Even if you don’t watch the game show Jeopardy!, you’ve probably heard of James Holzhauer by now. He’s the whiz player who has currently run up more than one million dollars in winnings. He’s a professional gambler and viewers have remarked on his “aggressive” style in selecting questions and racking up big scores early in each game. But unlike the previous top dog, Ken Jennings, not everyone seems to be quite so happy for Mr. Holzhauer. In fact, some people are downright angry with him for “ruining the game.” This group of critics includes the Washington Post’s Charles Lane, who writes this week that Holzhauer is, in fact, a menace to society.
To the multitudes who have rooted Holzhauer on, I have just one question: Do you not see that this guy is a menace?
The only thing more troubling, as a commentary on American culture, than his grinning, relentless march to victory — regardless of when, or if, it ends — is that millions celebrate it.
People seem not to care that Holzhauer’s streak reflects the same grim, data-driven approach to competition that has spoiled (among other sports) baseball, where it has given us the “shift,” “wins above replacement,” “swing trajectories” and other statistically valid but unholy innovations.
Like the number crunchers who now rule the national pastime, Holzhauer substitutes cold, calculating odds maximization for spontaneous play.
Lane accuses Holzhauer of engaging in “cold, calculating odds maximization.” The author also disdains the player’s “grinning, relentless march to victory.” (There’s something about liberals these days that makes them really upset if anyone is grinning or “smirking,” isn’t there?) But there’s one thing Lane doesn’t accuse Holzhauer of: cheating. Because he’s not cheating. He’s risking taking the toughest questions that pay the most money first and betting very aggressively on the Daily Doubles and such. And perhaps more infuriatingly than anything else, he keeps getting the answers right. Charles Lane apparently can’t stand that.
This is so reminiscent of the story of Michael Larson. In case you’re not familiar, he’s the guy who, in 1984, went on the daytime game show Press Your Luck and suddenly created a crisis in the entire game show industry. The player board on that show was composed of 18 display boxes that randomly lit up with various cash amounts, prizes, or a gremlin (the “Whammy”) that would bankrupt the player. When you hit the big red button the board would stop and show what you’d gotten for that spin.
The odds of hitting a Whammy were estimated at one in six. People rarely tried more than five, an nobody had made it to ten. Larson stepped up and proceeded to hit 47 spins in a row, winning more than $110 thousand. (A record for game shows at that time.) The producers panicked and threatened to not pay Larson because he must have cheated. But he didn’t. Their board wasn’t random. It just looked random, but there was a pattern to the display and Larson had figured it out. They eventually paid him.
What Larson did was considered a “scandal” but all he did was figure out the smartest way to play the game. James Holzhauer isn’t cheating either. He just figured out the most efficient way to work the Jeopardy board. And unlike Larson, James Holzhauer has to have the trivia knowledge to back up his tile selections and get all the answers right, so there’s a lot of skill involved rather than just good timing. If you find yourself being outraged about Holzhauer and consider him a “menace,” maybe you’re just angry that you weren’t clever enough to figure out his method first.