Every Jeopardy! fan has a plan for how they’d attack the game show, if given the chance. There are entire Reddit forums dedicated to this, and a good amount of research and study has laid out the preferred method of attack. For a lot of those who are Jeopardy! fanatics, there’s a model to follow if you pass the test and can get on the show.
In theory, at least. As you might imagine, things can get blown up pretty fast once you’re on stage and so no matter how much you study the topics statistically most likely to come up, even if you practice with a fake signaling device of your own making and even if you’re usually pretty lucky, you could get waylaid by any number of factors. Which is exactly why the show’s head writer advises against playing like James Holzhauer no matter how attractive, and lucrative, his strategy seemed.
Holzhauer, who won more than $2.4 million over 32 episodes earlier in the year, was famous for blitzing the board by jumping to more valuable questions on the board and then intentionally hunting for Daily Doubles to amass large amounts of cash and effectively shutting out his opponents. It was incredibly effective — sometimes putting the game out of reach before the first commercial break — until it wasn’t. But Jeopardy! head writer Michele Loud called Holzhauer a “a one-in-a-million player” and said she’d recommend players figure out what works for them, not what they’ve seen other players make a ton of money on. In an interview with Vulture, Loud said it’s hard to replicate the success Holzhauer had with his strategy for a number of reasons.
“I would say each player should play the game that he or she can play. James Holzhauer was a one-in-a-million player. A lot of people think that’s a great strategy, when you rack up a lot of money so you have a lot of money when you get to the Daily Double,” Loud said. “Unfortunately, not everyone is that kind of a player. Most people would benefit from starting at the top of the board and figuring out what the category is about. Sometimes the category is more limited than you think or it’s not what you think based on the category title, and you don’t know it until the first clue sets it up for you. So you can get yourself into a lot of trouble by starting at the bottom of the board, and you don’t even know it.”
Alex Trebek is famous for saying he prefers contestants run the categories from top to bottom, which I’m sure is much easier for the show’s host, too. And Loud said there’s another reason she prefers contestants go from top to bottom: the questions are written to flow that way and can help contestants find their footing.
“I’m with Alex. I would prefer players to start at the top of the board because we write the categories so that they flow from top to bottom, and they get harder as you go down the board. There’s a nice rhythm that happens when you play the category in order, and a lot of the time the game feels choppy if it’s not executed in that way.
There are a lot of ways to win on Jeopardy!, but what’s becoming more and more clear as Holzhauer’s time on the show gets further into the rearview is just how much of an aberration his run was.