Paul Batura: 'Jeopardy!' star James Holzhauer's secret to success is a blueprint for winning at life

"Jeopardy!" contestant James Holzhauer is the program's new reigning champion, but he isn’t your stereotypical game show contestant.

At 35 years of age, Holzhauer lists his occupation as a professional gambler, resides in Las Vegas with his wife and daughter, and has made the television quiz circuit something of a hobby. The University of Illinois math major enjoyed a measure of success on a couple of other game shows prior to his 14-episode winning streak on "Jeopardy!," which has led to winning a remarkable $1,061,554.

Fans of America’s favorite quiz show will remember that Holzhauer’s monetary success is second only to the program’s legendary ace, Ken Jennings. Over the course of his unprecedented 74-episode run in 2007, the computer scientist from Washington state pulled in over $2.5 million in prize money.


Yet, even the Brigham Young University alum has been mesmerized by the fervor and ferocity of Holzhauer’s playing style, telling Wired that he was “gobsmacked” by his success.

“He’s maximizing money,” Jennings said. “He can make two or three times what any other player ever has with that same level of play, which again is top-shelf. He’s as good as anybody.”

Asked about his playing style, James Holzhauer told reporters he’s “selectively aggressive” — a strategy that has literally paid off, helping the "Jeopardy!" champion average nearly $76,000 in winnings per episode.

In short, with the exception of "Cheers’" fictitious Cliff Clave character ("somebody who has never been in my kitchen"), Holzhauer has been willing to risk more than your typical contestant. He’s also prone to jump around topics and answers, thwarting his competitor’s efforts to settle into a rhythm.

Holzhauer’s success has become something of a cultural sensation, with national and even international media outlets now following the story. Since the show is taped long in advance, his fate, while already determined, is a closely held secret known only to those associated with the program and those fortunate enough to be part of the studio audience.

But regardless of how far the "Jeopardy!" high-roller advances, his style, and approach demonstrate that success is often the product of taking chances in life. Not necessarily dangerous risks, like walking a tightrope between skyscrapers — but rather taking informed, calculated and yes, gutsy chances now and again.

“If you’re not willing to risk,” says the famed motivational speaker Les Brown, “Then you can’t grow in life!”

“Selectively aggressive” risks come in all shapes and sizes, of course, and many of them have more to do with moments than money.

When my wife Julie and I were in the process of trying to adopt a second child in the summer of 2010, we were thrilled to match with a birthmother and walked with her through the third trimester of the pregnancy. Her little boy was born, perfect and pink, but we were soon informed she had chosen to parent the child. There would be no adoption. We were happy for her but still heartbroken.

Yet, within a matter of days, the adoption agency called to let us know that another baby had been born to a woman who didn’t even know she was pregnant. Shocked and unprepared to parent, she made an adoption plan and selected our profile. But the birthfather still had to sign off on the adoption — and nobody knew where he was or what he would even think about the situation when he found out about it.

It would be an “at-risk” placement, meaning that if the biological father surfaced within a few months, he would have legal rights to his son. Having just endured one failed adoption, I was in no mood to accept the risk of another. Instead, I was looking for the sure and safe thing.

Thankfully, Julie’s state of mind was more like "Jeopardy!" star James Holzhauer's, and she reminded me that we had prayed for a situation almost identical to this one — a late-night call about a baby in need of love and a home. “Let’s face it,” she reminded me. “There are no guarantees in life except the fact that none of us are getting out of here alive.”

Cheer for James Holzhauer — but don’t forget to chase your own dream and be selectively aggressive while doing it.

Will is now 8-years-old and a bundle of fun, a remarkable boy who only became our son because we assumed the risk that we might have to surrender him should his birthfather one day contest the adoption, which he never did.

If we’re honest with ourselves, aversion to risk is a common malady, whether in a romantic relationship, a job that requires a move, an entrepreneurial pursuit, the book you’ve been threatening to write — or an adoption that has the potential to break your heart.

So, instead of being “selectively aggressive” in our own lives, maybe we turn on “Jeopardy!” and live vicariously through James Holzhauer and his fellow competitors who risk embarrassing themselves in order to chase their dream.

It’s fun to watch and root for others — but it’s even more satisfying to live the life you were meant to live.

“If you never take risks, you’ll never accomplish great things,” wrote C.S. Lewis, a writer whose works and life have been featured as answers and questions on “Jeopardy!”


“Everybody dies,” he observed, “but not everybody has lived.”

So, cheer for James Holzhauer — but don’t forget to chase your own dream and be selectively aggressive while doing it.