Q & A with James Holzhauer
Naperville Jeopardy champ gains national fame with epic winning streak
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc.
As this issue of West Suburban Living goes to press, James Holzhauer is the reigning champion of America’s favorite television game show, Jeopardy. His current winnings are just under $2 million over 26 games — the “second-winningest” player in the show’s history.
Holzhauer, 34, grew up in Naperville, attending Avery Coonley School in Downers Grove and Naperville North High School. He graduated from the University of Illinois with a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics. During his college years, he ran a poker strategy website and played fantasy sports.
Upon graduating, rather than follow a more conventional career path in business or engineering, Holzhauer headed out to Las Vegas where he became a professional sports gambler.
Holzhauer will need 48 more wins to beat all-time Jeopardy king Ken Jennings, who won 74 games and $2,520,700 during his 2004 winning streak.
Tell our readers a little about your life growing up in Naperville. Were you a good student?
I’ve always liked Naperville; I actually moved back from 2013 to 2016, while on hiatus from gambling. I never liked school, although I had many great teachers along the way. Thanks to skipping a grade, I was two years younger than some of my classmates and it was a real struggle to keep up socially.
You attended Avery Coonley School in Downers Grove, which has a reputation for serving gifted and talented students. When did you figure out that your brain worked differently or at a different pace from other people?
I have always felt different than everyone else, and I’m not sure I have ever really adapted. It’s nice to celebrate what makes you special rather than force conformity.
Was math always your thing? Or did you have an early interest in other academic subjects, too?
Math has always been my favorite subject, but I greatly enjoyed reading as a child, less so as an adult. Maybe that’s the real reason I preferred studying children’s books to prepare for Jeopardy.
What kind of teenager were you? Were you focused on mathematics or how did your horizons expand?
I would describe my teenage years as awkward. I didn’t get good grades because I’d refuse to do busywork, like reading a novel I hated or doing math homework on a subject I already grasped.
You studied math at the University of Illinois. What can you share with our readers about your college experiences? What career did you think you were heading toward by majoring in math?
Even though I ended up with a math degree from U of I, it was sort of a last resort — I had been told my job prospects were better in engineering or computers, so I changed my major several times before settling on the subject I actually like.
On graduating, did you consider a more conventional career?
I applied to be an actuary after graduation, but none of my interviews panned out. I’m glad I never went down that road, because I would have been doing it for other people, the ones who tried to tell me I couldn’t gamble for a living.
When I graduated from Naperville North High School, I jokingly said that my goals were to be retired by my high school reunion and to have the school renamed after me. So maybe I had delusions of grandeur from an early age!
Have you ever worked in a typical nine-to-five job? If so, what was it?
My last job was when I was 16 at Brown’s Chicken.
What was it that first appealed to you about game shows?
I had wanted to be on Jeopardysince I was a kid, but I only really took the goal seriously starting in 2012. I have taken the online Jeopardy test every year it’s been offered, and my second in-person audition was (eventually) successful. They called me 22 months later, rather than the 18 they claimed was the eligibility limit.
How did you prepare for the show? Any special tricks?
I tried to simulate the conditions of the actual game when I practiced, so I’d stand in dress shoes while watching Jeopardy episodes and practice pressing a makeshift buzzer made from an old mechanical pencil.
Is there any especially lucky moment on Jeopardy that stands out?
I’ve had plenty of lucky moments on Jeopardy! already, but one in particular stands out: there was a Final Jeopardy about the term “chamber of commerce” and the episode taped just after my brother Ian had been named chair of the Naperville Chamber of Commerce.
How do you like living in Las Vegas?
Las Vegas is a surprisingly nice place to live — perpetually sunny weather, a fabulous restaurant scene, lots of great family activities. The scorching summers are the real downside. I try to be home for the day by noon if I can.
Where do you go from here? Are there new directions you’re interested in or new projects on the horizon?
It’s too early to talk about my next big project, but some interesting offers are coming in. I’d love to sing the seventh inning stretch at Wrigley Field this summer, though.
Do you ever play pub trivia? And if so, do you always win?
I played a charity team trivia event in Las Vegas recently and we did not win. It was a real thrill for the victorious team!
Which Jeopardy category do you feel least confident on? Jeopardy had a category on Monty Python Phrases, which would be my least confident one.
How about most confident? Most confident would be classic guitar solos.
How do you get along with the other contestants? Everyone I met was friendly, but we didn’t get a ton of time for small talk.
Favorite place to eat out in Naperville or the west suburbs? I always stop at Portillo’s and Lou Malnati’s Pizza when I’m in town.
Place you spend time when in Naperville? The Naperville library system is fantastic.
Do you still follow Chicago sports teams? I still root for the Cubs, Bears, Blackhawks and the Fighting Illini.Edit Module