Reigning “Jeopardy!” champ James Holzhauer faced real jeopardy Monday, narrowly winning his 18th straight contest by just $18.
By winning, the 34-year-old professional sports gambler from Las Vegas added to his impressive earnings on the challenging quiz show, picking up $54,017 for a total of $1,329,604.
Runner-up Adam Levin just missed dethroning the champ, finishing with $53,999.
Holzhauer is second in “Jeopardy!” prize money, trailing only computer programmer-turned-author Ken Jennings, who won 74 games in 2004.
Holzhauer is still far behind Jennings, but he’s closing in on No. 2 Julia Collins (20 wins) and No. 3 David Madden (19).
Although Holzhauer’s winning streak is impressive, it’s his aggressive bidding approach and the speed of his prize haul that’s truly jaw-dropping. He’s more than halfway to Jennings’ record money total of $2,520,700 in fewer than a quarter of the all-time champ’s appearances.
More: A five-time ‘Jeopardy!’ champ explains what makes current star James Holzhauer a game-changer
Although Monday’s winning total is huge in comparison to the average champion’s haul, it pales next to Holzhauer’s own record for a single show, $131,127.
Holzhauer explained his wagering strategy in a Q&A last week with The New York Times. Unlike most players, he picks the highest-value clues first.
“You can see as soon as I get control of the board in the first game I’m going for the $1,000 clues whenever I have the opportunity,” he said, likening his approach to a poker strategy.
“There are big advantages to having a lot of chips early on in a poker tournament,” he told the Times. “You can make plays that other people can’t.”
Eddie Timanus, a five-time “Jeopardy!” winner who compiles the college coaches polls for USA TODAY Sports, describes Holzhauer as “a game-changer.”
Timanus notes Holzhauer’s mastery of the signaling buzzer, but says he really stands out in his aggressive bidding.
“While many players, myself included, prefer to play categories from top to bottom and try to stick to them, Holzhauer clears the big-dollar clues first. Thanks to his ability to ring in first consistently and rarely miss, he usually has a considerable total built up by the time he uncovers a daily double. He finds most of them since he’s able to maintain control of the board for long stretches, and, as we’ve seen, he’s not afraid to bet big” Timanus says.
His overall assessment of Holzhauer the player: “Speed, instinct, confidence and knowledge — pretty SICK, wouldn’t you say?”