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How James Holzhauer Used Sports Betting Principles to Cross $1 Million on Jeopardy!

Apr 26, 2019 10:35 PM EDT
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Pictured: James Holzhauer

  • James Holzhauer, a professional sports bettor, has won more than $1.1 million on Jeopardy! in just 15 games (as of April 24).
  • Watching Holzhauer's dominance, it's easy to tell he has a high tolerance for risk and that he's consistently using probabilities and expected value to leave competitors in his wake.

If offered a chance to double your money on a bet with a 90% chance of winning, would you take it? You should. I would. And James Holzhauer certainly does every night on Jeopardy!

Much has been made about what’s allowing Holzhauer — a professional sports gambler — to string together a fascinating run of Jeopardy! dominance. Is it trivia prowess? Buzzer speed? Savvy betting strategy?

It’s all three, really. But he’s quickly stacked cash and crossed $1.1 million in just 15 games through aggressive wagers that aren’t actually all that aggressive. They’re calculated, smart and actually pretty simple.

Holzhauer holds the all top 7 single-game money records. After just five games, he was No. 6 on Jeopardy!s all-time money list, and he’s now No. 2 (not counting tournaments). He’s one of just eight players to win at least 10 games on Jeopardy!

Holzhauer is wagering with massively positive expected value and treating Jeopardy! money like actual money, not game show points.

“I sketched out what I believed to be my optimal strategy for Jeopardy: Play fast, build a stack, bet big, and hope for the best,” he told The Atlantic.

Sounds an awful lot like a savvy gambler.

James Holzhauer Jeopardy! Stats

What Is Holzhauer Doing on Jeopardy!?

I won’t bore you with how Jeopardy! works. I’ll assume that if you clicked on this, you’ve seen it.

But Holzhauer is shaking up the game in a few ways by:

  • Starting at the bottom of the board with $1,000 questions, the most difficult, and accumulating cash fast.
  • Hunting for Daily Doubles after that so he can quickly multiply that cash and take a big lead, then add to that lead with more Daily Doubles. His first-round Daily Doubles are almost always 100% of his bankroll.
  • Wagering more in Final Jeopardy than is traditionally deemed necessary, but not enough to lose the game if he gets it wrong.
  • Getting 96.5% of questions correct. That’s a good way to win a trivia show, right? His scores, independent of wagering strategy, are better than 74-game winner Ken Jennings. That’s better known as a Coryat Score.

Before you can even sit down to watch, Holzhauer has usually banked $10,000.

What Is Expected Value?

Let’s back up and talk about the positive expected value wagers Holzhauer is making night in and night out.

Expected value is what a bettor can expect to win or lose per bet placed on the same odds over and over. In sports betting, a positive expected value (+EV) bet is one that, in the long run, will prove profitable because the odds of winning are better than the book thinks. A +EV bet on a single game may lose, but over a large sample, that bet is a good one.

It’s fair to assume Holzhauer, being a calculated professional bettor, did a little prep before going on Jeopardy! and understands his expected value. Through April 25, he’s gotten 535 questions correct and just 19 incorrect. That’s 96.5%.

On Daily Doubles — where the contestant can wager every dollar he/she has to double that amount — he’s 34 of 37, for almost 92%. On Final Jeopardy, where he can do the same, he’s 14 of 15. Yet he can double up on each.

He likely knew going into his Jeopardy! tapings the percentage of those Daily Doubles he would get right.

And when you can double your money at a 90% success rate, you do it. Holzhauer has won $338,587 from Daily Double wagers, almost 30% of his cash won. That’s despite them making up just 6% of the questions he’s answered correctly.

Advance, But Stack Cash

Holzhauer can quickly calculate an optimal bet on a Daily Double or Final Jeopardy — among his most impressive skills.

We know his bets are massively +EV, since he gets up to even odds on a bet with 90% probability. But if he loses one, which has and will happen, he could risk losing the game. And if he doesn’t advance, he can’t win more money.

Holzhauer balances this Jeopardy! dilemma extremely well:

How can I win the most money in a single game while making sure I win the game to keep playing? 

Let’s take the Tuesday, April 23 show as an example. Holzhauer found all three Daily Doubles in the game, and got all three correct.

But on his middle wager — when the game was significantly closer, and he could have lost a grip on it had he gotten it wrong — he risked less of his bankroll than the first and third. Just 30%.

And on Final Jeopardy, when he knew he couldn’t lose the game, Holzhauer bet $50,000 — nearly the entire amount he could afford to lose and still not be caught by his opponents. He wagered 72.66%.

So How Does He Control the Daily Doubles?

He’s insanely fast on the buzzer. On Jeopardy!, contestants can buzz in once Alex Trebek has stopped reading the question and a producer turns on a blue light that appears off-stage.

Holzhauer didn’t truly start dominating on the buzzer until his third week of shows, though he admitted he read about the optimal buzzer strategy in this book written by a former contestant.

Given that Jeopardy! is filmed well in advance with many of it at once, many “returning champions” have a big advantage over new contestants coming onto the stage cold and unfamiliar with the quirks of buzzing in.

Here is the 3-game rolling average of Holzhauer’s percentage of questions in which he buzzed in first.

All data from JeopardyFan.com.

For reference, here is Jennings’ first-buzz rate. He really didn’t start thriving until the end of his second week, and really dominated in the middle of his 74-game run.

So How Will He Be Defeated?

For all we know, Holzhauer could still be playing. If he runs the table on this season (what’s been filmed already), he’d have won 62 games, just 13 shy of topping Jennings’ record of 74. At his current pace, he’ll top Jennings’ money record in about 34 games.

Defeating Holzhauer will take a perfect storm — someone good on the buzzer getting at least two of the Daily Doubles, and Holzhauer missing Final Jeopardy.

Holzhauer was actually pretty close to losing on April 11, his sixth game — he got Final Jeopardy wrong, and his competitor got it right. Holzhauer had already clinched the game, but only won by about $4,000, and that margin would have been less than $1,000 if his competitor wagered his full amount in an attempt to catch him (he couldn’t, so he didn’t). Had one question gone differently in the second half of the game, it could have swung.

Can I Apply Any of This to Sports Betting?

Get even-money odds on a bet you have 90% certainty will win, maybe? Unfortunately, that seldom exists.

But Holzhauer’s dominance is a lesson in expected value. When you have an edge, use it. When you know you’ll be making money in the long run if that bet is made over and over again, you can’t be afraid to push.

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