How a Georgia Tech engineer helped break James Holzhauer’s ‘Jeopardy’ streak

Jay Sexton of Georgia Tech with Alex Trebek.
Jay Sexton of Georgia Tech with Alex Trebek.

Credit: Jeopardy

Credit: Jeopardy

Originally posted Monday, June 3, 2019 by RODNEY HO/ on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Yes, sports gambler James Holzhauer is human after all.

Chicago librarian Emma Boettcher defeated Holzhauer in Monday night's pre-taped "Jeopardy" episode by emulating his aggressive-style game, avoiding mistakes and nabbing both Double Jeopardy Daily Doubles. It also helped that at a critical juncture with $7,600, she decided to gamble all her money on her first Daily Double and answering it correctly. That allowed her to take the lead from Holzhauer, which she was able to maintain until the end.

The Princeton University graduate who did her master's thesis on "Jeopardy" clues also prevented Holzhauer from jumping ahead of Ken Jennings in the money department. Many figured Holzhauer would break that record as early as today since he was averaging an astounding $77,000 per game. Instead, he finished with more than $2.4 million, less than $60,000 shy of Jennings' win total. He also broke his win streak at 32.

But third-place finisher Jay Sexton, a senior engineer at Georgia Tech, was no slouch, ending with a respectable $17,000, not too far behind Holzhauer's $24,799. Boettcher finished with $46,801. In fact, that's considered an excellent result for a third-place finisher.

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Holzhauer, known for aggressive bets, took a relatively modest one during Final Jeopardy. He was behind Boettcher at that point and he knew if she got Final Jeopardy right, she was guaranteed the win with a large enough bet to exceed his maximum. (She bet $20,201, which gave her $46,801, $1 more than the maximum Holzhauer could have gotten.)

So Holzhauer’s $1,399 covered himself in case both he and Boettcher got the answer wrong (and she placed the most logical bet $20,201) while Sexton got it right and maxed out his bet of $11,000. If that were the case, Boettcher would have won with $22,001 to Sexton’s $22,000.

Holzhauer, in other words, was maximizing his opportunities to win even if the bet looked odd on the surface.

In the end, all three contestants got the Final Jeopardy question correct, ensuring Holzhauer’s loss.

(Holzhauer received $2,000 for coming in second. Sexton pocketed $1,000.)

During his streak, Holzhauer typically answered between 50 and 60 percent of the questions, allowing him a much greater shot at finding the Daily Doubles. But Boettcher and Sexton forced his percentage down to just 42 percent.

Sexton - who noted he once as a kid memorized the entire Trivial Pursuit game for fun - answered 17 questions correctly, or 28 percent of all questions correctly. The $11,000 he garnered during the first two rounds helped keep his rivals from jumping too far ahead of him and gave Holzhauer fewer opportunities to catch up to Boettcher during Double Jeopardy.

Boettcher finished with 21 questions right or 35 percent of all questions, less than Holzhauer. But finding the two Daily Doubles rewarded her an extra $10,600, enough of a cushion to prevent Holzhauer. She also made no mistakes.

It was a very clean game. All 60 questions in the first two rounds were answered. Sexton made just a single mistake on a $400 question in Double Jeopardy that the other two didn’t answer.

Atlanta professor Adam Stone, one of the 64 competitors Holzhauer vanquished during his streak, said Sexton and Boettcher both successfully "countered his bottom-of-the-board strategy."

This also happened to be the first episode that "Jeopardy" taped after host Alex Trebek announced he had cancer. That's why Holzhauer's daughter's gave Trebek a "get well" card.

Holzhauer ultimately faced  two strong rivals who were able to handle the buzzer and was super unlucky with the Daily Doubles. (The only Daily Double Holzhauer got was literally at the start of the show, which meant he could only pocket $1,000.)

The timing is also curious because it’s possible he might have psyched himself out because he knew he was within shouting distance of Jennings’ prize money record.

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