Charles Lane: ‘Jeopardy!’ has stopped being fun because James Holzhauer is a menace |
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Charles Lane: ‘Jeopardy!’ has stopped being fun because James Holzhauer is a menace

Night after night for more than two weeks, “Jeopardy!” champion James Holzhauer has crushed two opponents on the venerable game show like a pair of bugs. By the time you read this, his streak may have ended, but it doesn’t seem likely: As of Monday, he had won 18 games in a row, amassing more than $1.3 million, including the top five one-day scores in “Jeopardy!” history.

To the multitudes who have rooted Holzhauer on, I have just one question: Do you not see that this guy is a menace?

The only thing more troubling, as a commentary on American culture, than his grinning, relentless, march to victory — regardless of when, or if, it ends — is that millions celebrated it.

People seemed not to care that Holzhauer’s streak reflects the same grim, data-driven approach to competition that has spoiled (among other sports) baseball, where it has given us the “shift,” “wins above replacement,” “swing trajectories” and other statistically valid but unholy innovations.

Like the number crunchers who now rule America’s pastime, Holzhauer substitutes cold, calculating odds-maximization for spontaneous play. His idea is to select, and respond correctly to, harder, big-dollar clues on the show’s 30-square gameboard first. Then, flush with cash, he searches the finite set of hiding places for the “Daily Double” clue, which permits players to set their own prize for a correct response — and makes a huge bet. Responding correctly, Holzhauer often builds an insurmountable lead before the show is half over.

Dazed and demoralized opponents offer weakening resistance as his winnings snowball. And, with experience gained from each new appearance on the show, Holzhauer’s personal algorithms improved and his advantage grew.

In short, this professional gambler from Las Vegas does not so much play the game as beat the system. What’s entertaining about that? And beyond a certain point, what’s admirable?

Full disclosure: I am a “Jeopardy!” failure, so feel free to accuse me of sour grapes. In the Sept. 17, 1991, episode, I finished third behind returning champion Randy Kaplan, who racked up $21,000 to win again, and Maureen Fernbacher, a school librarian from Salisbury Township, Pa. Kaplan’s haul was at or near the all-time single-game record for the era, but a far cry from Holzhauer’s top score (as of Monday): $131,127.

Losing on “Jeopardy!” was unforgettable, nightmarish — like being trapped inside a pinball machine for 22 minutes, as lights flashed, bells rang, and Randy, always Randy, barked out one correct response after another until host Alex Trebek, through his then-trademark mustache, purred “no” at my non-response to Final Jeopardy (“What is ‘?’”) and a production assistant ushered me out to the parking lot, where I blinked in confusion under the hot California sun.

I took comfort not only in the consolation prizes (scented trash bags and a pair of jeans) but also in knowing that late-20th century “Jeopardy!” was an amateur event, open to everyman and everywoman, governed by rules both written (a five-show limit for returning champions prior to 2003) and unwritten (contestants started by selecting the easier, low-money questions first, and worked their way up).

Of course, Holzhauer’s strategy could not work without his freaky-good knowledge of trivia, just as baseball’s shift requires a pitcher skilled at inducing batters to hit into it. The old rules, though, would have contained his talent within humane channels. As it is, he’s set a precedent for the further professionalization of “Jeopardy!,” a trend which began 15 years ago with 74-time winner Ken Jennings.

If you enjoy watching nine batters in a row strike out until the 10th hits a homer, you’re going to love post-Holzhauer “Jeopardy!”

Okay, okay: There are more of you than there are of me. Viewers like “Jeopardy!” prodigies, which is why the show advertises them even as they drain its prize-money reserves. The show’s Nielsen ratings were 22 percent higher during Jennings’s 2004 run than during the same period in 2003.

Consider, however, an historical irony of Holzhauer’s run. He hit the airwaves shortly after Charles Van Doren’s death at 93. Van Doren was an unassuming New York academic until 1956, when he made a Faustian bargain with the ratings-hungry producers of “21,” a network quiz show: they’d feed him the answers, and tons of cash, in show after show, as long as he kept the secret. The inevitable scandal revolutionized TV games and disgraced Van Doren.

Among its repercussions is the quirky, backwards Q & A, format of “Jeopardy!” itself. Creator Merv Griffin sold the show to NBC in 1964 by pointing out that there could be no repeat of the “21” scam if the object of the game was to come up with the right question.

Decades later, it’s a contestant who might be getting a game show to sell its soul. There’s nothing illegal or dishonest this time, to be sure. It’s just not fun. It’s just not “Jeopardy!”

Jeopardy Productions, Inc. via AP
This image made from video and provided by Jeopardy Productions, Inc. shows ‘Jeopardy!’ contestant James Holzhauer on an episode that aired on April 17, 2019. On his 14th appearance Tuesday, April 23, 2019, Holzhauer eclipsed the $1 million mark in winnings.
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