In praise of the beatdown: Saluting James Holzhauer's 'Jeopardy' run

It's a good time to be James Holzhauer. (via screenshot)

For all the drama of a four-bounce buzzer-beating shot for the ages, there’s something to be said for a good old-fashioned over-before-it’s-started, hope-crushing beatdown.

Just in the last few days, we’ve seen plenty of candidates for whupping of the year. The Golden State Warriors dusted the Portland Trail Blazers in four to reach their fifth straight NBA Finals. Brooks Koepka flexed and threw Tiger Woods and another 150-plus golfers into the Atlantic Ocean to win the PGA Championship going away. Deontay Wilder nearly separated Dominic Breazeale’s head from his body with a single punch. Daenerys Targaryen scored a major road win when she ran up the score on Westeros.

But none of them can match what’s happening right now (-ish) over on “Jeopardy.” There, professional gambler James Holzhauer is absolutely torching everything in his way. He’s played 23 games and won a total of $1,780,237. He owns the single highest one-day payday in “Jeopardy” history — $131,127 — and the rest of the top 10 in that category, too. He even saved Tom Brady from the dire fate of having to eat a strawberry.

He ranks second all-time in total earnings only to the legendary Ken Jennings — and at his current pace, he’ll pass Jennings’ $2,520,700 total in about half the time it took Jennings to set the mark.

“I’m just gobsmacked by James. It's absolutely insane what he's doing,” Jennings told Wired last month. “I thought I had seen everything on Jeopardy!. And this is something I would have thought was just impossible, these numbers.”

It’s insane, but man, is it fun to watch.

The secret of ‘Jeopardy’ success

How does Holzhauer do it? He looks at something we’ve all seen for the last 35 years, and turns assumption on its side. Literally.

You know the usual routine on Jeopardy: pick a category, start with the top question on the column — generally the easiest — and work your way down in a nice, neat, tidy route. Your parents would approve of this efficient method of clearing the board.

Holzhauer upends that entire idea. He starts with one of the bottom-row questions — the most valuable — and then proceeds to clear out every question along the bottom row, regardless of category. This offers him a huge advantage — he’s tens of thousands of dollars ahead of his opponents before they’ve even buzzed in.

Simple. Diabolical. Brilliant. But that’s only half the battle.

Holzhauer then uses the Daily Double the way a gambler does — not as an opportunity to gain an edge over his opponents, but as a way to maximize his earnings. He’s viewing “Jeopardy” not as a competition against two other poor souls fed into a meat grinder; he’s looking at this like he’s playing the house. The other players are incidental, and quickly dismissed.

When that Daily Double pops up — and it’s statistically most likely to pop up in the fourth row — Holzhauer bets huge. His average Daily Double bet is $9,147, where Jennings’ was $2,913. And when he gets to the Final Jeopardy question, he shoves huge stacks of chips to the center of the table, every single time.

“You’re going to have to be comfortable with losing the average American income on a single trivia question a lot of the time,” Jennings said. “Psychologically, my peace of mind was built on just playing my game—a lot lower stakes, fun game, let’s pretend we’re all here to have fun. James is under no such illusion.”

The joy of running up the score

Let’s be honest: as long as you’re not one of the opposing players, it’s fun as hell watching Holzhauer rain fire down on the “Jeopardy” set. The man’s putting a time-honored American institution in a headlock and making it cry. Come on, that’s some fine entertainment!

He’s playing chess where the rest of us would be eating the checkers. He’s Steph Curry lofting up three-point shots while the rest of us are showing up wearing ice skates.

At the risk of stretching metaphor to its breaking point: this is how America’s supposed to work. You amass a huge wealth of knowledge, you look beyond the conventional way of doing things, and you take control of the moment. And then you get rich.

Deep knowledge. Analytical precision. An iron spine. If you’re the type to look for inspiration in your pop culture, hey, you could do a lot worse than looking to James Holzhauer. Until he loses, anyway.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.