Math is ruining everything. First it was my grade point average. Then it was poker. Then baseball and basketball. And now it’s ruining “Jeopardy!”
Numbers never have been my strong suit. I got by in school, even though math problems always resulted in, well, math problems. Even today, I break out in hives while filling out my monthly expense report.
I’m a words guy. Which is why I find it distressing that math is taking over everything. The latest victim? My favorite television game show, which has been broken by a calculating professional gambler.
James Holzhauer has reigned as “Jeopardy!” champion for 22 consecutive shows through Friday, amassing $1.7 million in winnings and recording the top 12 one-day scores in the game’s history.
The Las Vegas sports gambler’s data-driven approach — rather than work his way down the board, Holzhauer selects the highest-value answers first, in hopes of building a lead and finding the “Daily Double” clues with a big nest egg to multiply — is literally a game-changer. He optimizes odds rather than play “Jeopardy!” spontaneously, as it has been done for decades — but may never be done again.
If he guesses right — which Holzhauer typically does — he pulls out to an insurmountable lead before the game is half over. You might think that’s bad for ratings, but the opposite likely will prove true: When Ken Jennings won 74 consecutive games in 2004, ratings surged 22%. Ratings are up during Holzhauer’s run, too (though not to Jennings levels yet.) I’ll take “Things That Go Cha-Ching” for $800, Alex.
Part of Holzhauer’s winning formula is the cold-blooded, high-risk approach one acquires when betting for a living. Risk aversion is a weakness he can’t afford. Another key, of course, is dazzling trivia knowledge. But what really sets him apart is statistical analysis. Well, that and unrepentant greed.
Holzhauer is the guy who borrows all the “Monopoly” money he can to put hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place, even if it ruins the fun for everyone else. Hey, it isn’t a family game night until Little Susie is left crying so hard that snot bubbles cover her face.
This isn’t the first of my favorite pastimes math has transformed. It started with poker, which was fun when you’d sit around with a bunch of guys and rely on gut instinct, knowledge of your opponents or whiskey-induced courage to rake in pots. But in the poker craze of the early 2000s, the mathematicians invaded and suddenly the game revolved around advanced high-level calculations of probability. Nothing ruins a game faster than turning it into math homework.
Analytics next came to baseball. Teams realized most batters hit pitches only to certain parts of the field and shifted their defenders accordingly, resulting in fewer base hits. Batters responded by swinging for the fences, where shifts couldn’t hurt them. So we now have a game where everyone walks or strikes out, except every 12th batter or so, who hits a home run. But we don’t notice because by then we’ve gotten bored and started playing Candy Crush on our smartphones.
Basketball used to be a ballet of athleticism and artistry. But once NBA analysts figured out converting 3-point shots at a 33% clip gets you more points than making two-pointers at a 45% rate, the game became a sharpshooting contest. Today five guys stand outside the 3-point arc and pass it around until one of them shoots. No drives, no dunks, no blocks, no fun. It’s OK; the season is only 10 months long.
We can only wonder how “Jeopardy!” will be played, post-Holzhauer. Most likely other fearless mathematicians will follow, snapping up the “Daily Double” under “Potpourri” and the $1,000 answer under “Potent Potables” before Alex Trebek even meets the other contestants.
Clearly math is working for the people who are enjoying great success while ruining the fun of my favorite games. For them, the numbers all add up. This probably explains why I don’t get it. To me, it’s all math problems.