Other than the sportsbook managers in Vegas, not many people had heard of the name James Holzhauer before his incredible 32-game winning streak on Jeopardy! in 2019.
Over 33 games of Jeopardy!, Holzhauer won over $2.4 million using basic sports betting principles such as probabilities and expected value; principles he’d been using his whole life.
But before he took the Jeopardy! world by storm, James was and still is a professional sports bettor.
At the age of four, Holzhauer was already making headlines in Naperville, Illinois, for his ability with numbers.
He featured in the Chicago Tribune, where his pre-school teacher highlighted his ability to add two-digit numbers in his head, which gave all teachers the challenging task of providing ‘special’ work for James.
Now at the age of seven and James was doing 5th grade maths, along with skipping the 2nd grade altogether.
With all this success at school you would think he was an exemplary student … incorrect! He loved to skip class and play poker online in his spare time.
"There were times in school where I would say, I should go to class. But I could make $100 playing online poker if I didn't go,” he said.
After winning multiple national competitions in both maths and science at high school, Holzhauer made the logical step of completing a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics at the University of Illinois.
He then transferred his ability with numbers to become a professional sports bettor, where he identified three betting strategies to exploit the bookies.
The first being the futures market, where at the age of 21, he got his bankroll rolling when he banked a 40/1 and 100/1 winner in the 2006 World Baseball Classic through analysis of statistical data from previous years.
He’s also found massive edges in the NFL market, on teams that have a good chance of earning a first-round bye into the playoffs.
"I'll virtually never place a futures bet on a team unless they've got a really good shot at earning the first-round bye. The math is so, so slanted in favour of those teams. Sometimes it gets to a point that I bet so much futures on a team that I’ll end up betting against them when the playoffs start. It’s kind of like running a long-short hedge fund in some ways.”
Another betting strategy that Holzhauer uses is middle betting, which happens when two bookies offer two different point spreads on the same game.
For example, if the line is Steelers -9.5 with one bookie, but the Browns are +10.5 points with another bookie, then James will bet both sides.
So if the Steelers win by exactly 10 points, he would cash in on both bets.
Here is an article that explains middle betting further.
The third strategy Holzhauer likes to use is through in-play betting at halftime.
According to James, bookmakers often over-compensate for the team that’s winning at halftime, leaving the door open for some great value bets on the team that’s losing.
“At halftime a bookie has five minutes to put a line up, whereas the line for the whole game has been up all week. If every time there’s a commercial break they’re putting up new odds, they’re going to make a mistake. If you’re paying attention you can clean up for sure.”
The next step in Holzhauer’s life would be the one he’d be remembered for, as he was accepted to go on Jeopardy! after doing the online tryout test six times!
25 years earlier he’d made a promise to his grandmother whilst watching the show; that he would be up on that stage one day, and wasn’t he up there for a long time!
Before Jeopardy!, he actually appeared on the game show ‘The Chase’, where he and his teammates won a cash prize of $175,000 and James broke the record for answering 12 questions correctly in the opening round, and 19 questions correctly in the final round, which hasn’t been beaten since.
During his incredible Jeopardy! run, James’ three main tools were his trivia knowledge, buzzer speed and betting strategy.
The most profound tool that no one had ever seen before was his betting strategy.
He would always start at the bottom of the board with the most difficult but most valuable questions, earning himself some quick cash.
He then hunted for the daily double, which if you do your homework, appears at the bottom of the board most of the time.
It was here where Holzhauer made his mark, betting large percentages of his bankroll (100% a lot of the time) on the daily double and getting out to an unattainable lead early in the game.
Over his time on the show he got the daily double question right 95% of the time.
So by using basic expected value theory, when you can double your money at a 95% success rate, you do it.
He also used a staking strategy, which was most evidently used on April 23, when he got all three daily doubles in one game.
The difference in this game was, when he bet on the second daily double the game was close, so he could’ve lost the game if he got the question wrong.
In this case he only bet 30% of his bankroll so he could stay in the game if he got the question wrong.
He of course got the question right and proceeded to wager over 72% on the last daily double, where he knew he couldn’t lose the game.
You’ll never believe where Holzhauer learned all of his knowledge that allowed him to take the Jeopardy! world by storm; from children’s books!
When a topic is especially boring or not of interest to him, James heads straight to the childrens sections at the library.
"The books there are filled with pictures and fun facts, and they're a great way to learn the nuts and bolts of any subject," he said.
After his appearance on Jeopardy!, James went back to his normal life as a professional sports bettor, where his biggest task now is staying under the radar with the Vegas bookies after his new-found fame.
Check out our other articles in the 10 People Who Got Rich On Sports Betting series:
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