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COMMENTARY

Why James Holzhauer has brought me back to 'Jeopardy!'

Alan Pergament

I am sure almost everybody has their own “Jeopardy!” story.

The syndicated program is even running a promotion called the J!Effect in which it asks viewers for their stories about how the program has impacted their lives. It is looking for anecdotes that include stories about the tradition of watching the show with friends and family.

Here’s my story.

I owe James Holzhauer a big thank you.

After an absence of several months from “Jeopardy!,” my girlfriend, Patricia, and I have the professional sports gambler from Las Vegas to thank for bringing us back to the popular game show.

I’ve always automatically DVRed every episode for years, but we became bored of the show hosted by Alex Trebek.

We needed a break from competing against each other for 20 minutes each night after dinner. (And I got tired of winning. Please don’t tell her.)

Then Holzhauer showed up 18 shows ago to grab our attention by revolutionizing the game show to the point that Trebek referred to it Monday as “The James Holzhauer Show.”

Monday’s show was the most exciting episode I’ve seen in years. More about that later.

We returned to “Jeopardy” during the Holzhauer run because we wanted to see what all the attention he was receiving was about – and immediately became hooked again.

Jeff Simon: James Holzhauer, the contestant who took the fun out of 'Jeopardy'

We have been recently following our old ritual of rooting for the categories we know the most about to appear.

When the categories include my strong points – television, movies, sports and the 1960s – the younger Patricia immediately protests.

“It’s not fair,” she says.

I cringe a little when religion, banking and fashion (jeans and sneakers are my fashion statement) come up because she knows so much more about those categories than I do.

I understand why some people don’t share our renewed commitment to “Jeopardy!” because Holzhauer’s personality isn’t exactly endearing.

Even when he tries to be self-deprecating, he comes off as a little arrogant. A few weeks ago, when the "Final Jeopardy" category was geography, his two competitors knew the answer was the Bermuda Triangle.

Holzhauer got the answer right, too. He added his competitors knew it and he was just guessing. It came off as if he was saying even when he didn’t know the answer he got it right anyway.

But Patricia and I never watched “Jeopardy!” because of the contestants’ personalities. Truth be told, until Holzhauer came aboard, I always fast-forwarded through the part where Trebek interviews the contestants about their careers and lives. Speeding through the commercials and the interviews enables us to watch the show in 20 minutes.

So Holzhauer’s personality isn’t a drawback to us.

Besides, like “Grey’s Anatomy” and every long-running program, “Jeopardy!” needed a new character to love or hate.

Holzhauer fits the bill perfectly. He is the New England Patriots or the Golden State Warriors of “Jeopardy!”

That is why ratings in Western New York for “Jeopardy!” have been up about 50 percent recently. They are higher than any prime-time program in WNY gets these days. He also has become a national phenomenon.

I’m also enjoying Holzhauer’s use of analytics to beat the establishment in a game that has been around since Lyndon B. Johnson was president (1964). Did I mention I was a child of the '60s?

I don’t have any analytics to back it up, but I suspect a good number of new and returning viewers are watching because they want Holzhauer to lose.

Spoiler alert: I thought I was one of the viewers who wanted Holzhauer to lose until he almost did on Monday. Like a certain character on “Game of Thrones” Sunday, Holzhauer essentially responded to the guy trying to finish him off this way: “Not today!”

I found myself surprisingly rooting for him against a sports information director from Massachusetts, Adam Levin, who was almost his equal.

Going into “Final Jeopardy!,” Holzhauer had won $33,517 while Levin had $27,000. They both correctly answered the question. Holzhauer won $54,017, $18 more than Levin finished with after betting everything but $1.

If Holzhauer had missed on the question, his incredible run would have ended. Levin at least showed that Holzhauer is beatable after all.

He’s been on long enough to be the subject of several feature articles and in the process is inadvertently providing clues on the way to beat him.

He told the New York Times his knowledge has been expanded by reading children’s books. So contestants should start reading “Charlotte’s Web” and “Goodnight Moon” over again. He also told the newspaper that politics is one of his weaknesses. So “Jeopardy!” producers should make that a daily topic.

His more recent competitors have seemed to pick up on the idea of going for the big money questions early in categories to pile up the money at a faster rate and wager a large amount on daily doubles.

In one recent episode, a worthy competitor smartly tried that strategy. Unfortunately, he didn’t know the answer and lost everything. Levin tried the strategy Monday and wagered $12,000 on a daily double to make it a close contest.

The odds are Holzhauer’s arrogance will eventually cost him and someone like Levin will eventually dethrone him.

If it happens, I’m a little worried that I might be bored by “Jeopardy!” again.

After all, it will be easier to escape the Bermuda Triangle than to find anyone as revolutionary as Holzhauer to play the game.

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