Moneyball Has Come To Jeopardy!


Jeopardy! and sports competitions seem to have little in common. Outside of the occasional sports category or a celebrity Jeopardy! episode featuring athletes, brains and brawn rarely intersect on the popular answer and question game show.

However, that seems to have changed with the recent run of victories by contestant James Holzhauer since early April. Not only is Holzhauer a professional sports bettor but he has also brought a Moneyball approach to the gameshow. In addition, Holzhauer reinforces the notion that fans appear to like dominant champions rather than competitive parity when watching competitions.

For those unfamiliar with or do not fully remember the conceit of Jeopardy!, host Alex Trebek reads clues from different categories to three contestants with each contestant having the ability to buzz-in with the correct response (which occurs in the form of a question). The contestant that buzzes in the fastest and responds correctly earns cash, with more difficult questions having higher dollar values over the course of two rounds and Final Jeopardy!. The contestant with the most money at the end of the show wins and can come back for the next episode to compete as the champion.

Can you really apply Moneyball to Jeopardy!? Even though it appears that “Moneyball of…” has been applied in every possible situation, very few contestants have actually used the optimal strategy to win as much money as possible. Past multiple-show champions have won primarily because their intellect, memory, and recall speed outpaced their competition.  

Holzhauer is strong in all of these areas but what differentiates him from other competitors is the optimal selection of clues through a strategy of Daily Double “hunting.” All clues have specific dollar amounts except for Daily Doubles. Contestants can bet their entire earnings up to that point for these questions but there is only one Daily Double in the first round and two in the second round.

Most people think that finding a Daily Double happens by chance because contestants do not know in advance where they are placed and they are seemingly placed at random throughout the board. Therefore, many contestants pick clues from the same category of questions before moving on to the next one starting with easiest (least valuable) and then moving to the hardest (most valuable) questions. The show actually pauses so audiences can applaud when only one contestant responds with the correct question for every clue in a category.

What Holzhauer has shown is that this strategy does not maximize expected value because finding Daily Doubles is not completely random. Contestants should concentrate on finding Daily Doubles as soon as they have enough money to make large enough bets. “Hunting” around the board with specific dollar values across multiple categories to find Daily Doubles is the most likely way to earn the most money. As described by Slate’s Jeremy Faust:

In the first round, he starts with the most valuable clues ($1,000). That way, if he does not hit the Daily Double early, he is accumulating cash fast so that when he does find one, he has more money to wager. However, in Double Jeopardy!, James takes a slightly different approach, starting at the third clue in each category, worth $1,200. (Daily Doubles usually appear in the third, fourth, or fifth row, and the clues become harder the lower on the board and are more valuable, maxing out at $2,000.) This improves his chance at landing on easier Daily Doubles in the second round, in which the clues are significantly harder. Also, once he has found a Daily Double, he usually abandons the category it appeared in, because two Daily Doubles never occur in the same category.  

This strategy that has been the key driver in Holzhauer’s ability to earn by far the single highest one-day total winnings ($131,127) and the overall highest average per-show winnings ($75,825) as of April 24th).

What is interesting about Holzhauer’s success is that it is driving Jeopardy!’s success as well. The show is generating the highest ratings it has achieved in years. As of yesterday, B6A’s Partnership Scoreboard platform has identified over 2,700 articles generating an estimated 331.5 million impressions highlighting Holzhauer’s success on the show. 

That could seem counterintuitive as the best Jeopardy! episodes should be the ones when the games are the most competitive and the show hinges on the result of Final Jeopardy!. With Holzhauer that has rarely been the case. In nine of his first 11 shows, Holzhauer had the episode won prior to Final Jeopardy! because his competitors were too far behind to wager enough money to pass him. In fact, it is Holzhauer’s ability to eliminate competitive balance (in a similar manner to what past champion Ken Jennings had done) that has driven interest in the show.

We have seen similar results in sports where dominance can attract higher levels of interest from fans, media, and partners than times where there is competitive balance. In a past post for Forbes, I highlighted how Kevin Durant heading to the Warriors to play a Lebron James-led Cleveland team in the NBA Finals seems to have driven increased interest in the NBA at the time with other sports seeing similar results with dominant teams and players.

Not every team, athlete, or person will be capable of employing the optimal strategy, and my co-authors and I articulate that winning should not be a requirement for revenue generation in the sports industry in our book, The Sports Strategist: Developing Leaders for a High-Performance Industry. There has, however, been a concern about the converse scenario: The “Moneyball” of competition to find the optimal strategy will eliminate the need to watch sports because why watch if everyone knows who is going to win. Jeopardy! builds on past evidence that “knowing” who is going to win actually can be the winning strategy to increase audience engagement.