Why a big bettor wagered only $1,399

Sorry, conspiracy theorists: No, James Holzhauer didn’t throw the Jeopardy game you saw on TV Monday night. His final Jeopardy bet was exactly the correct play.

As Final Jeopardy approached, Holzhauer trailed Emma Boettcher, $26,600 to $23,400. Jay Sexton had $11,000 in third place – and this is important.

Holzhauer wagered $1,399. That would have given him enough to win if Boettcher misfired, of course. But by betting so little Holzhauer accounted for the possibility that he, too, might miss. His total in this “miss-miss” scenario would have been $22,001 – exactly $1 more than Sexton could possibly have finished with, had he bet it all and doubled up.

That means he went into Final Jeopardy maximizing his chances to win the game. It goes like this:

If Boettcher answers correctly, she wins. (Like any person in the lead, they will bet enough to hold off any opponents who also are correct.)

If Boettcher is incorrect, Holzhauer wins – NO MATTER WHETHER HE ANSWERS CORRECTLY and also blocking off Sexton from catching him.

I feel I’m uniquely qualified to explain this topic: I was the Sun-Sentinel’s gambling writer for 10 years, and back in 1976 I was the Franklin-Williamson County math champion. I’m good at the wagering part. (But as far as actually answering the questions … um, no.)

To me, the game turned with Boettcher edged him out on the “Albany” answer by a split-second. She then picked the Daily Double square, got it right and took the lead. And, here’s where Holzhauer’s strategy of picking the big-money questions first hurt him: There wasn’t enough money left on the board for him to catch up.

In an email to ESPN, Holzhauer wrote; “I was a little shook during Double Jeopardy because I was playing from behind and constantly getting beaten on the buzzer by Emma. By the time Final Jeopardy rolled around, I knew I could only win if Emma answered incorrectly. It felt like needing a team to miss a last-second field goal. She didn’t miss, but I was still proud of my performance the whole way. I gave her a high five and smiled at how far I’d come.”

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