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Did James Holzhauer break the ‘Jeopardy’ record? Here’s what happened.

“Jeopardy!” sensation James Holzhauer speaks after being presented with a key to the Las Vegas Strip in front of the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign in Las Vegas. (Caroline Brehman / AP)
By Emily Yahr The Washington Post

In a twist that could rival a great television drama, “Jeopardy!” powerhouse James Holzhauer lost on the episode broadcast Monday – just as he was on the cusp of surpassing the 15-year-old earnings record of legendary champion Ken Jennings.

Holzhauer’s historic run, in which he averaged almost a jaw-dropping $77,000 per episode, came to an end after his 33rd game. Holzhauer, a professional sports gambler from Las Vegas, lost to University of Chicago librarian Emma Boettcher, who beat him by about $22,000 in the Final Jeopardy round with a question about Shakesperean literature.

“What a game! Oh, my God,” said host Alex Trebek, as a grinning Holzhauer gave Boettcher a high five.

Holzhauer’s incredible “Jeopardy!” streak started airing in early April and captivated an increasingly splintered television audience, breathing new life into the iconic show, currently in its 35th season. As Holzhauer steamrolled more than 60 contestants with his seemingly endless command of trivia, his aggressive playing style triggered a debate among viewers about whether he “broke” the game. His hardball tactics included jumping around the board to pick out the highest-value clues – often accumulating a startling amount of money before his competitors could even figure out the buzzer – and then casually wagering massive amounts on Final Jeopardy, with a gambler’s easy confidence.

By Holzhauer’s fourth episode, Trebek wondered out loud if it was too early to make Jennings comparisons. Jennings, who became a household name by earning $2,520,700 over 74 games in 2004, said he loved watching Holzhauer employ his bold strategy and was sorry to see it come to an end.

“Honestly, I feel a little bit of the same letdown I did when I lost in 2004. I was enjoying the streak maybe more than anybody. I really wanted to see what this guy could do,” Jennings said. “I also feel for him, you know? It really does show what a fickle mistress ‘Jeopardy!’ is. A couple breaks go the wrong way and any night could be the last night.”

As of Monday, Holzhauer had won $2,462,216 over 32 games and only needed $58,485 to leap over Jennings. That result seemed so likely – the 10 highest single-day earnings in the show’s history all belong to him – that on Sunday, when a brief clip circulated online that appeared to show Holzhauer losing to Boettcher, fans had trouble believing it was real.

However, the leaked footage proved to be accurate on Monday morning, as the first “Jeopardy!” broadcast of the day debuted in Montgomery, Alabama, where the local CBS affiliate airs the show at 9:30 a.m. Central Time.

Going into Final Jeopardy, Holzhauer wasn’t in the lead, which was rare. Boettcher led with $26,600 while Holzhauer had $23,400. Jay Sexton, a research engineer from Atlanta, trailed with $11,000. The clue: “The line ‘a great reckoning in a little room’ in ‘As You Like It’ is usually taken to refer to this author’s premature death.”

Sexton revealed his answer first: Elizabethan playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe. His total became $17,000. Holzahuer also answered Marlowe – yet he only wagered $1,399. “A modest one for the first time,” Trebek commented, as Holzhauer’s new total became $24,799.

“So, Emma, it’s up to you: If you came up with the correct response, you’re going to be the new ‘Jeopardy!’ champion,” Trebek said. “Did you?”

Indeed, Boettcher also said Marlowe and wagered $20,201, meaning she won $46,801 and trounced Holzhauer in the process.

“Oh gosh. What a payday!” Trebek said as the audience gasped.

Holzhauer, a University of Illinois graduate with a degree in mathematics, fascinated sports prognosticators and statisticians as he methodically picked apart the game, making quick calculations of the odds in his head that helped him settle on the shrewdest wager amounts while simultaneously summoning the necessary trivia. Jennings, like many other diehard “Jeopardy!” viewers, predicts that this tactic of making big wagers could become a new trend.

“James has made people realize that the aggressive game-play is good. And so I think you’ll start seeing a lot more players being more aggressive in their bets,” said Andy Saunders, who runs the Canadian-based website The Jeopardy Fan, which he reports has drawn a “mindblowing” increase in readers since Holzhauer’s streak started. “It’s absolutely been unprecedented – his average bet is almost $9,000 on the Daily Double.”

But an aggressive betting strategy means nothing if you don’t know the answers – or rather, the questions, in keeping with the show’s challenging format.

Holzhauer, who has a 4-year-old daughter, credited his breadth of trivia knowledge with binge-reading books aimed at kids.

“You may be able to read an adult book about a boring subject without falling asleep, but I can’t. For me, it was either read some children’s books – designed to engage the reader – or go into ‘Jeopardy!’ with giant gaps in my knowledge base,” Holzhauer told The Washington Post in a May interview.

This meant that quite a few contestants – many of whom had nurtured a lifelong dream of appearing on “Jeopardy!” – were in for an unpleasant surprise when they suddenly came face to face with a player more dominant than any the show had ever seen.

“Any other day, any other opponent, the results might have been different,” said Lewis Black, a Salt Lake City attorney who competed against Holzhauer in his sixth game, “but you just happen to get there and run headfirst into a buzzsaw.”

Holzhauer’s command of the game was such that some fans, seizing upon his unusually low last Final Jeopardy wager, speculated that he may have lost intentionally – perhaps having wearied of competition.

But Brad Rutter, another “Jeopardy!” whiz who bested Jennings in a “tournament of champions,” said Holzhauer was playing to win to the very end.

“It was absolutely the right wager … 100 percent his best chance at winning,” said Rutter.

Holzhauer was trailing Boettcher by enough that his only hope was that she botch the Final Jeopardy question. Meanwhile, in case Holzhauer had also gotten the question wrong, then he need to wager conservatively enough so that Sexton couldn’t surpass him.

“The idea that he would make a mistake or lose on purpose,” Rutter said, “those are the two least likeliest things he would do.”

Holzhauer told the Action Network, a website devoted to sports-betting trends, that his final appearance was taped on March 12 – well before his episodes began broadcasting on April 4. While he and his fellow contestants had signed nondisclosure agreements, scores of people who sat in the studio audience managed to keep the final results a secret for two months – a testament, some said, to the reverence fans hold for the show’s aura of suspense.

Combined with his $2,000 for coming in second place on Monday’s episode, Holzhauer’s total winnings are $2,464,216; he has already started donating some of the funds to charity. Holzhauer and the publicists for “Jeopardy!” did not return a request for comment. Over the weekend, however, Holzhauer offered one clue that the end of his time on “Jeopardy!” wouldn’t be the worst thing.

“My kid cried about the possibility of her dad losing, so I told her we could have a party the day after it inevitably happens,” he tweeted. “Now she cries when I win.”

Even as Holzhauer’s time on “Jeopardy!” ends, many fans are thrilled that it brought a new spotlight to the beloved game show, a reliable mainstay for the past three decades.

“It reminded us how much ‘Jeopardy!’ means to us and how much we love it,” Jennings said. “I think we take ‘Jeopardy’ for granted, and it’s nice when something like this comes along. The fact that 15 years went by without someone making a real run at the record, really, it led to some complacency … so I like the idea now, I think there, might be more Jameses out there.”