The Key to “Jeopardy!” Is Knowing Lots of Stuff

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The Washington Post writes today about the latest phenom on Jeopardy!:

James Holzhauer, the frighteningly talented “Jeopardy!” player who has dominated the past 13 games and racked up $942,738, second only to Ken Jennings. In its 35th season, the dinnertime show is suddenly appointment television as Holzhauer has shattered the idea of a typical “Jeopardy!” strategy. He has broken his record for single-game winnings three times; his highest total is $131,137, which he won last week. Holzhauer plays, as Slate put it, “like a cyborg constructed for the express purpose of winning at this ever-popular game.”

As a longtime Jeopardy! fan, my problem with Holzhauer is that I feel like I’m watching a different species play the game. Even with a guy like Ken Jennings, I could sort of fool myself into thinking that I could beat him if I just got a little lucky. But Holzhauer? Forget it. He’d crush me like an ant. His buzzer timing and his board skills are off the charts, which merely masks the fact that he’s also wildly knowledgeable on a wide range of topics. I don’t think there’s been a category yet where he’s shown any serious weakness.

So that’s that. The Jeopardy! folks should probably be thinking about a special two-entity showdown between Holzhauer and IBM’s Watson, since I’m not sure any other human has a chance of beating him. That showdown might not happen, but I’ll bet they’re already salivating over Holzhauer giving them an excuse to bring back Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter yet again, this time in a three-way contest where the third person isn’t just cannon fodder.

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