As It Happens

Former Jeopardy contestant says reigning champ James Holzhauer is a 'menace'

James Holzhauer has racked up well over $1 million US over 19 consecutive games of Jeopardy. But not everyone is happy with how he is re-shaping the game — including Washington Post columnist and former Jeopardy contestant Charles Lane.

Washington Post columnist Charles Lane insists his critique is not a case of sour grapes

Professional sports gambler James Holzhauer of Las Vegas after breaking the record for single-day cash winnings last week. (Carol Kaelson/Jeopardy Productions/Associated Press)
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Transcript

James Holzhauer has been turning Jeopardy upside down. The professional gambler has racked up more than $1.4 million US over 19 consecutive games. But not everyone is happy with him. 
    
Charles Lane is a columnist for the Washington Post who has written a rebuke of Holzhauer's methods, labelling him a "menace." Lane appeared in a 1991 episode of the quiz show. But he insists his anti-Holzhauer take in no way stems from sour grapes. 

The column is resonating with the Holzhauer haters across the globe who are asking: Who is really being played here? 

Lane spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off about why he believes Holzhauer is bad for the game show. Here is some of their conversation.

Charles, what did James Holzhauer ever do to you?

I have nothing personal against James Holzhauer. What I am a little concerned by is the application of, kind of, database-probabilistic optimization to an innocent game show like Jeopardy. And I think it kind of spoils it for me.

OK, those are a lot of big words. You've used another one, not so big. You called him "a menace." And you've written, "There's nothing admirable about his strategy. He's taking the fun out of the game." That's pretty harsh.

Yeah. "Menace" was just a little attention-seeking, over-the-top journalism.

It's not so much that he's winning the game — although obviously he's very good at it. He's kind of beating the system.

And, you know, it's the most polarizing thing I've ever written, Carol. I've gotten angry letters, people calling me an idiot — saying I'm a sore loser because I lost on Jeopardy.

And some are people saying, "Thank you, thank you for finally putting into words what I felt."

The people who are angry with you, why did they defend this way that Mr. Holzhauer is playing the game?

The main argument they have is that I have something against excellence — you know, that here comes a guy, he's practiced, he's perfected his game, and you're trying to shoot him down just because he's better than everyone else. 

And honestly, that could not be farther from the truth.

I'm just saying that, like all good things, it can be taken too far. And there is a point at which Jeopardy ceases to be Jeopardy and turns into the James Holzhauer show. And if you really think about it, that's contrary to the spirit of what Jeopardy has always been. 

You know, there are two basic views of why you would like to watch any competition, right? One is to view genius and excellence and brilliance and perfection on display.

And the other is that you like to see competition. You know, you like to see drama, spontaneity, suspense — the things that happen when people don't have all the risks under their control.

What is so different about what James Holzhauer does than other competitors?

Well, obviously, the first thing that's different is he knows a lot. I mean, the guy is — he's a professional gambler, so he understands odds, and you know, all of that is unique to him.

The added element is the way he moves around the board in Jeopardy to first go for the high-money harder questions, and then seek out the Daily Double. 

And that strategy has two effects. It enables him to build up a huge amount of cash very early, and also deny those big money opportunities to others. So that in many of these games — including the one that was broadcast [Tuesday] night — he's way ahead, very early in the game, and often has put it away where the others don't even have a chance.

I think the old Jeopardy rules, which existed before 2003, in which returning champions were limited to a certain number — five — of return visits, and then came back for a tournament of champions, was the better approach from the point of view of the show.

Now you were on Jeopardy way back in 1991. What was your own experience?

Dismal. I lost. I finished third in a field of three. And it was painful and horrible, and for the next 10 years I couldn't even watch Jeopardy.

But how do you get treated when you are a loser on Jeopardy?

They give you consolation prizes. I got scented trash bags and a pair of Gitano jeans. I'm not sure that brand exists anymore.

Were they thankful? Did they pat you on the back and say, "Better luck next time?"

They take you right out to the back entrance and open the door as you go into the parking lot. That's the unceremonious conclusion.

Do you think at any point that they're going to take James Holzhauer out into the parking lot?

They might, but when he gets out there, there'll probably be a cheering throng.

I don't think even the ignominious trip to the parking lot will be too painful for him.

Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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