Opinion

Lessons from a Jeopardy! Champ

Editorial

Those gathered around the water cooler have had to find other things to talk about in recent days, as James Holzhauer, the record-breaking, cyborg-like Jeopardy! champion was forced to the sidelines as the popular game show took a break for its teachers’ tournament.

But he’ll be back soon, and so will the talk — all kinds of talk. About his almost scary intellect, non-traditional tactics, intriguing personality, and, yes, his winnings — almost $1.7 million (in just 22 shows) when he had to take his break.

But the discussion at the water cooler, and in columns in newspapers and magazines across the country, has gone further in some cases, talking about how Holzhauer has somehow broken the popular game, ruined it, turned it into bad television, or somehow broken or distorted its rules.

Apparently, the virtues of even an incredible Jeopardy! winning streak are in the eyes of the beholder.

What we see is something quite intriguing, something that offers lessons about maybe how all of us should look at life, work, and running our businesses.

Indeed, for decades, it seemed, Jeopardy! was played one way. Contestants found a category they liked, started at the top, and moved to the bottom. When they found a Daily Double, they generally (but not always) wagered conservatively. A good day’s work was maybe $25,000 or even $35,000.

Then, along came Holzhauer, the professional sports gambler, who has obviously looked at this game and its rules and decided that there was a better, more effective, more lucrative way to play it. Before he arrived, the one-day record was $77,000. He’s averaging that — well, $76,864, to be exact — per game.

He starts at the bottom of each category with the big-money questions. He moves around the board searching for the Daily Doubles. When he finds them, he usually has a lot of money won, and then he wagers large amounts, often making them true Daily Doubles. And by hitting the $1,000 and $2,000 questions early — and getting them right — he’s building leads his opponents simply cannot overcome; there isn’t enough money left on the board.

When it gets to Final Jeopardy! the game is already won, but Holzhauer still wagers generally as much as he can, gets the question right (he hasn’t missed a final question yet), and often banks north of $100,000.

It’s radical, it’s different, but unless you’re a hopeless traditionalist who just doesn’t like the way Holzhauer is smoking his competiton every night, you have to like it, you have to applaud it — and you have to tune in to watch it. Yes, Jeopardy! ratings have been much higher since he started this remarkable run.

The lessons for managers and business owners? They’re quite obvious.

Holzhauer surveyed the scene, looked at how just about everyone before him had played Jeopardy! and decided there was a better way. And we’re willing to bet that many more people will be playing it this way from now own.

This is the way to look at your business and your role in it. The status quo is sometimes just fine. Doing things the way everyone else has done them is sometimes OK. But we always need to be searching for those better ways, those new and innovative ways, to do things.

By finding such ways, Holzhauer has set and re-set the single-day earnings record for Jeopardy! In fact, he now owns the 12 highest daily totals in the show’s history. He has, in effect, raised the bar, and he keeps raising it.

That’s the ultimate lesson from this incredible run.

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