Who are Cher, Wayne Newton and Celine Dion?
Aside from being three people who have never been in James Holzhauer’s kitchen, they are also a trio of people who have never had a key to the Las Vegas Strip presented to them by Clark County officials. Unlike James Holzhauer, who received one Thursday.
Holzhauer is the current “Jeopardy!” phenomenon who has racked up more than $1.6 million in winnings since his first episode in early April. He’s made national news with his strategic wagering and aggressive style of attacking high-dollar-value clues early in the game. He is rapidly closing in on Ken Jennings — the Hank Aaron of “Jeopardy!” who holds the all-time record for most money won at $2.5 million over a 74-day run.
But it’s in Las Vegas where the spotlight seems to be brightest for the 35-year-old professional sports gambler, and the city appears to be treating him the way it treats any hot trending item — by capitalizing on him.
The key to the Las Vegas Strip has only been given out 27 times before, and recipients include Britney Spears, Tony Bennett and the Killers — though Clark County officials say it’s a tradition that only goes back a little more than a decade. Still, for Las Vegas, a city that is constantly remaking and reshaping itself, a decade might as well be an eon.
“This is something I would’ve bet heavily against if I had the opportunity,” Holzhauer said when asked whether he’d ever have wagered that one day he’d be handed a key to the Strip.
Wearing a Vegas Golden Knights hockey jersey, shorts and sunglasses, Holzhauer stood in front of the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign, then posed for pictures with the giant key and shook fans’ hands. They’d come to see the man who has largely dominated on the game show — only once coming close to losing, to a man who appeared to mimic Holzhauer’s high-wager strategy.
Rebekah Niccolson, 36, managed to sidle up to him after he got the key and told him that she watched religiously every night and thought he was the greatest thing she’d ever seen on the show. She had an envelope for him that contained her father-in-law’s birthday, and she handed it to him in case he might want to make a wager using those numbers.
“I’m such a nerd,” she said after he smiled and took the envelope from her.
The city has been reaping the rewards of Holzhauer’s success — both in high-profile places and some less-known corners of the region.
The Golden Knights, which made a magical run at the Stanley Cup trophy in their inaugural season in 2018, were eliminated in the first round of this year’s playoffs last month, but the team managed to get Holzhauer to sound the air horn before one of their playoff games.
Eric Tosi, a vice president of communications for the team, said the Golden Knights also filmed some promotional spots with Holzhauer that will air when next season starts in the fall. Holzhauer said the loss to the San Jose Sharks in seven games — after Vegas had a 3-1 series lead — was “a gut punch.”
“There’s a lot of pride seeing him doing what he’s doing,” Tosi said. “It’s unbelievable and impressive what he’s doing on the show with the breadth of knowledge and how quick he is. It’s like watching Tiger Woods in his prime.”
Holzhauer has also been a boon for the local CBS affiliate.
Lisa Howfield, vice president and general manager for KLAS, said that the ratings have soared since Holzhauer has been on the air and that local advertisers are regularly trying to shoehorn their way into the 30-minute program. One of the advertisers, furniture store RC Willey, is running a spot congratulating Holzhauer on his run.
Holzhauer said he doesn’t feel like the local fame has made getting around difficult.
“Until a month ago nobody (aside from sportsbook employees) recognized me in public,” he said in an email to The Times. “Now I’m getting used to some level of recognition, but thankfully it’s not too much to handle and I can still get on with my day-to-day life.”
He has also begun spreading his winnings around town, too — though he was coy about whether that would include wagers at sports books, where he had made his living after moving to the city not long after graduating from the University of Illinois about 15 years ago.
Holzhauer said he’s given to the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District, the local Ronald McDonald House and the Las Vegas Natural History Museum.
Marilyn Gillespie, executive director of the museum north of downtown, said half of the $10,000 donation would be used to help fund admission costs for students in low-income areas and half would cover costs for animal care.
The museum is a favorite spot for Holzhauer, his wife and daughter and is home to a variety of animals, including bamboo sharks, lizards and exotic insects such as hissing cockroaches.
At the key ceremony, Holzhauer said he was surprised his run has gone as long as it has. “I thought I’d win a few episodes, but I did not expect this level of play.”
Holzhauer’s ride doesn’t appear to have peaked just yet, either. On Friday, he notched his 22nd consecutive win and his earnings inched closer to the Jennings total.
He also has avoided mirroring Cliff Clavin, the character on “Cheers” who famously blew it on Final Jeopardy with the incorrect response “Who are three people who’ve never been in my kitchen?” Host Alex Trebek, playing himself, chuckled at Clavin before revealing the correct answer of Cary Grant, Joan Crawford and Tony Curtis.
Holzhauer laughed at the “Cheers” reference and confirmed no celebrities had, in fact, ever been in his kitchen.
“It did occur to me to bet everything in Final Jeopardy on my first episode — known as a ‘Cliff Clavin’ — since I could have set the single-day winnings record that way,” he said in the email to The Times.
As the gambler finished up a short interview with the local CBS station after getting the key to the Strip, a line of tourists — mostly from Europe — waited to take their picture in front of the Las Vegas sign. Few had any idea who Holzhauer was. One couple Googled the name on the back of his Golden Knights jersey and assumed he was Mark Stone, a right winger on the team.
Holzhauer shook a few more hands and was heading back to his car when an Elvis impersonator in a white jumpsuit and dark shades saw the “Jeopardy!” star and pointed at him.