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'Jeopardy!' Record Breaker James Holzhauer Challenged To Happy Birthday Uncle-Off


You may have heard the story of how a professional sports gambler is destroying records on "Jeopardy!" Well, Kenny Malone from our "Planet Money" podcast wants you to consider the victims here - victims such as Kenny Malone from our "Planet Money" podcast. Here he is with more.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: Something very unusual happened at the very end of James Holzhauer's very first "Jeopardy!" game.


ALEX TREBEK: Players, here's your clue.


TREBEK: The Jordan, Bear and Weber rivers...

MALONE: In Final Jeopardy, players write down their response.


TREBEK: James had turned this game into a runaway. Did he get the correct response, though?

MALONE: Up pops the correct answer.


TREBEK: He most certainly did.

MALONE: But James has written a little extra something.


TREBEK: Happy birthday, Jack. All right.

MALONE: Jack is James' nephew. That same Jack is also my nephew.

Here you want to sit down?

JACK HOLZHAUER: Sure. Wait; is this recording?

MALONE: Oh, yeah. For sure.



MALONE: This is Jack and Scarlett They have exactly two uncles - me on their mom's side and Uncle Jamie on their dad's side. And it has become irrationally important to me that they think I am the cooler uncle. This recording is before "Jeopardy!," and it was the moment I was convinced I had won. Jack and Scarlett were visiting me in New York. I let them play video games. I had just taken them to the "Harry Potter" Broadway play, and now I'd gotten them into a real NPR studio.

S. HOLZHAUER: Hello. So Jack, do you have any hobbies?

JACK HOLZHAUER: I like playing "Minecraft" and watching Uncle Kenny play "Zelda."

MALONE: Watching Uncle Kenny play "Zelda." Two months later, James shows up on "Jeopardy!"


TREBEK: Happy birthday, Jack. All right. And your wager will add $3,268, taking you...


MALONE: James wagered $3,268 - March 26, 2008, Jack's birthday. James and I share four nieces and nephews in total.


TREBEK: Yes, and Happy birthday, Pete. Is that going to be...

And Happy birthday - we're down to Katy now.

MALONE: He would get to each of them at least once.


TREBEK: Happy birthday, Scarlett - again.

MALONE: How good's your memory on what the answer actually was?

JAMES HOLZHAUER: The first episode, the answer was Great Salt Lake.

MALONE: Yeah. And then you wrote...

JAMES HOLZHAUER: I wrote, Happy birthday, Jack.

MALONE: This is James Holzhauer, and for some reason, I felt compelled to share with him my less-cool-uncle feelings.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: I will tell you, I went to go visit the kids the week before I was on "Jeopardy!," and they still accidentally referred to me as Uncle Kenny a good 20% of the time, so...

MALONE: (Laughter).

JAMES HOLZHAUER: I think you're doing just OK.

MALONE: Of course, that was before "Jeopardy!" But uncle stuff aside, James is doing something amazing on "Jeopardy!" First of all, he's an ace at buzzing in first. His trivia knowledge is absurdly broad. But the thing James is exploiting to win record amounts of money is this preposterously good deal built in to "Jeopardy!" Each game has three hidden Daily Doubles that let a player make a wager. Bet $10,000, and if you get it right, you win $10,000.

And that has, like, a name in gambling parlance, right?

JAMES HOLZHAUER: Yeah, we call it an even money proposition - when you get paid the same amounts for winning as you would lose for losing.

MALONE: At a casino, you'll see even money payouts for things where players will be correct about half the time. The thing about a Daily Double - it pays out even money, but players like James are going to be right way more than half the time.

JAMES HOLZHAUER: You know, I think that I have to be over 80%. So if I found an opportunity like that in my work, I would bet as much as the sportsbook would let me.

MALONE: And so it just makes sense to James to bet huge amounts of money on Daily Doubles, which is why he is winning record amounts of money on "Jeopardy!"

JULIE HOLZHAUER: Nope, I don't see anything. Don't tell me anything.


JULIE HOLZHAUER: Did you get a haircut?

MALONE: I've started Facetiming with my sister, brother-in-law and the kids during "Jeopardy!," and it is sincerely the best part of James' run. Although it does occasionally just turn into Uncle-Jamie-is-awesome stories.

JULIE HOLZHAUER: Scarlett was telling me about how her substitute today...

S. HOLZHAUER: Oh, right...

MALONE: Scarlett's substitute teacher told a kid he should go on "Jeopardy!," like that James guy.

S. HOLZHAUER: Oh, yeah. That's my uncle.

KATY HOLZHAUER: (Unintelligible).

MALONE: That's the 3-year-old.

What's her turn mean?

JULIE HOLZHAUER: Katy, what - who was on TV at school - at preschool?

K. HOLZHAUER: Uncle Jamie.

MALONE: Oh, my God.

James will be back on "Jeopardy!" Monday, and as of this writing, he has won 22 straight games and nearly $1.7 million. He holds the top 12 highest single-game scores. And look - Jack, Scarlett, Pete, and Katy, if you are listening, I do not have tens of thousands of dollars with which to wager your birthdays. But I can do this - Happy birthday, from Uncle Kenny Malone, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kenny Malone
Kenny Malone is a correspondent for NPR's Planet Moneypodcast. Before that, he was a reporter for WNYC's Only Humanpodcast. Before that, he was a reporter for Miami's WLRN. And before that, he was a reporter for his friend T.C.'s homemade newspaper, Neighborhood News.