The untold truth of James Holzhauer

For nearly 15 years, computer scientist Ken Jennings held the cash winnings record for the long-running television game show Jeopardy! His $2,520,700 record was legendary, and for a long time it seemed like no one would even come close.

Then along came mathematician and professional sports better James Holzhauer. "For 15 years, I have thought somebody was gonna make a run at this record," Jennings told Good Morning America in May 2019. "... What I did not expect was that somebody could make a run at the cash record in like a third the time."

Yes, James Holzhauer's epic run made the Jeopardy! viewing audience fall out of their La-Z-Boys, choke on their false teeth, or spew their slightly-early-afternoon-beers. But who is James Holzhauer, where did he come from, and where did he get the chops to exceed all of television's Jeopardy! expectations? Here are some of the deepest, darkest secrets of James Holzhauer, or at least some interesting and unexpected facts. Kinda like those you might find on Jeopardy!

James Holzhauer comes from humble roots

James Holzhauer grew up in Naperville, Illinois. As a kid he was already kind of a prodigy — in 1989 he was featured in the Chicago Tribune as a 4-year-old math whiz. His preschool teachers said he could add two digit numbers in his head, which is pretty astonishing for someone who has max only been not wearing diapers for like half his life. In fact his teachers were evidently so impressed by his math skills that they had to get special work just for him. And then he grew up to be a professional gambler, so they must have all been so proud.

Holzhauer says his parents helped teach him the value of money. "My parents were both very frugal," he told Newsweek, "and I think they're responsible for my attitude of always looking for good value, especially in my work. In a way, sports betting is like a big game of The Price Is Right: Just like I'd pay $3 for a Coke Zero but not $4, I'd lay three points on the Bears-Packers point spread but not four." So very early on, Holzhauer figured out how to apply math to real life — good for him. Most of us are still working on that.

He played Jeopardy! in honor of his grandma

Why Jeopardy!, though? Well as it turns out, James Holzhauer is roughly the same age as the current, syndicated version of the game show, and he's been watching it for most of his life. "When I watched Jeopardy! as a kid, I would primarily watch with my grandmother," he told Vulture. "... Her first language wasn't English, so she couldn't follow along well, but she wanted to share this experience with me since she saw it was something I really liked. I promised her I'd one day be up on that stage for her. I don't promise anything unless I intend to fulfill it. To me, it's fulfilling the promise I made to her 25 years ago."

That's cute, but most grandmas probably prefer their grandsons go on to become doctors rather than Jeopardy! contestants. Don't tell him we said that, though.

He was not an awesome student

So any human with an encyclopedic knowledge of everything and also mad math skills must have been a great student, right? Well, that was true early on — according to the New York Times, Holzhauer got moved into fifth grade math at age 7, and he skipped the second grade altogether. But other than that he doesn't seem to have gone very far in the academically competitive world of K-12. He usually did well on tests, but he was still mostly a C student. Why? Because he couldn't be bothered to do his homework. In high school he was also known to skip class on occasion, so he could devote his time to more productive activities, you know, like playing internet poker.

"There were times in school where I would say, 'I should go to class,'" he said in an interview. "But I could make $100 playing online poker if I didn't go." So yeah, he was that kind of kid.

By the time he was in high school, he was already a champion

Holzhauer was a pretty solid C student, but that didn't stop him from becoming a champion while he was in junior high and high school. According to the Chicago Tribune, when he was in junior high he made it to the finals in Mathcounts, a national middle school mathematics competition. As a senior he joined the Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering Team and placed first in physics and second in math at the state competition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Holzhauer's high school math coach Elizabeth Moore said he specialized in the two-person competition, which is a timed event involving teams of two. That event in particular probably helped prepare him for the high-pressure environment of a Jeopardy! game. "There's a bit of an adrenaline rush when it comes to the two-person competition," Moore told the Chicago Tribune. Maybe not as much as national television with thousands of dollars at stake, but you know, a taste.

He has a bachelor's degree in mathematics

Holzhauer did finally make it to college, despite all the slacking and high school poker-playing. He then went to the University of Illinois and graduated with a bachelor's degree in mathematics, which must have thrilled his parents until he told them he'd be going on to a lucrative career in sports betting.

To be fair, he didn't go straight from college to professional betting — according to the New York Post he did actually make an effort to land a sensible job with the front offices of Major League Baseball, but his efforts never got him anywhere. He told the New York Times that he also spent a year applying for work as an actuary, but it was just the sort of desk job he couldn't really see himself sticking with. Meanwhile, he was paying most of his bills with his gambling income, so it probably wasn't that hard to abandon the job search and just stick with the career path that was already working, even if it was something as weird as gambling.

And so, he became a professional gambler

People who spend their lives gambling are usually sad shells of their former selves, sitting in smoky rooms mindlessly feeding coins into a slot machine. The best that most full-time gamblers can really hope for is a good 12-step program that will eventually help them resume normal lives before they squander their family's entire fortune on blackjack. And yet people like James Holzhauer manage to not only gamble full time without losing everything but also somehow make a living at it.

According to Vulture, it takes a certain kind of mind to be good at sports betting. Just betting on your favorite team or going with your gut isn't really a consistently successful strategy. Even as a kid, Holzhauer would collect baseball statistics and put them in a spreadsheet, and then use that information to determine who was truly the MVP of baseball. His first forays into sports betting was with "future bets," where you pick the World Series-winning team well in advance of the actual World Series. Holzhauer did this by analyzing the odds mathematically. Basically, his math-loving brain gave him an edge over other bettors, which allowed him to win often enough to make a living. Must be nice.

He was a game show champion before he ever appeared on Jeopardy!

James Holzhauer seemed to come out of nowhere, but if you're the sort of game show-watching junkie that actually knows there's such a thing as the Game Show Network, you might have seen his face before. As it turns out, Jeopardy! wasn't Holzhauer's first game show and it wasn't his first big win, either.

Prior to Jeopardy!, Holzhauer was on Game Show Network's "The Chase," where contestants challenge a quiz show genius called "the chaser." According to the New York Post, as team leader, Holzhauer helped his fellow contestants earn a cash prize of $175,000.

But that's not all — Holzhauer was a record-breaker on that show, too, answering 12 questions correctly in the opening round, an accomplishment that wasn't ever repeated over the lifetime of the show. And then in the final round he answered 19 questions correctly, setting yet another record that was never beaten.

So that got him warmed up, then. On to Jeopardy!

Game shows are kind of a thing in his family

It's probably pretty unlikely that anyone in your inner circle is a game show champion. Game show champions are a rare breed, mostly because it's difficult to win a game show but also because it's difficult to even get the opportunity to be on a game show. Game show champions are kind of like dodo birds: You've heard of them, but you certainly wouldn't ever expect to see one.

In Holzhauer's family, though, being on a game show and taking home a bunch of money is not especially unusual. According to Heavy.com, his wife, Melissa Sassin Holzhauer, was also a game show champion, although not quite at the same level as her famous husband. Sassin was on Who Wants to be a Millionaire in 2014, and her winnings totaled around $29,000. Now granted, that's is only about 1% of what her husband has brought home (so far), although it's also about 29,000 times more than you've probably ever won on a game show, so who's criticizing?

Holzhauer and his family live — where else — in Vegas

After leaving Naperville, Holzhauer and his wife moved to Seattle and then eventually relocated to Las Vegas because of course they relocated to Las Vegas. Now let's just say it takes a certain type of faith and devotion to remain married to someone who not only makes his living gambling but also wants to move to Las Vegas where he'd be completely unable to escape the world of high-stakes betting if it did eventually turn into something destructive. So good for her; she obviously knows something we don't because unless James Holzhauer has a really good financial planner, we're pretty sure the only way to go from here is straight down.

Holzhauer has a pretty sunny outlook, though, and he doesn't regret his life choices, nor has he ever felt like he needed to hide his profession from anyone. "I'm very proud of my work," he told US Bets. "... I can't see why there should be any stigma attached to sports betting in this day and age." Ha, ha, ha. He called it "work."

He gets his encyclopedic knowledge of trivia from children's books

If you're going to be on Jeopardy! it's good to have a mathematical mind, it's good to be comfortable in a high-pressure setting, and it's good to have a strategy for betting your money. But ultimately, what you really need to win Jeopardy! is knowledge. Because if you can't provide the right question for the given answer (which frankly is a stupid gimmick that should have died a few decades ago), all the mathematics and strategy in the world isn't going to get you very far.

So where does Holzhauer get his encyclopedic knowledge of trivia? From books on useless facts? From the pages of lengthy tomes written by crusty historians? Nope. He gets it from children's books. That's right, all you Jeopardy! wannabes — you've been studying in all the wrong places. According to the Chicago Tribune, Holzhauer actually goes to the library and peruses the kids section, especially when he needs to learn a subject he doesn't have a lot of natural interest in. "The books there are filled with pictures and fun facts," he said, "and they're a great way to learn the nuts and bolts of any subject." Now everyone, go forth and win.

He tried to get on Jeopardy! for six years

Holzhauer didn't enter into the whole Jeopardy! thing on a whim. According to the New York Times, he took the online tryout test repeatedly for six years before he was finally offered a chance to audition in person. In the meantime, he absorbed as much useless information as possible and made himself a practice buzzer out of a mechanical pencil. He went to two in-person auditions and got called back after the second one.

Once he knew he was on, he says he had to figure out how to get an edge over the competition. He told Vulture that his strategy was to be just a little bit better than everyone else. "If you synthesize, like, ten different things, you do one or two percent better than someone else ... so I need at least some knowledge of every category. It was finding a little bit of an edge in every aspect of the game as I could." Well, that certainly worked for him.

His original goal was to beat Roger Craig's one-game record

It's good to set goals, but for most of us, it's not really the best idea to set super-lofty goals such as "I'm going to bust through the Jeopardy! cash record in one-third the time it took the first guy to do it." Because lofty goals can sometimes kill your motivation, especially once it becomes clear that it's going to be a long and dangerous haul to get there.

Even the great James Holzhauer knows that. So for his time on Jeopardy! he gave himself a modest goal — to break the one-game record of $77,000, set in 2010 by Roger Craig. And according to Deadspin, that's exactly what he did in his fourth game. But he didn't break it by just a little bit — he exploded the danged thing and took home $110,914.

Holzhauer later told Vulture that the former record holder reached out to offer congratulations. "He was really gracious," Holzhauer said. "He congratulated me and offered some advice about the media frenzy that he knew was coming for me. I wasn't ready for it, but he helped me prepare." Which is good, because the media attention pretty much hasn't slowed down at all since that day.

Some people think he's a cheater

Just about everyone who is good at something is eventually going to be accused of cheating. To be fair, most of us are used to finding out that our favorite athletes were actually on steroids for decades, so we're a bit jaded into thinking that it's just not possible for people to have actual natural abilities that are so ridiculously beyond the natural abilities of most human beings.

So it's not really very surprising when you hear that there are a lot of people who think Holzhauer was just flat out cheating. In fact Newsweek says there is even a name for them –- they're called Holzhauer Haters, which is adorable. Now, some Holzhauer Haters just think he's arrogant and that he wrecked the game, but others say he somehow cheated or perhaps benefited from a rigged system. Now, how one might cheat at Jeopardy! is kind of unclear — perhaps Holzhauer Haters think there's a steroid equivalent that allows the user to access a massive database of trivia. But can't we all just enjoy things for a while?

Holzhauer honored his daughter on the show

According to Heavy, Holzhauer and his wife have a daughter, who is nicknamed "Booger," which must certainly have a great story behind it. That's what Holzhauer called her as he wished her a happy birthday during that record-smashing episode of Jeopardy! where he left poor Roger Craig's record looking all sad and pathetic on the tape reels of Jeopardy! past. And that final earnings number of $110,914? That's Holzhauer's daughter's birthday: November 9, 2014.

So first imagine how that would make you feel if you were 4 and could actually comprehend huge numbers (hey, in this family, maybe she can) and you didn't mind your nickname going out on national television. Now also imagine the mental capacity it takes to be on a high-pressure quiz show with thousands of dollars at stake and yet still have the wherewithal to do those kinds of calculations in your head so you'll know exactly how much to bet in order for your daughter's birthdate to appear in the dollar figure amount of your final winnings? Yeah, all right, that dude must have cheated.

A lot of his bets were made in honor of his family

A lot of Holzhauer's Jeopardy! bets were cryptic-seeming numbers that actually represented the birthdate of a loved one. According to Heavy, Holzhauer bet $3,268 in Final Jeopardy the first day he competed on the show. That was in honor of his nephew Jack, who was born on March 26, 2008. He made a similar bet in honor of his niece, who was 3 at the time, but when her family tried to explain the birthday gesture to her, she just wanted to know where her presents were.

Some observers criticized Holzhauer for the strange numbers he chose to bet during the game, but Holzhauer made no excuses. "Family will always be more important to me than money or winning on Jeopardy!, and the bets were a fun and unconventional way for me to show that," he told the Naperville Sun. And that's just lovely.

And then he finally lost

James Holzhauer smashed every one of his television audience's expectations, including the last one. Everyone expected that he would beat Ken Jennings' all-time cash winnings record, and in the end he smashed that expectation by not actually breaking the record.

The world was so eager to know what would happen that the results of Holzhauer's final Jeopardy! appearance were leaked to the media hours before the show began airing on June 3. According to the New York Times, Holzhauer lost to librarian Emma Boettcher at just $58,484 short of Jennings' record. Boettcher went into Final Jeopardy a few thousand dollars ahead of Holzhauer, bet enough to win no matter what Holzhauer wagered, and then got the answer right.

After what seemed like it should have been a devastating loss, an upbeat Holzhauer said he was okay with how his Jeopardy! story had ended. "Nobody likes to lose," he said, "But I'm very proud of how I did, and I really exceeded my own expectations for the show. So I don't feel bad about it."

And really, the bright side of Holzhauer's loss is pretty danged bright. He left Jeopardy! a wealthy man who broke multiple show records. On average, he won around $77,000 per game, more than double Jennings' average. Remember, $77,000 was previously the biggest sum anyone had ever won in one game, and he averaged that. He might not have broken the biggest record, but he clearly did all right for himself.

What is "making the IRS happy"?

Most of us haven't done it, but it must seriously feel great to win almost $2.5 million on a game show, particularly one that rewards you for all the little tidbits of delightfully granular knowledge you have picked up throughout your life. Of course, this is America, so someone like James Holzhauer gets to dial his good feelings right up to 10, or maybe even 1040, and remember to pay the taxman. According to the New York Post, Holzhauer's novelty check did have taxes withheld from it, so it must have actually been a nice reality check. (No apologies for puns here — you're a Jeopardy! fan.)

The Post reports that the taxes on Holzhauer's haul will come out to around $1.2 million, or about 47.6%. Now, Holzhauer lives in Nevada, which has no income tax, but he won all that money in California, which has the highest income taxes in the nation at over 13%. Still ... he's about $1.2 million richer than he was before he went on the show. Shoulda kept winning, James!