Jodi’s Journal: Cues from ‘Jeopardy’ champ resonate in business

June 2, 2019

There was one bet I never figured out how to make during my recent retail convention trip to Las Vegas, which is too bad because it would have been a really appropriate one.

I was hoping to somehow place a wager on how much money James Holzhauer will ultimately win on “Jeopardy.”

This would have been especially fitting, I thought, as Holzhauer is a professional sports gambler.

But while I left wager-less, he keeps betting big and winning at one of the country’s longest-running game shows in a way I thought was worth sharing.

First, know that I am not a regular “Jeopardy” viewer. But my grandfather, who just turned 90, is. We talk often, and about a month or so ago he started telling me about Holzhauer, who was racking up huge totals on the show and seemed poised to break Ken Jennings’ legendary win streak.

I was in Ohio at the time – where the show is on several hours later than in Sioux Falls – so I started watching. When I returned last week, Holzhauer was still going, so “Jeopardy” became regular viewing once again.

Holzhauer’s depth of knowledge is pretty amazing, but most contestants on “Jeopardy” know their stuff. According to one account I read, the typical contestant probably could answer 80 percent to 85 percent of the clues correctly.

The difference comes, of course, in how you play the game.

And Holzhauer plays it “as perfectly as it might be possible,” Andy Saunders, who runs thejeopardyfan.com, told ESPN.

I’m assuming you’re familiar with the game, which is played in two rounds on a 30-square grid with six categories and five clues per category. Most people start with the smallest dollar amount and work through the category to the largest, assuming they stay in control of the board.

Holzhauer looks at the same board and takes an entirely different approach. He jumps right to the bottom, the high-dollar question, and then jumps from category to category. The goal, it seems, is to get as big of a total as early as possible, and then wager a good chunk or all of it if he hits a daily double.

And because he has seemingly mastered the art of the buzzer, he’s often the first to respond and is able to maintain control.

Combine that with his incredible depth of knowledge and his gambler’s mentality and you’ve got a contestant who appears ready to break more records on the 35-year-old program.

I keep thinking of his performance, though, as a metaphor for business.

How many of us play the “game,” if you will, the same way most others do and the same way it has been for years. What might we take away if we looked at the landscape differently, tried a more unconventional approach and were willing to make a few big bets along the way?

Holzhauer didn’t achieve his winning streak by accident. As this ESPN account details, the 34-year-old practiced for the show by doing everything from wearing dress shoes to reading children’s books. His trivia prowess goes back at least a decade and his competitive experience back to eighth grade when he qualified for statewide geography and math competitions.

There’s an old saying that success is when preparation meets opportunity. It seems to fit in this case and in my broader comparison to business.

Looking back, had I been able to place that bet on Holzhauer, I’m really not sure what I would have wagered his ultimate winnings will be. Suddenly, $2.5 million seems low. Maybe $3 million? A little high? But at this rate, who knows.

All I know is I would have thought it through the best I could because I hate to lose. I’m guessing Holzhauer does too. And that’s probably a quality that serves us well in business too.

Update: I clearly timed this column correctly, because Holzhauer lost Monday to end his run at $2.46 million. This is probably another good reminder why I should stick to trusting my news judgement and stay away from gambling. Unless, of course, it involves my Cleveland sports teams.

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Jodi’s Journal: Cues from ‘Jeopardy’ champ resonate in business

He’s playing the game of Jeopardy “as perfectly as possible.” And his strategy could lead to success in business too.

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