Pro Sports Bettor, Poker Enthusiast James Holzhauer Wins Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions

Professional sports bettor James Holzhauer capped off a record-setting year on Friday when he won the 2019 Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions. The Las Vegas resident, who was a serious poker player during the poker boom, claimed the $250,000 first prize for his victory this week.

TOC format required strategy adjustment

James Holzhauer going all-in with Alex Trebek
Photo credit: @James_Holzhauer Twitter

The Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions spanned two weeks. In each of the five episodes of the first week, the winner advanced to the semifinals. Unlike in a regular episode in which the goal is to win your episode, there was additional strategy in the quarterfinals. Those who did not win their quarterfinal episode could still make the semifinals as a Wild Card if they were one of the top four money earners of the non-episode winners. Thus, even if someone knew they had no chance to win going into Final Jeopardy!, they still needed to try to win as much as possible on that last question.

As was often the case for Holzhauer during the “regular season,” he won in a runaway in his quarterfinal match, going into Final Jeopardy! with $30,309, while his closest opponent had just $10,800.

It was more of the same in his November 12th semifinal match. He went into Final Jeopardy! as the runaway winner, qualifying for the finals.

In the TOC finals, Holzhauer faced off against Francois Barcomb, who won the Teachers Tournament, and Emma Boettcher, who happened to be the person to finally end Holzhauer’s reign on the show earlier this year.

The finals were a two-day affair, with both days played separately, but with their totals adding up to a final score at the end. Holzhauer ended the first day with $49,326, while Boettcher had $26,400 and Barcomb had $1,800. Boettcher went into Final Jeopardy! on day two with that day’s lead, but everyone got the question correct and Holzhauer had bet enough to make sure he ended up as champ. His two-day total was $76,923, compared to $65,000 for Boettcher and $5,000 for Barcomb.

The players did not keep those winnings. Instead, Holzhauer received $250,000 for the win, Boettcher received $100,000, and Barcomb got $50,000.

Holzhauer put up video game numbers

James Holzhauer caught the attention of not just Jeopardy! fans, but people in general throughout the country when he rattled off a streak of 32 consecutive wins this spring, second only to Ken Jennings’ 74 wins in 2004.

What made Holzhauer’s run jaw-dropping, though, wasn’t just how long it was. It was how incredibly dominant he was virtually every episode. He won a total of $2,462,216, coming just short of Jennings’ record of $2,520,700. Keep in mind, though, that Holzhauer did it in far fewer games. He averaged $74,673 per game, compared to $34,063 for Jennings.

Holzhauer racked up such phenomenal figures because of a very aggressive strategy. He hunted for Daily Doubles and when he got them, he wagered high. Doing this not only let him run up his own score, but it kept opportunities for big bets away from his opponents. As a result, his wins were often runaways.

By the time he finally lost to Boettcher, Holzhauer had won more than $100,000 in a single episode six times. The previous single-episode record was $77,000, set by Roger Craig in 2010. Holzhauer beat that mark sixteen times, while also setting a new single-game record of $131,127.

Holzhauer also achieved the largest successful Daily Double wager ($25,000), largest successful Final Jeopardy! wager ($60,013), and highest winning total in a five-day stretch ($298,687).

During the Tournament of Champions, host Alex Trebek even joked that should Holzhauer go on and win $250,000, his daily average payday of $62,500 (he competed in four episodes during the TOC) would be less than his average during his 32-game winning streak.

In an interview posted on the Jeopardy! site afterward, Holzhauer said he was a bit more conservative with his wagering strategy in the TOC finals because players don’t get to keep their winnings. It only mattered that he won, not how much he won. Thus, he wanted to run up the score to not let his opponents catch him, but he could still play it somewhat safe.

Poker has stayed with the champ

As mentioned, Holzhauer now makes his living betting on sports, but he used to be a serious poker player. One of his best friends is three-time WSOP bracelet winner Ben Yu and he met several of his friends on the Two Plus Two poker forum, where he posts under the screenname “crockpot.” He even dropped into the Jeopardy! thread on the site after his reign ended, simply writing, “new computer. who dis?”

He considered himself a “semi-professional” poker player back before the UIGEA. On one episode this spring, he made the joke that he majored in poker at the University of Illinois. He would also sometimes say he was “all in” and mime a chip shove when he bet it all on a Daily Double.

His Jeopardy! success and fame led Holzhauer to play in a couple tournaments at the World Series of Poker at the suggestion of Poker Hall of Famer Mike Sexton. The two partnered for the $1,000 Tag Team No-Limit Hold’em event and Holzhauer himself entered the $1,500 No-Limit Hold’em Super Turbo Bounty event. He was going to donate half of his winnings a Nevada charity called Project 150, but he did not cash in either tournament. Holzhauer has been quite generous with his Jeopardy! winnings, so it would not be surprising if the organization still received something.


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