Catherine Hardee: 'Jeopardy!' is cool again

Catherine Hardee: 'Jeopardy!' is cool again

In its 35 seasons, “Jeopardy!” has become a part of American culture in a way few television shows can match. But while Alex Trebek and the theme music are instantly recognizable, the show does not usually become a part of the national news cycle.

The past few months have changed that. At the beginning of March, Trebek shared the sobering news he was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Then, on April 4, James Holzhauer burst onto the national consciousness with his bold game play and fearless wagering.

I was shocked to hear the news of Trebek’s diagnosis. Though it took me a while to “get over it,” I had already managed to forgive him for his mispronunciation of my hometown, and getting to meet him was one of the highlights of my experience on “Jeopardy!.” I know I was one of millions of people across the country who responded to his announcement with prayers for his recovery.

It was incredibly heartening to read on Wednesday Trebek’s cancer is in “near-remission,” with some of the tumors having shrunk by 50 percent. I know his retirement is inevitable, but it is still difficult to imagine anyone else taking his place.

As much as Trebek’s illness captured people’s hearts, Holzhauer has captured people’s imaginations. Dozens of people have asked me about what I think about “that guy who is on ‘Jeopardy!’ right now.”

What is immediately obvious when I consider how Holzhauer plays the game is that he is incredibly good at trivia. He does not get many answers wrong. All the strategy and wagering in the world would not matter if he didn’t know the answers. He is also very, very quick on the buzzer.

Mastering the buzzer is one of the most difficult and least obvious parts of being a contestant. It requires split second timing and very quick reflexes, and the more you practice it, the better you get. Holzhauer has obviously mastered it very well, and that has definitely helped him.

His strategy is also simple: go for the higher value clues first to rack up lots of money early, and then wager all or most of it on the Daily Doubles to give himself an insurmountable lead. Using this strategy, Holzhauer has averaged more than $77,000 in winnings over his 30-game win streak, which was active following Wednesday’s show.

So why doesn’t everyone play like this? I can only answer for myself, but I know when I was playing, the two occasions on which I risked the most money on a Daily Double, I did not know the right answer (Don’t ask me about Lusaka, Zambia or Heidelberg, Germany. It’s still a bit raw.), and lost that money.  I don’t know if I could have brought myself to risk all or most of my accumulated total when there was a very real chance of losing it.

I also preferred starting at the top of a category, where the clues were easier and I could warm up to the topic before they got too hard. I also knew sometimes in a more limited category, an earlier clue could make it easier to narrow down the answer to one of the higher value clues.

Holzhauer’s success does make me wish I had taken some more chances when I was on the show. I certainly would not have minded winning over $2 million. I can’t really complain about the outcome of my own appearance, though.

I do think Holzhauer will lose, eventually. His style of play means one Daily Double that he doesn’t know the answer to could spell the end of his streak. Until then, people will continue to marvel at him, and I will continue to be amazed — much the same way I am at Trebek’s tremendous battle with cancer.

Catherine Hardee is a correspondent for Neuse News who won several episodes of “Jeopardy!” and was a participant on the show’s Tournament of Champions. You can reach her at catherine@neusenews.com.

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