If you’ve given any thought to James Holzhauer’s staggering 32 victories and nearly $2.5 million in winnings on Jeopardy!, here’s something else to contemplate:
Going strictly by the available numbers – that is, the data from his performances and those of hundreds of other recent contestants – Holzhauer is projected to win 98 more games.
That’s the conclusion of Syracuse University sports analytics professors Shane Sanders and Justin Ehrlich, who have applied probability theory to information compiled on the official Jeopardy! website and a fan-created record of the show’s games and players called J! Archive.
Sanders and Ehrlich have come up with a couple of other fun findings:
Holzhauer has a nearly 75% chance of breaking Ken Jennings’ show record of 74 victories.
At the start of any given match, there is a 99.3% chance that Holzhauer will win. Translated into betting odds, you would get 141-to-1 for a wager against him.
Here’s some context on that from the sports world: The University of Maryland, Baltimore County's upset of Virginia in the 2018 NCAA basketball tournament was a 20-to-1 proposition; Buster Douglas’ heavyweight boxing takedown of Mike Tyson was 42-to-1.
James Holzhauer (Photo: Carol Kaelson/Jeopardy Productions via AP)
The basic foundation for all of this comes from Sanders and Ehrlich examining the likelihood of Holzhauer losing after having led going into the Final Jeopardy round, and the likelihood of him losing after having trailed going into the Final Jeopardy round. (Primarily because there were very few ties going into Final Jeopardy during the period of pre-Holzhauer matches studied, the professors treated the possibility of a tie as essentially zero.)
What this doesn’t take into account is the possibility his opponents will improve as he keeps trying to defend his position. For example, according to Sanders and Ehrlich, opponents could learn better buzzer strategy. Or they could use a betting approach more suited to taking on Holzhauer’s aggressive tactics, which include jumping from category to category in search of Daily Doubles rather than staying with one category at a time, as most contestants have done.
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But it isn’t going to be easy.
Holzhauer has led going into Final Jeopardy in all 32 of his matches.
In all but three of his matches, his lead going into Final Jeopardy has been so large that even if his nearest opponent had bet all of their winnings to that point and provided a correct Final Jeopardy response, Holzhauer would have won without a correct response as long as his final wager wasn’t greater than the amount of his lead.
And oh, by the way – Holzhauer has provided an incorrect response in Final Jeopardy only once. On the other hand, for Holzhauer’s run to end, it just takes once.
Or, as Sanders put it: “It’s somewhat like projecting how many months will pass before lightning strikes a building. We can get a good projection that has nice statistical properties. However, statistics provide no guarantees as to when that low probability event will take place.”
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