Former Poker Pro Alex Jacob Wins Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions

In what host Alex Trebek called “the most dominant performance” of all time, former poker pro Alex Jacob won the “Jeopardy!” Tournament of Champions Friday to claim the top prize of $250,000. There was zero doubt during the two day final round that he was going to come out on top; Jacob so destroyed his competition that it’s shocking that he ever lost at all during the year.

Jacob was one of poker’s rising stars at the tail end of the poker boom (pre-UIGEA). His breakout year was 2006 which he started out in April by finishing second in the WPT Foxwoods Poker Classic, good for $655,507. He then cashed four times at the World Series of Poker, including two final tables before winning the 2006 United States Poker Championship at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. The following year, he won the made-for-TV Ultimate Poker Challenge and nabbed a third place finish in a WSOP event. He cashed a whopping eight times at the 2008 WSOP and five more times in 2009. After that, though, he slowed down his poker playing and eventually retired as a pro. He is now a currency trader in Chicago.

This April, he appeared on the 32nd season of the popular quiz show, “Jeopardy!” for the first time. Jacob had a fantastic run, winning six straight matches before finally missing a Final Jeopardy! question and bowing out. His $149,802 in “regular” winnings (meaning it doesn’t count bonus winnings like Jacob’s Tournament of Champions money ranks him 18th all time, according to data compiled by Jeopardy! strategist Keith Williams on thefinalwager.co.

The Two Alexes: Trebek and Jacob

The Two Alexes: Trebek and Jacob

Alex Jacob employs an unorthodox strategy, though one that has increased in popularity since Arthur Chu used it to rack up 11 wins and nearly $400,000 last year. Rather than starting at the top of one category and proceeding down like players historically have done, Alex Jacob jumps from category to category, selecting middle and high dollar values first. This technique is called the “Forrest Bounce,” named after Chuck Forrest, who used it to win five straight games (the limit at the time) in 1985. Jacob does this primarily to find the Daily Doubles, which are more likely to be found at the bottom of the board. Grabbing a Daily Double and then winning a lot of money from it can quickly give a player a huge lead and they are thus the most valuable spaces on the board. Jacob wants to not only get them for himself, but to also prevent his opponents from seizing control.

The Forrest Bounce also tends to keep Jacob’s opponents from getting comfortable. When one simply goes down a column, it is easier for the mind to get in a rhythm, to get used to the types of questions (well, answers) in a category. But by bouncing around, Jacob doesn’t allow his opponents to get a groove. The advantage is even greater because he knows where he’s going next, so his brain can switch gears just a little faster than the other two players’.

One thing Keith Williams also notes about Alex Jacob is that his goal was to win the game more than it was to make as much money as possible. Thus, when he was able to get out to a big lead early, he would actually start stalling in order to make it less likely all the spaces on the board would be uncovered in a round and therefore give his opponents less of a chance to mount a comeback. Williams pointed out that in Jacob’s first game this year, he took a full minute during the last Daily Double. During the Tournament of Champions, it did look like he might not have been sure of the answers (questions!) at times, but as Williams writes, since he is a poker player, it is entirely possible he was putting on an act.

Tournament of Champions

The fifteen biggest money winners of the year made the Tournament of Champions, which started last week; Jacob was the third highest earner of the year. In the quarterfinal round, there were five matches with the winner of each advancing to the semifinals. Of the quarterfinal losers, the four with the highest money earnings also advanced as wildcards. The semifinals consisted of three matches with the winner of each moving on the finals. Alex Jacob won those first two rounds easily, locking the game up before the Final Jeopardy! round in both instances.

The finals featured two matches between the three players, with the player who earned the most money in the two games combined declared the champion. Scores were reset after the first contest.

It looked like it was going to be an amazing battle, as one of Alex Jacob’s opponents was the quirky Matt Jackson, who was the year’s best player, winning 13 straight matches and earning $411,612, both of which rank him fourth all-time. Kerry Greene was the other player; like Jacob, she won six games and over $140,000.

All eyes were on Jackson and Jacob, but Jacob continued in the finals were he left off in the first two rounds: he left his opponents in the dust. After the Day 1, Jacob had $29,600, compared to just $3,400 for Greene and $3,000 for Jackson. It was already apparent that he was going to win the Tournament of Champions, as it would have taken a disaster for him to lose. He could lose Day 2 by $26,000 – a dollar amount that many winners don’t even reach, period – and still win the whole thing.

Jeopardy! Round

Jacob and Jackson were neck-and-neck at the outset, but Jacob quickly found the Daily Double and doubled-up from $2,800 to $5,600. By the first commercial break, that total was up to $6,400, compared to $3,200 for Jackson and $1,800 for Greene. At the end of the Jeopardy! (first) round, Jacob had $8,600, Jackson had $5,600, and Greene had $3,200.

Double Jeopardy! Round

In the Double Jeopardy! round, it appeared that Jacob played cautiously, knowing that he had the championship in the bag as long as he didn’t completely fall off a cliff. If he didn’t know an answer, there was no reason to risk losing money. That didn’t mean, however, that he wasn’t still collecting money.

Of course, as is his way, he was fast to the first Daily Double and was slow to answer. He had $11,800 and wagered only $100, going into the tank before finally answering correctly at the buzzer.

The moment that clinched the title for Jacob came just a few questions later, when Matt Jackson was able to nab the other Daily Double. Jacob had $11,900 at that point and Jackson had made a run to $10,000. If Jackson could double-up to $20,000, it was still unlikely that he would win, but he would certainly have a chance. Unfortunately, after apologizing to his mom for risking it all, Jackson couldn’t come up with the correct answer and fell to zero. The look on Jacob’s face after that was telling – he knew he had just won.

Jackson fell below zero after that but actually made a nice comeback, ending the Double Jeopardy! round with $7,200. But neither he nor Greene, who still had just $3,200, had any chance to catch Alex Jacob and his $18,700. It was a runaway victory both for Day 2 and for the Tournament of Champions.

Final Jeopardy!

The Final Jeopardy! category was “Philosophers” and the answer was:

His last name means a type of burial place & in 1855 that’s where he went.

Yeah, I didn’t know it either. The correct question was “Who is Søren Kierkegaard?”

Alex Jacob wagered nothing and rather than give a real answer, he wrote, “Who…thanks to everyone who works on the world’s greatest game show!”

And with that, Alex Jacob, looking rather amazed that he dominated like he did, was the 2015 Tournament of Champions winner.

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