Every Jeopardy! contestant has to lose sometime — even James Holzhauer. Hison last night's show, after he won 32 games, outplayed more than 60 contestants, and earned more than $2.4 million.
Holzhauer is a professional sports gambler, and says he stuck to a winning strategy: he would pick the highest-value clues first and then seek out Daily Doubles to bet all he had. But strategy only goes so far: He also managed to give the correct responses 97 percent of the time.
Chicago librarian Emma Boettcher ended his streak. But Holzhauer, whose first show was in April, told Las Vegas CBS affiliate KLAS-TV that he never expected to make it this far.
"I thought maybe I could win maybe 6, 7 episodes — certainly not 32 — and certainly not this level of money," he said. "Gosh, it was really mind-blowing."
Early on, Holzhauer set the record for the most money won in one episode. He also walked away with the 16 highest one-day totals in Jeopardy! history, winning an average of $77,000 dollars per game. On 12 shows during his streak, he went the entire game without missing a single question.
He also bet the full pot so often that he became known for his signature gesture. He was often so confident in his "Final Jeopardy" answer that he'd add personal messages to friends and family.
Holzhauer says there were two keys to his success. One was physical: holding the buzzer with one hand, and his wrist with the other to keep it steady. The other was mental: thinking like a high-stakes gambler.
"In poker tournaments there's a big advantage to accumulating a big stack of chips early on: you can make plays that no one else can," Holzhauer said, adding "Really, I thought accumulating the dollars quickly was a key part of the plan."
But last night, he went into "Final Jeopardy" in second place against a strong contestant who also used his trademark strategy of taking big risks for big rewards.
"My number one feeling was if I had to go out, I wanted to go out against a top player who beat me in a straight up contest and not because I made a silly mistake," he said, adding "it was a true honor to go out on top having played against just an awesome player who couldn't be stopped."
"This was a wonderful experience that I wouldn't trade for anything," Holzhauer added.
Boettcher said the victory was "surreal." Her win also prevented Holzhauer from reaching the biggest Jeopardy! milestone of all: He was less than $60,000 shy of former contestant Ken Jennings' record for the highest winnings in a regular season. Fifteen years ago, Jennings won more than $2.5 million over the course of 74 games.
The two tweeted at each other Monday, with Jennings congratulating Holzhauer on his "hell of a run."