportunity.

I think the only time I ever deviated from it was a category about the U.S. Senate. I’m not a politics guy, so I avoided that, but other than that, I’m going $1,000-1,000-1,000 whenever I can.

Why doesn’t everyone come out and bet very aggressively?

You have to be comfortable. Some of the opponents I’ve been playing, you can see they are visibly shaken by what’s going on onstage. Of course, you’re not going to play well if you’re up there trembling. And if you make yourself tremble by playing more aggressively than you are comfortable with, that’s so much the worse.

No. 1 is making sure you’re in your comfort zone. My comfort zone is very different than the typical contestant. I think that’s a huge advantage for me.

Would you describe the traditional way of playing “Jeopardy!” as overly risk-averse?

I would definitely say it’s too risk-averse. The funny thing is, my strategy actually minimizes the risk of me losing a game. There’s times in a football game where a team goes for a big TD pass. If you don’t take a risk like that, you’re not going to win. Really, the big risk is never trying anything that looks like a big gamble.

Is sports betting your full-time job?

My source of income is sports betting. I have some investments also.

What sports do you focus on?

When I started 14 years ago, the biggest edges were in baseball, and that’s what I focused on. But the market’s really caught up with advanced statistics, and they take bigger bets on games like football and basketball, so I’m focusing more of my attention there. Hockey I’ve been trying to work on lately. You can find some inefficiencies in team totals (how many goals will be scored in a game) and the puck line (betting that a team will win by a certain margin).

Did you bet on the Sharks-Golden Knights game? (The San Jose Sharks came from 3-0 down to eliminate the Vegas Golden Knights from the hockey playoffs Tuesday.)

I didn’t, but I was already annoyed enough as a fan.

Do you have one thing you bet on where you’ve found an edge, or do you jump around?

I certainly do jump around. When I got started, I found one thing in the baseball futures markets, where long shots were priced incorrectly. They have completely closed that loophole now. These things just disappear overnight. When one sports book manager figures out what you’re doing, he adjusts his odds, and the whole rest of the market follows.

Some professional sports gamblers have been barred from betting at certain casinos because they win too much. Has that happened to you?

About half the sports books in town won’t take a bet from me. You hope you retain a good relationship with the other half. The other half know I’m a pro, too. I can’t bet as much as a random guy off the street at those places, but they’re willing to take some action from me, at least.

How does being a professional sports bettor connect with the strategy you developed for “Jeopardy!”?

There’s a few things. The fact that I win and lose money all the time helps desensitize me, so I can write down $60,000 as the Final Jeopardy wager and not be trembling at the thought of losing that money.

And thinking: “This isn’t a trivia question. It’s a coin flip that’s going to land heads for me a lot more often than it’s going to land tails, so I’m going to bet as much as I can on heads.”

What is the right balance for being successful at “Jeopardy!”, between strategy, knowledge of trivia and using the buzzer?

If someone coming off the streets wants to win “Jeopardy!”, the first step is knowing enough trivia to get on.

But the people onstage have been preselected. They all passed the same test. Some people know a little bit more, but everyone up there can get most of the questions right.

Then the buzzer becomes the biggest factor. Maybe a 60-20-20 breakdown.

How did you learn so many facts? What was your education?

I went to Illinois. Most people think I went to Princeton or something. But I was never a diligent student.

I have a strategy of reading children’s books to gain knowledge. I’ve found that in an adult reference book, if it’s not a subject I’m interested in, I just can’t get into it.

I was thinking, what is the place in the library I can go to get books tailored to make things interesting for uninterested readers? Boom. The children’s section.

Getting onto “Jeopardy!” was a pet project my whole life, so it was something I was willing to work really hard on.

How has this run of success changed your life?

I’m still in my normal life now. If the right opportunity comes along I would of course consider it, but if I get to a point where I can’t drive my own kid to class, then I think I’ve really screwed up. I want to not lose what makes me be me.