Day 6

'The nerds are winning:' How James Holzhauer is using analytics to win at Jeopardy

FiveThirtyEight puzzle editor Oliver Roeder says James Holzhauer has cracked the Jeopardy code with his nerd-like approach to analytics and and the "pure, unalloyed aggression" he honed as a professional gambler.

Holzhauer won $1 million US in half the time it took legend Ken Jennings to do it

James Holzhauer on April 17, the day he set a Jeopardy record for the highest daily winnings with a total of $131,127 US. Holzhauer has since eclipsed the $1 million mark in winnings. (Jeopardy Productions, Inc./Associated Press)

by Brent Bambury

It's not just his skill as a gambler that's driving James Holzhauer's championship run on Jeopardy.

There's another resource that powers his domination more than any other — data.

Holzhauer failed to find a single Daily Double on the Jeopardy board on Friday and he still ended the week a winner.  Winning without the boost of a risky bet on the Daily Double proves Holzhauer's grip on the game taps into his nerdier skills.

"You can kind of only get at those advantages through data," puzzle expert Oliver Roeder told Day 6.

Holzhauer pocketed $49,600 to win the game, bringing his 17-day total to $1,275,587 US. He's coming back Monday for more.

"The nerds are winning," Roeder said. "And the nerds are winning on Jeopardy which, on Jeopardy, is really saying something."

Revenge of the data nerds

Roeder is a senior writer and puzzle editor for the polling and data news website FiveThirtyEight. He's a data journalist and he's good at it.

He can tell you how Holzhauer has performed on all his Final Jeopardy answers: 16 out 17 correct. 

He can tell you how many Daily Doubles Holzhauer has nailed: "He's answered north of 90 per cent of them correctly."

And he knows what day Holzhauer broke his own record for highest daily winnings: $131,127 on April 17.

Roeder can also explain, quantitatively, how James Holzhauer compares to another great Jeopardy champion.

"Ken Jennings, obviously the most famous Jeopardy player ever to live, won $2.5 million over 75 shows. James could surpass that in 34 shows," Roeder said. "So [Holzhauer] is winning money more than twice as fast as the best Jeopardy player ever to play."

Jennings won 74 games straight, and placed second on his 75th appearance.

Jeopardy analytics

Jennings set his Jeopardy records in 2004. Since then, even more Jeopardy data has accumulated and the cache is massive and freely available online.

The J! Archive is a fan-created, comprehensive — and possibly obsessive — record of all the Jeopardy games, wagers, and outcomes of the Alex Trebek epoch. It includes some 400,000 clues stretching back to 1985.

Roeder says contestants who crack the J! Archive will be rewarded.

"The fact that every game could be compiled in an archive … led contestants who are, needless to say, very bright people, to break that data apart and see what advantages might have been hiding in this game that haven't been exploited yet," he said.

Alex Trebek has hosted Jeopardy since 1985, and has seen plenty of winning streaks, including all-time champ Ken Jennings, who holds the record. Jennings won 74 episodes straight in 2004. (Ben Hider/Getty Images)

Roeder waded into the data, studied the outcomes of games, and saw patterns in the wagers made by players like Hotlzhauer, who fully exploit the Daily Doubles. The data has led to changes in the way Jeopardy is being played over time.

"You can see a trend toward contestants betting more on Daily Doubles over the past 15 or 20 years. You can also see a trend toward the contestants finding the Daily Doubles earlier and earlier in the round by hopping around the game board," he said.

"So what James is doing ... wasn't any kind of secret knowledge. But he's just fully embracing going all-in," Roeder said.

"He's all-in on the strategy of going all-in."

Vegas in his veins

Obviously James Hotlzhauer is more than a data nerd.  

He's a buzzer nerd too, and Roeder says mastering the buzzer may be the most important skill on Jeopardy.

"The timing — you know, fast twitch fingers — to give yourself a chance to respond to these clues," he said.

Roeder says Holtzhauer worked out a way to build his buzzer skills well before the cameras rolled.

"He made a practice buzzer at home before he came on the televised show and he would practice by standing up in his living room, wearing the same shoes that he wears on the show, with a buzzer made out of masking tape wrapped around a pencil."

And then there's his experience as a gambler.

Holtzhauer, a professional sports gambler, bets approximately four times the average amount Jeopardy contestants risk on a Daily Double. He has Vegas in his veins.

James Holzhauer's success is due in part to his skills as a professional gambler, but what's really driving him is data, according to FiveThirtyEight's puzzle expert Oliver Roeder. (Carol Kaelson/Jeopardy Productions/Associated Press)

"I think his background as a professional gambler has allowed him to A) recognize that betting a lot is valuable and B) to actually pull the trigger and do it and take the risk," Roeder said.

How to beat James Holtzhauer

If data is the key to playing Jeopardy as brilliantly as Holtzhauer, then it will likely take another data nerd to defeat him.  

Oliver Roeder studies and writes about data for a living. Is he up to the job?

"Absolutely not," he said. "But I think that I would know how to approach it, maybe better than I did a few weeks ago."

Roeder says studying the data has convinced him the only way to defeat Holtzhauer is to use Holtzhauer's strategy against him.

"Do I think it would work?" he asked rhetorically. "No. Do I think it would be fun? Definitely."

For now, like millions of other Jeopardy fans, Roeder just wants to see how far Holtzhauer can go.

"As a fan, I want Jeopardy to remain solvent," he says.

"But I also want James to keep winning."