Graham: 'Jeopardy's' wizard reinventing the game

James Holzhauer is on fire, and he's showing how much we love watching a master at work

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
This image made from video aired on "Jeopardy!" on Tuesday, April 9. 2019, and provided by Jeopardy Productions, Inc. shows James Holzhauer. The 34-year-old professional sports gambler from Las Vegas won more than $110,000 on "Jeopardy!" on Tuesday, breaking the record for single-day cash winnings. (Jeopardy Productions, Inc. via AP)

America loves a winner, and "Jeopardy!" is giving us one. 

James Holzhauer, a Las Vegas sports gambler — talk about a job title — has been ripping up the syndicated game show for more than three weeks. He has come from out of nowhere to become the new quiz show king, earning more than $1.14 million in winnings to date, and shows no signs of slowing down.

Not since Ken Jennings in 2004 has a "Jeopardy!" contestant gone on such a remarkable run; unless your aunt or a friend from college was on the show, you probably can't name another contestant who has been on "Jeopardy!" in the last 15 years. That's fine, that's the way it's supposed to be: the show is bigger than the contestants.

But every so often, it's not.

And that's what we're getting now. Holzhauer is giving us someone to root for, at a time when our biggest heroes are wearing capes on screen or waging war with undead armies Sunday nights on HBO. Holzhauer's not fighting any wars, but he's impressing us with his wits, a concept that seemed all but dead in 2019. 

Game shows are a staple of American entertainment, and every so often one bubbles up and captures our collective imagination. The last time we went truly bananas for a game show was "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" in 1999, which was drawing nearly 30 million viewers three times a week, an astronomical figure then and an unheard of figure today. "Millionaire," in essence, gave rise to reality TV; "Survivor" hit in 2000, which paved the path for reality dating shows such as "The Bachelor," both essentially modern spins on game shows. 

Since it's a true test of smarts, "Jeopardy!" has always been held in a higher esteem than most game shows. Everyone can play along at home, get a few answers correct and feel like a champ, but those picked to go on the show are truly intelligent individuals. Anyone can "come on down!" the aisle on "The Price is Right," not everyone can play "Jeopardy!" 

"Jeopardy!" has been around since the mid-1960s, and Alex Trebek has been hosting since 1984. In that time, the show hasn't much changed — the board is still big and blue, answers need to come in the form of a question, the "Final Jeopardy" music is as identifiable as "Happy Birthday" — but the recent outpouring of support for Trebek following his cancer diagnosis shows how much the show has been a part of our lives, and how much we value Trebek as a guest in our homes.

The popularity of "Jeopardy!" crosses barriers of age and race and religious affiliation, which is what makes it so timeless. Reruns on Netflix are a hit with millennials and cord-cutters. We all know how it's played. And Holzhauer is playing it in a new way.   

Holzhauer approaches "Jeopardy!" like every answer is a Hail Mary pass to win the Super Bowl. He goes after the big dollar answers first, starting at the bottom of the board with the $1,000 answers (or $2,000 in Double Jeopardy), working his way back up to the smaller dollar figures. This allows him to build his purse early, and bet crazy big amounts on Daily Double questions (he's a better, it's in his blood). It's a reinvention of the game we've all watched one way, the same way, for years. 

Why hasn't anyone else done this? Holzhauer is a disruptor, kicking down the doors of the establishment the way punk rock did in the 1970s or grunge did in the '90s. Anyone could have done this, but Holzhauer is doing it. Suddenly, the old way of playing the game looks safe and lame, and it may change how "Jeopardy!" is played going forward.  

And that's why he's captured us. It's fun to watch a master at work, and Holzhauer is Picasso with a buzzer. Right now, he seems unstoppable, which is bad news for "Jeopardy's!" coffers. But it's good news for us.