Chicago ‘Jeopardy!’ contestant on losing to James Holzhauer: ‘I wanted to be the one to take James down’
Yep, that was me, the third wheel in the middle of the closest game yet for “Jeopardy!” über-champion James Holzhauer. In most of the stories about the game that aired April 29, I’m an afterthought. But in the middle of it, I tried mightily to take him down.
In February, I flew out from Chicago to Los Angeles with my husband and our two boys to tape the show. My in-laws, mother and sister all flew out as well. I had a whole support crew that had seen me dominate “Jeopardy!” clues from a living room couch for years.
In the Sony Pictures soundstage, you could feel the energetic buzz in the green room as my fellow contestants and I filled out paperwork, got our makeup done and made idle chitchat. Then we were introduced to the current champion.
We were told James had won 17 games, and more than $1 million dollars. He’d broken a record set by contestant Roger Craig — a dynamite player and one of my favorites — multiple times. He could possibly even catch up to Ken Jennings, who holds the record for the longest winning streak ever. Plus, as I would find out later, to date, James has a 97 percent response accuracy, according to the show’s online tracker.
It felt as if the air had been let out of the room. The upbeat conversations died off. We were to be pitted against a freakishly talented/lucky super champion.
‘You can do this’
I’ve always been a huge fan of the show. I will talk about it with the lay viewer and throw around words like Coryat score or Forrest Bounce. I’m a straight-up fan of certain contestants because of their playing skill, style, and demeanor. Top of the list is Julia Collins, who won 20 games and was second only to Ken Jennings in total wins. She also lives in the Chicago area, not far from where I work, and she’s one of the few people I’d love to run into on the street and be able to say, “I’m a huge fan!”
Back in February, on game day, I was not overwhelmed or scared when we were introduced to James, a Naperville native. He didn’t talk to the other contestants, and seemed confident, but there’s nothing obviously superhuman about him. We had some practice rounds on stage, and I felt pretty comfortable on the buzzer.
As fortune (or misfortune) would have it, I was chosen for the Monday game. The other opponent: Adam Levin, a holdover from the previous day’s taping. Every tape day has a few extra contestants, so on the second tape day in a week (like mine was), there can be a person or two who had watched the returning champion in action the day before. Not only was I about to face a 17-time winner, but my other opponent had the advantage of watching him play five games already. At this point, fear started to creep in. My heart thumped in my chest, but I tried to ignore it. In the green room, with one last chance for a bathroom break, I looked in the mirror and gave myself a quick pep talk. “You can do this. You can take this on.”
After I left the green room, the next half hour was a blur. I remember stepping onto the box behind the podium, and being raised up to match the heights of my two competitors. I was trying to picture myself as some kind of giant-killing David, pitted against Goliath(s).
I smiled broadly when I was introduced, although I was a little uncomfortable physically, because I had given birth to my second son seven months earlier. I tried not to let it show how terrible I felt inside. The first round started with James hitting a Daily Double, getting it wrong, and starting off with a negative score. Adam and I did a pretty good job — almost as if we were playing on a team — of keeping things close. After one round of play, our scores were not too far apart.
Because I was in third, I chose first in Double Jeopardy. I knew what I had to do — hit a Daily Double. I hunted but couldn’t find one. James found the first; Adam the second. After there were no more Daily Doubles on the board, my concentration started to wane. My buzzer timing slowed. The voice in the back of my head told me that this was close to over. I still tried to ring in, but I was either a half second too slow, or too fast, and neither makes a difference when you are playing against two relentless competitors.
I made a point to focus on the game board and not the scores while we played. But when it was time to head into Final Jeopardy, I checked and was dejected. My $7,800, usually a respectable amount to have gained at that point, looked paltry next to the other scores of my competitors: $27,000 and $33,517. I hit zero Daily Doubles, and had only been able to ring in on nine answers. I got all of them correct, for the record.
Luck plus skill
James’ intelligence and the amount of information he’s able to recall so quickly impresses a lot of viewers of the show. The fact that plenty of other contestants can do the same seems to get lost in the narrative of his winning streak. Truthfully, it’s not his ability to recall information that had me awestruck. His buzzer skills are superior, to the point where I thought maybe my buzzer was broken in the second half of the game. And the more he wins, the better he gets.
Just before the final round, contestants are given an index card and a pen to calculate wagers. I started figuring out what scenario would allow me to win. If I doubled my score, and James and Adam both were conservative in their betting, I still wouldn’t win if they got it wrong and I was right. But if they were both risk takers and bet more than they should AND got it wrong, I had a chance if I held steady. Of course, if only one of them gambled big and the other played it safe, I still wouldn’t win, but I’d have a shot at second.
This is where I tried to put myself in both of their heads from the little I knew. James is a professional gambler. He does this for a living, so I knew there was a chance that the guy — now known for his “all in” bets — would maybe not be reckless. Adam seemed like he’d be more likely to take a risk. He was hungry to win, and his best shot at beating a player like James was going big. I wrote $0, locked it in and mentally checked out.
The Final Jeopardy category was organizations. I read the answer and all my mind processed was that I needed something founded centuries ago in France that was titled “blank of blank.” The first thing in my mind was Legion of Honor. I wrote it down, and then re-read the clue. That’s when I noticed the words “business booster groups,” and I knew immediately I was way off. The final Jeopardy music filled my ears.
My two competitors were right with their responses, “What is Chamber of Commerce?” James, by the way, was never going to get this one wrong. His older brother was recently named chair of the Naperville Chamber of Commerce. The possibly strongest player in “Jeopardy!” history also seemed to have a lucky streak that time. Adam was the only one who took a huge gamble, betting everything but $1. James’ more conservative bet still sealed his victory with a correct response. In the end, Adam ended up with a final score only $18 behind James’.
James shook our hands and went off to get ready for the Tuesday show. I turned to Adam and told him I was hoping he would win. That wasn’t completely the truth. I wanted to be the one to take James down.
James’ closest game has been written about as James versus Adam, with little to no regard to the fact that a third contestant racked up a not insubstantial amount as well. As host Alex Trebek put it at the time, it was really anyone’s game. It stings to be a footnote in other people’s stories.
I can’t pick out the perfect words to summarize the experience. I’ve settled on describing it as being different than what I thought I’d signed up for. It was fun and exciting, to be on “Jeopardy!” And I got to meet Alex, just before he announced his pancreatic cancer diagnosis; I was devastated when I found out and hope he can overcome it.
For James to lose, I think it’ll take an equally skilled buzzer pro and someone with the stomach to bet huge amounts. His next appearance is Monday, after the Teachers Tournament is over. Will I be watching? You bet. Who will I be rooting for? That remains to be seen.
Jasmine Leonas is a social media specialist from Chicago.