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James Holzhauer Didn't Break Jeopardy! He Fixed It.

Even if you’re not a regular Jeopardy! watcher (as I am), you may have heard some buzz recently about a contestant called James Holzhauer. As of this writing, James has won $1.69 million over the course of only 22 games (an average of $77,000 per game). For reference, Ken Jennings, the winningest Jeopardy! contestant of all time, won $2.5 million over 74 games (an average of $34,000 per game).

So, it would seem, James is doing very well. And some people are not happy about it.

Just check out these headlines:

Variety: Why James Holzhauer is Bad for Jeopardy! In which the columnist complains that he is now faced with “…the dreary awareness that a game show, just like all other aspects of life in the late 2010’s can be optimized.” (That’s right. He’s complaining that a game can be won with optimal strategy.)

So, if these pieces are to be believed, James has broken Jeopardy! beyond repair. And, it will never be the same again. And that’s a bad thing.

Or as Charles Lane put it in the Washington Post, James Holzhauer is a Menace to Jeopardy! because “In short, this professional gambler from Las Vegas does not so much play the game, as beat the system.”

Yes Charles, that’s the point!

Because Jeopardy! was and always has been broken – resulting in a comfortably predictable game whose viewership has been declining for 14 years. And James, who is indeed a professional gambler, has fixed it (after all, it is a game which involves wagering – you know, gambling).

And it will never be the same. And that’s a good thing.

It would seem the general viewing public agrees with me. For the week of April 29th, Jeopardy! averaged 13.3 million viewers per episode, a height last reached in 2005. In fact, same day audiences for that week were higher than that of Game of Thrones (ok, yes that doesn’t include streaming, but to be fair, Jeopardy! can’t be streamed). So, rather than destroying Jeopardy!, James’s unconventional style of play has done the opposite. It’s revitalized it.

And he did that by recognizing that Jeopardy! wasn’t so much a system that could be beat, but rather a broken system (or actually three broken systems) that needed to be fixed. I'm not alone in thinking this. In the field of System Leadership Theory, these broken systems are referred to as Maladaptive Archetypal System Traps.

Yes, that’s a mouthful. Let’s have a closer look.

Whether we recognize them or not, systems are all around us. They’re the underlying structures that dictate personal and organizational belief, behavior and ultimately, results. When we lack awareness of the systems at play around us, our vision is clouded by what we think should be going on, what others tell us is going on and what tradition and culture suggest is going on. They're often referred to as "the way things are done around here". If we can learn to identify systems, we can work within them and change them to our advantage.

There are eight to twelve(ish) maladaptive archetypal system traps, depending on who and what you read. All of them are insidious, working their destructive magic unnoticed. And all of them are the result of an over-attachment to the needs for certainty and significance.

Here are the three systems I see at play in Jeopardy!

Limits to Success: Stunting Your Own Growth

Let’s say you’re a Jeopardy! contestant. You’ve worked your ass off to get on the show. And that’s no small feat. You’ve learned all you can about Ballet and Opera and African Rivers and State Capitals and World History and Shakespeare and College Football and all the other frequent categories. (James studied children’s books – he got all the info he needed but in pictures and with fewer words, leading to greater recall).

You’ve been through both the online screening and the in-person audition process and then waited in the contestant pool for nearly 18 months. You’ve invested years into your Jeopardy! dream. And finally, you get the call. You’re going to be on the show. Success!

Or not. Here’s where most contestants limit themselves. For all their hard work, they forget to invest in a strategy that maximizes revenue potential. They do what most contestants have done before them, because “that’s just the way it’s done”. They start at the top of the board, where there are the easier questions with lower dollar values and work their way down. There’s no rule that says they have to do it that way. That’s just what they do. And in doing so, they limit their success because they end up building their wealth later in the game rather than earlier. The result is an anemic cash pot when the all important Daily Doubles are hit.

James does the opposite. He starts at the bottom and works his way up. This way, he maximizes the dollars he has if and when he hits a Daily Double. And, he invested in learning the art and science of the buzzer by contacting a former champion and asking for advice. He also crafted a practice buzzer out of a mechanical pencil and some electrical tape.

Getting on the show was only the beginning for James. He ensured he had every advantage once he was there.

Growth and Underinvestment: Shooting Yourself in the Foot

Let’s say, by some happy turn of events (i.e. preparation plus luck) you’ve actually amassed a decent pot of money and you’ve hit a Daily Double. You feel good about the category, you have enough money to potentially make the game a runaway, but … you make a wimpy bet. You answer the question correctly but are not materially further ahead than you were before.

Why did you do this?

Well, you let your need for certainty (I don’t want to lose all that money) and significance (I don’t want to look stupid by losing all that money) get in your way. You underestimated your talents and intelligence. And then, you underinvested in yourself. In other words, you shot yourself in the foot.

Holzhauer takes care not to find the Daily Doubles too quickly, as he wants to maximize the amount of money he can wager (he studied charts of where on the board the Daily Doubles are most likely to be). When he does find one, if it’s in the first round, he wagers everything he has, because he is confident in his ability to recover his losses. If it’s later in the game, and he’s comfortable with the category, he’ll bet as much as possible while ensuring he will remain in the lead or be able to retake the lead if he answers incorrectly. He knows his own strengths and invests in himself appropriately. And his record-breaking winnings are the result.

See the difference? James see past the maladaptive systems, and manages his own needs for certainty and significance so he can play the game as it was meant to be played, rather than how it has been played for most of the past 35 years.

There's one more system at play...

Success to the Successful: Perpetuating Privilege

This is the one system that James won’t want to change, though for the good of the game it should be fixed, at least in part. In the Success to the Successful trap, those who are successful are granted additional advantages that give them the ability to compete more effectively and therefore win more easily in the future.

As the winner of the previous game, James gets to go first in the next game. He gets to stay in the far-left position, thus getting used to his surroundings, enabling him to focus more effectively on the board. With each appearance, he gets less nervous and faster on the buzzer. In other words, with each subsequent win, James becomes a more effective player. So yeah, it’s possible he’ll be around for some time to come.

The only thing working against James is his own physical and mental endurance. Jeopardy! is taped on a gruelling schedule of five episodes per day. Everyone gets tired. Their feet hurt and their brains get foggy. So, unless he trained for that too (which, let’s face it, he might have), his reign as champion will come to an end one day.

And when it does, the only question will be – will his fix stick? Will future Jameses take the game to new heights, new levels of excitement, and new ratings records?

I hope so.

P.S. If you are interested in learning more about Systems Leadership Theory, and the remarkable business advantages that can be gained from understanding and eliminating Maladaptive Archetypal System Traps, check out my book, The Unstuck Leader.

The Unstuck Leader book is now available.
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