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Jeff Simon: I'll take 'Truth without Math,' Alex

Jeff Simon

The category on my "Fake 'Jeopardy'" show is "Begins with S." The answer is "The use of clever, but false arguments, especially with the intention of deceiving."

The proper responding question should be "What is 'sophistry?' Alex."

Sophistry, pure and unalloyed, were, I think, all those mathematical explanations for this week's finale of James Holzhauer's extraordinary $2.5 million streak on the venerable TV game show "Jeopardy."

To encounter all those mathematical explanations comparing the contestants' advance odds on the show's "Final Jeopardy" was a crash course in numerical B.S. Could the Holzhauer we first became acquainted with -- the one who upended all the old methods of the show and completely reinvented it on his grim-reaper's harvest of wealth -- be perfectly content to finish second?

Surely you jest. Therein lies the heart of the matter. To me, in his final week on the show, it looked like a different guy inhabiting Holzhauer's body. That guy tanked it at the first completely plausible opportunity.

This, originally, was a guy who turned into a pitiless machine on the air. He steamrolled over everything. When the show's ultra-venerable host read the answer clues, Holzhauer constantly interrupted with his buzzer and then interrupted Alex Trebek's calling on him with his answer. Then he interrupted again with his next choice of category and amount. His respect for the host's allotted contributions to the show was minimal. Place second? Are you kidding?

That's the major part of what many of us disliked about this sports bettor from Vegas who brought to "Jeopardy" a new way of playing this game we'd grown comfortable seeing as a haven for the most lovably dweeby and nerdly among us. (Read Ken Jennings' predictably definitive defense of Holzhauer in the Atlantic, and his descriptions of the classic "Jeopardy" contestants of yore. That, as they say, is from the horse's mouth -- and that horse is a pretty good writer, too.)

Holzhauer was the show's own Vince Lombardi, the coach and aphorist who first told us that "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."

Hence the absurd sophistry of King James' final mathematical explanation of his uncharacteristically final low wager and, as well, his notably slow and soft play before that, as compared to his previous take-no-prisoners dominance.

Holzhauer ran out of Daily Double luck in his final 'Jeopardy!'

I am, of course, not saying that all mathematical explanations are hooey. Math, though, is probably the world's oldest deception technique. It is, so often, the first resort of those who would rob you blind.

Have you ever bought a car? In the worst dealerships, there's a closer who comes in at the end and computes the taxes and fees and the whatnot and passes on the news that you'll be paying $3,000 more than you intended.

Have you ever signed a contract and suddenly had figures thrown at you from the outer fringes of nowhere in the full knowledge you wouldn't be able to keep up? Have you ever heard someone in movies discuss the astonishing creative accounting in Hollywood that deprives hugely successful money-earning movies of profit participants?

That is the mathematics of sophistry.

The world, as so many of us know, is so often divvied up between those who are mathematically adept and those who aren't. I'm not that bad with mathematics actually -- 648 on my high school SAT math score, which I only remember in my advanced age because it astonished me at the time.

What I'm not, mathematically, is quick -- certainly not as quick as a Vegas sports bettor and "Jeopardy" contestant for whom every game he played seemed like a lightning round meant to knock off the poor stragglers.

So I say discard all the mathematical hooey about the odds and go with emotional logic instead.

What sensitive, empathetic people saw this past week was, I think, a man who had grown a little tired of being the wrong kind of winner.

Yes, of course, it's true that everything we saw was taped months ago. But what we always have to take into account when talking about game shows and reality TV is the unknowability of the producers and writers and staffs of these shows, the ones who appoint all the contestants and run all the tiniest details.

That is the most secret of information. It is totally proprietary information and only revealed to us by contestants and staffs who briefly want to break the code.

King James himself has admitted he knew that final Jeopardy category -- Shakespeare -- had previously been the subject of his competitor's master's thesis.

In other words, if he had a working brain in his head, he knew the fix was in from the bigwigs who ran the show. They were giving his opponent the best chance of defeating him they possibly could. Her brilliance was getting its intended showcase.

If he had the sensitivity that God gave a cactus, he'd have to know that "Jeopardy's" big shots were hoping for the show to take hard right turn from then on.


Because his constant lack of homage to the show's host in his time of grievous health was emotionally incompatible with the facts of the host's life. He is suffering from stage four pancreatic cancer. Trebek's was not only an entirely different story line from the one giving the show killer ratings, it was diametrically opposite the tone of the robotic big-bettor's streak.

Trebek has revealed that during Holzhauer's streak, he would sometimes retire to his dressing room after a game had been recorded for future use and howl with pain. What "Jeopardy" employee could possibly tolerate their leader being dissed so blithely by the heedless, mechanistic streak of James Holzhauer?

I think the streaking contestant, after a while, had no trouble reading the staff tea leaves. The well-hidden mensch that resided within came roaring to the fore.

I think you could see in the show's final episodes a softer, slower, kinder, gentler contestant who didn't want to step all over Trebek's lines with muddy combat boots.

We learned on the last episode we saw he was the kind of guy who'd bring his daughter's homemade get well card to the studio to give to the show's ailing host.

A man, not a robot. A rich one whose imprint will be forever on the game he played -- but one who had come to the perfect place to jump off. In his future, he'll always be the second one they send "Tournament of Champions" invitations to. Ken Jennings, of course, will be the first.

A truly great competitor finally faced him. I think he was happy to climb off and watch her take the center of the TV screen.

Is all this news? Or pop trivia?

I'd submit we all learned a great deal from the final week of James Holzhauer -- about him, about others, about ourselves.

That's what "Jeopardy's" function has always been, after all -- to teach us new things.


A mere TV game show, you might well say. But then who, recently, has taught us all so much?

And so well?

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