For the last month, James Holzhauer had turned “Jeopardy!” into his personal plaything, dropping preconceived notions about how to play America’s beloved game show into a blender and turning it into froth.
The professional sports gambler from Las Vegas, a guy with a toothy smile and subtle sense of humor, had turned the show into appointment television during a 32-game winning streak that earned him almost $2.5 million.
He played with a provocation no one had ever attempted. He bet fearlessly and substantially to win money that trivialized the earnings of the thousands of common contestants that preceded him.
He seemed a savant, the owner of a wide and easily recallable intellect that helped him quickly and confidently handle clues from wide-ranging topics. You could not stop him. You could only hope to contain him.
Finally on Monday, the man who set the record for the most money won on an episode – and the next 15 slots below it – was stopped on the verge of breaking Ken Jennings’ record for earnings playing the game. He was stopped $58,484 shy of Jennings’ record, which was compiled in 74 victories in 2004.
He was stopped by a librarian from Chicago. Name: Emma Boettcher.
America is in mourning.
Consider that he went without incorrectly answering a question during more than one-third of his appearances. And he went down the same way, correctly answering a Final Jeopardy question, but wagering too low to help him overcome his brilliant challenger.
“What a game!” Alex Trebek said after Boettcher beat him. “Oh my gosh!”
“Nobody likes to lose,” Holzhauer said in an interview. “But I’m very proud of how I did, and I really exceeded my own expectations for the show. So I don’t feel bad about it.”
During his stay, the show experienced its highest viewership in 14 years. He has fans from the cultural spectrum, like Tom Brady, the Patriots quarterback, who cheered him on via Twitter.
He also had his detractors. Those loyal to the game – think those who hate the designated hitter in baseball – thought Holzhauer debased it, taking it from the right lane of quiet civility onto the Las Vegas strip from where he came from.
He won an average of $77,000 per game, joking when it was over that it was hard to give up a job that paid $150,000 a hour. He was correct 97 percent of the time. He finished with 1,186 correct answers and only 36 incorrect. His average margin of victory was $64,903. He was a myth buster, the guy who replaced black and white with Kodachrome.
He bet weird amounts to honor family members and shared that his four-year-old daughter missed him so much she was hoping her daddy would lose and come home. How could you hate that?
On Monday, Jennings admitted he knew Holzhauer’s streak would end. The shows are pre-taped two months in advance, and although sworn to secrecy, the word was out.
“People don’t realize how fragile a ‘Jeopardy!’ streak is,” said Jennings. “Any night could be the game with your name on it. You just never know.”
Holzhauer will eventually return during Jeopardy’s “Tournament of Champions” and there has been talk of a match between he and Jennings – which would be Ah-Maze-Ing!!!!
“It’s going to happen at some point,” Jennings said.
Boettcher, 27, said in an interview that she’s watched “Jeopardy!” forever and she played along with a pen as a buzzer keeping track of her score.
“I knew going in that Daily Double hunting was something that I could do and feel confident doing,” she said. “I don’t need to be cautious around that.”
In an interview with ESPN on Tuesday, Holzhauer said he sensed the end was near when the Final Jeopardy category rolled around on Monday and he was trailing Boettcher.
“I was a little shook during Double Jeopardy because I was playing from behind and constantly getting beaten on the buzzer by Emma (who won $46,801),” he said. “By the time Final Jeopardy rolled around, I knew I could only win if Emma answered incorrectly. It felt like needing a team to miss a last-second field goal. She didn’t miss, but I was still proud of my performance the whole way. I gave her a high-five and smiled at how far I’d come.”
He added the first thing he did after the show was grab an Uber and have tacos with his wife and daughter. He said he wants to go on a long vacation and is considering how to share some of his winnings with charity.
“Jeopardy!” is a bigger deal than I realized. Fame came at me a lot quicker and stronger than I imagined,” he said. “I think I mostly kept it to a level I’m comfortable and happy with.”
The King is dead. Long live the queen.
“It’s been remarkable as a fan to have watched his run. James is such a great player,” Boettcher told the Chicago Tribune. “And for me, it would have been an honor to have played him regardless of how the game had turned out. It’s been nice having watched the show for so long and to feel like I’ve kind of made my mark on the ‘Jeopardy!’ history in that way.”