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Why James Holzhauer Is Bad for ‘Jeopardy!’ (Column)

James Holzhauer, who is closing in on a million dollars of game-show winnings, is on track to become the most successful “Jeopardy!” contestant of all time. And he’s become such a dominant force that a historic run has come to seem, as television, boring.

Over the course of 13 episodes and counting, Holzhauer’s methods and his mien have become deeply familiar. His success is owed in some large part both to landing Daily Double clues (more easily achieved if you have been getting questions right, as he tends to) and to wagering as aggressively as possible once he’s found them. A professional gambler in his off-camera life, Holzhauer has by now become notorious for his gesture for wagering it all — pushing his hands forward as if shoving all his poker chips into the kitty. More often than not, he’s rewarded with an insurmountable lead early in the game.

He is simply a more advanced player, a perfect one, seemingly sent from the future to dominate the show, and his personality as a TV character is frustratingly difficult to know, even by the standards of the breezily quick 30-minute game show. More than most contestants, he is there to complete a mission. (His shout-outs to family and friends, written on each Final Jeopardy card, are the only real glimpses we get of the Holzhauer who existed before he took the “Jeopardy!” stage.)

Holzhauer’s run, which has included a record-setting single-night take of $131,127, has brought further attention to “Jeopardy!,” a show that is still a widely viewed ratings draw but one whose routine nature means that it only bubbles up in the conversation when something truly remarkable is happening on it. (Holzhauer’s run, for instance, happens to coincide with a period in which many fans, casual and nightly viewers alike, are reflecting on their love of the show due to the announcement of Alex Trebek’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.) An element of Holzhauer’s strategy, skipping around the board from category to category, recalls similarly widely discussed 2014 champion Arthur Chu, though his run was shorter and less lucrative; further back in the show’s history, there was the similarly dominant but far less high-rolling Ken Jennings, who tended to be more closely placed with his competitors. But there’s little to discuss here beyond the marvel of Holzhauer’s obvious intelligence, cool hand, and capacity for risk. After 13 episodes, the point seems made, somewhat.

This is not to say that there’s anything “Jeopardy!” can or should do — and one suspects mixed feelings, with the burst of positive attention around Holzhauer countered by the fact that it is suddenly forking over quite such sums of money nightly. But this run represents a bit of a producing challenge. If every episode is a blowout in which two of three contestants are basically never competitive, does that not grow uninteresting over time?

Holzhauer’s presence puts forward a question of sorts, about what “Jeopardy!” is and what it has become. Every aspect of his play, obviously, is not merely within the rules but clearly the ideal use of them. Daily Doubles allow you to double your money, and he’s the only person daring enough to consistently risk it and smart enough to consistently get the questions right. Final Jeopardy questions allow you to risk as much as you like, even when you’ve already won so much money that the game is not winnable for your opponents. But there is a “show” aspect to a game show that’s being underserved. Holzhauer’s run is a thrilling achievement, and deadly dull television. “Jeopardy!’s” inherent appeal is the story it tells of competition — comebacks, falls from the top, surprise reversals of fortune, all of which speak to the manner in which people respond under pressure. A person who has basically no response to pressure thanks to his demeanor and his professional experience is either perfect casting for a show like this, or, perhaps, a less-than-edifying companion through weeks and weeks of episodes that have lost a certain fundamental crisp interest. A steady march that goes the same way each episode evokes not the heady cut-and-thrust of a game well played but the dreary awareness that a game show, as all other aspects of life in the late 2010s, can be optimized.

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