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Unexpected Life Lessons From Jeopardy! Champion James Holzhauer

James Holzhauer has become a household name in the past few weeks for his incredible success as the Jeopardy! champion. It’s not just that he’s winning the game day after day; his total earnings have surpassed two million dollars. He’s also attracting attention for the way he plays the game (more on that later).

Who doesn’t love a good success story? The show’s ratings are up, and he’s even got former champions writing about him and analyzing his strategy.

True confession: In my first life, before I had kids, I was a Jeopardy! fan. I tuned in daily to watch and see if I knew any of the answers. I loved figuring out the hints in the clues even if I couldn’t figure out the correct response.  There was something pretty awesome about a game that seemed to cater to the nerds of the world.

Fast forward several years and I find I never watch the show unless someone randomly turns it on en route to something else. Sure I know who Ken Jennings is and I have tuned in to watch a hometown favorite here and there.

But for the past few weeks, I have been riveted. And so have my kids. We’ve recorded the games so we can watch them together, completely reveling in Holzhauer’s unique approach to Jeopardy!.

Not only do I enjoy watching him turn the game upside down, but also I realize that watching him play reinforces a lot of the lessons that I’ve tried to teach my own children:

3 Lessons from a Jeopardy! Champion:

1. There’s no substitute for focus and practice.

Just look at the way he wields that buzzer. Other contestants cannot get a click in. Turns out that Holzhauer spent a lot of time observing tapes of previous games and studying the timing in order to practice. Clearly, he perfected his technique. While it’s true that he also knows the questions, I imagine the other contestants do too. They just can’t get in on the game because Holzhauer made it his mission to master the buzzer.

2. Embrace what you don’t know.

Sure, he’s good at the buzzer. But he’s also good at what happens after the buzzer: giving the correct question in response to the clue on the board. How did he get so good? He took an inventory of what he already knew a lot about, and then determined areas where he felt he was weak. He then planted himself in the library and read children’s books about these topics. (According to him, these books provided information in an easy to digest format that was perfect for Jeopardy!.) So often, we tend to rely on what we’re good at and hope that will get us where we want to go. Holzhauer has proven that it literally pays to learn what you don’t know.

3. Do things your own way.

Since its initial airing in 1975, Jeopardy! contestants would typically start at the lowest value of each category which contain the easiest clues and methodically work their way down the board to end with the hardest clues worth the most money. This strategy seemed to be the way to play the game, and it makes sense; it gives contestants an opportunity to get a feel for the content, and if they get something wrong early on, they’re not so deep in the hole. Anyone who approached the board differently was considered a bit of an outlier.

Holzhauer isn’t having any of it. Instead, he goes straight for the largest values on the board. Last night, before any other contestant got a chance, he attacked the bottom row and correctly provided every single $1000 clue  in the first round, giving him a $6000 lead before the first commercial break. It may be his knowledge of game theory but his approach is, indeed, a game-changer. Ditto for the incredible sums he wagers on the daily doubles or Final Jeopardy!.

I’m not plotting a mutiny, but there is certainly something to be said for thinking of and trying new approaches. Let’s not let the idea that “it’s always been done this way” stop us from trying something different. I imagine that Holzhauer may influence the way people play Jeopardy! long after his tenure ends.

My kids may never be as good at anything as Holzhauer is at playing Jeopardy, but it’s been gratifying to see someone putting into play the wisdom I’ve been trying to pass along. At the very least, he’s given us all someone to root for.

Jody Podl

Jody Podl is a teacher at Shaker Heights High School.