America Has a James Holzhauer Problem and It's Reaching Crisis Proportions

SourceKen Jennings rose to fame after an unprecedented run on Jeopardy 15 years ago: Over the course of 74 episodes, he won a total of roughly $2.5 million.

Recently, a contestant named James Holzhauer has been working toward Jennings’s record at an astonishing pace. After the Friday-evening broadcast of the quiz program, Holzhauer had won about $850,000 over just 12 episodes. If he keeps up that rate, he’ll reach $2.5 million in less than half the time it took Jennings to do so.

Before Holzhauer went on the show, the most money earned in a single episode of Jeopardy was $77,000. During his 12-episode streak, he’s beaten that total not once, but five times, and has set a new record of $131,127. …

Holzhauer is far exceeding the show’s average single-day winnings, which a Jeopardy fan website calculated to be $19,980. With his sometimes six-figure daily prizes, how much damage is Holzhauer doing to the show’s finances?

“Every game show has a prize budget,” says Bob Boden, a former head of programming at Game Show Network. … Large deviations from such averages can strain these prize budgets. “James’s performance, I’m sure, is causing grief for an accountant somewhere,” says Boden. …

Holzhauer’s stellar performances are drawing in more viewers. Normally, Boden says, it’s not compelling TV for a single player to run up the score, “but in a situation like this, where records are being set and broken every night, the excitement, I believe, outweighs the lopsided results.”

Let me state from the outset, I can’t stand James Holzhauer. I hate almost everything about him. His lifeless eyes, like a doll’s eyes. His inhuman speed with the buzzer. The limitless depth and breadth of his knowledge. His clairvoyant ability to find all the Daily Doubles. His expressionless face, which occasionally breaks into an awkward, joyless smile. As if he’s aping human behavior as he was instructed to do so and once he’s destroyed our most sacred cultural institution he will unzip his Earth person-like skin, drink the blood of everyone in the studio and then return to his home world.

I like my “Jeopardy!” champions smart, but also relatable and entertaining, like NYC bartender Austin Rogers. Or charming and impossibly adorable, like Kristin Cutts:

[I pause a moment to collect myself. OK. I’m back.] James in none of those things. He’s dry and lifeless and peculiar in a way that I’ve never encountered in anyone I’ve ever met. He’s not only ruining an important half hour of my day, that disappointment is actually spilling over into my mornings now as I look ahead to tonight and realize I know exactly what’s going to happen from 7:30-to-8:00pm. There is no hope that anyone can stop him. No chance that he will stumble and fail. All that lies ahead is a dystopian future where the entity we call James Holzhauer will roll into Final Jeopardy with $77K, bet heavily and get it right, with some weirdly cryptic shout out to anyone who knows him and it will go on like this until the End Times.

All that said, I respect the hell out of him.

I just coined a term that’s never been used before and I plan to copyright it because it’s so brilliant that soon everyone will want to put it on shirts and coffee mugs. Here it is: “Life isn’t fair.” Some of us are better than others. Richer. Smarter. Better looking. More athletic. Stronger. Better fighters. Nature is full of hierarchies where one dominant member of the species demonstrates the ability to be a better provider. Of food, shelter, sex, babies. And gets everything they want. From the lowliest crustacean to the beasts of the field to the birds of the air to the contestants of “Jeopardy!”

James Holzhauer is just such an Apex Predator of the game show hierarchy. The ultimate outlier. A person perfectly adapted to the environment he finds himself in. I might not like his bloodless style, but hating him would be like hating Wayne Gretzky. Wishing for him to go away would be like wishing Tiger Woods was still a full time stay-at-home dad. To not respect what we are witnessing is to be anti-excellence. If you root against him, you might as well go to the Nobel Prize ceremony and boo all the doctors, writers and physicists.

You can root for someone to come along and beat him, and God knows I am, because it will be a great story. But I’m not holding my breath. When Trebek introduces his competitors tonight, I won’t see challengers. I’ll see virgins being lead to the edge of a volcano, there to appease the cruel, indifferent God of Trivia, James Holzhauer. All hail our mighty “Jeopardy!” master.