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Opinion: How Holzhauer Hacked 'Jeopardy!'


Reigning "Jeopardy!" champion James Holzhauer shattered his own record again.


ALEX TREBEK: And a new total of $1,426,330.


GREENE: The Las Vegas sports better now holds the top nine spots for most money won in a single game, and he's riding a 19-game winning streak. Commentator Mike Pesca has some thoughts on how Holzhauer hacked "Jeopardy!"

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: The sports equivalent of "Jeopardy!" champion James Holzhauer isn't a dominant individual. It's a team. The Golden State Warriors. Before the Warriors, everyone knew the rules, that three-pointers were more than two. But few capitalized on them to change the game. Then the Warriors began taking an ungodly amount of threes and amassing a staggering number of wins. The same is true of Holzhauer. He stalks the board like a predator in an attempt to build up his bankroll with the hardest questions first. Then he makes huge bets when the "Jeopardy!" board reveals a Daily Double. Holzhauer takes full advantage, wagering massive amounts.


TREBEK: Daily Double. Hello.


TREBEK: Two days in a row, you'll find the Daily Double.

PESCA: Holzhauer has uncovered almost 80 percent of all the Daily Doubles available and only gotten four wrong in 19 days. Now, it's not like others haven't tried this. There was a champion, named Chuck Forrest, who bounced around the board hunting for Daily Doubles on his way to winning the 1986 Tournament of Champions. Forrest reminds me of the 1988-'89 New York Knicks who, under coach Rick Pitino, attempted 14 three-pointers a game. There had never been a season in which an NBA team averaged even 10. Impressive. That was before the Warriors, of course.

Holzhauer is a quantum leap beyond those who came before, the first to truly exploit "Jeopardy!" Holzhauer's knowledge is impressive, but his biggest skill isn't his smarts. Even he says in interviews that most contestants know most of the answers. Holzhauer's greatest virtue is his speed. He beat opponents to the buzzer on the way to more than 700 correct answers, including all but one Final Jeopardy during his run. Then comes his betting strategy. As a professional gambler by trade, he makes bets that are smart and aggressive. And unlike most of his competitors, he doesn't psych himself out.

"Jeopardy!" is something you can't practice for. I know. I was a contestant in 2006. I was prepared for the trivia, unprepared for the video Daily Doubles, having forgotten to bring my eyeglasses with me to California. But like everyone else, I was caught off-guard by the mechanics of the buzzer. I did well enough, but I can only imagine how a few practice games under my belt would have helped. And that is why incumbency in "Jeopardy!" is one of the great advantages. By now, Holzhauer has a ton of experience and the psychological edge over everyone he faces. Now, it's not as if he can't be beat. Two days ago, Holzhauer won by just $18. But here's the thing about the just $18 part. It seemed that close because the second-place contestant over-bet in Final Jeopardy.

Now, that's the kind of critique that seems nit-picky - come on, you got to bet it all when the game is on the line. Well, in this case, it was an un-strategic wager. It didn't cost the runner-up the game, but it could've. Holzhauer would never have made that mistake. Or at least, he never has during his tenure. Ninety-nine percent of the public might dismiss such a point, but Holzhauer surely wouldn't. And that's why he's one of the greatest game show champions ever. And you and I and everyone he's faced so far can only stand by watching in awe.


GREENE: I live my life in awe of commentator Mike Pesca, who hosts the Slate podcast "The Gist." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.