"Jeopardy James" Makes His Next Big Bet

James Holzhauer Jeopardy and Bridge ChampionFans of Jeopardy will not be surprised to learn that James Holzhauer likes matchpoint-scored duplicate a little more than he does the IMP-scored team games.

“I get the argument that it's not 'real' bridge,” he said, but the winner-takes-all format was bound to appeal to a player whose high-risk, high-reward style made him the quiz show's second-highest money winner. “The part scores become more interesting.”

Bridge does not offer the $2.5-million reward that Holzhauer's 32-game “Jeopardy” winning streak did, but money may not be the big issue. Among his many ambitions is the desire to become a world-class bridge player.

And it would not be wise to bet against his doing that.

Less than a year ago, he was still looking for the last few gold and silver points he needed to become a Lifemaster. Now, despite the coronavirus and its effects on competitive play, he is a Silver Lifemaster, comfortably above the 2,000-point mark.

In a Zoom interview earlier this year, he talked about growing up with card games in Naperville, a Chicago suburb. He played hearts and spades and had established himself in school as a math whiz. In 2000, when he was 15, he got interested in bridge. Lacking immediate family members to teach him, he found an online avenue, Yahoo Bridge.

A year later – having worked his way through Charles Goren's “Contract Bridge Complete” – he tried to organize a bridge club at his high school. But after a few weeks of inadequate play and argumentative partners, his effort was halted when a classmate suggested they have a poker night instead.

“I got into gambling and took some time off from bridge,” he recalled.

When he moved to Las Vegas a few years later, he picked it up again, playing rubber bridge at anywhere from a penny to 25 or 30 cents a point. “We never had any good partnership agreements,” he said, but that didn't discourage him or his partners.

And he got a taste of the big time playing in the 2007 National in Vegas.  It wasn't a great success because he was playing with rubber-bridge partners, with no developed bidding or defensive systems. “We didn't even know what bidding boxes were,” he joked.

A costly revoke and some bidding and defensive misunderstandings made for poor results, but did not diminish his enthusiasm. “It was a good learning experience.”

By then, a day job as an active and successful gambler along with competing on the first version of the TV quiz show The Chase and preparing to be a Jeopardy contestant meant having to put bridge aside again. Now, although The Chase is coming back in January with Holzhauer as one of the beastly Chasers meant to subdue contestants, he is a regular online player, usually paired with a highly ranked professional such as Jeff Meckstroth.

“They are better than me,” he said, “and they are willing to impart wisdom.”

He is constantly figuring the odds, and he says defensive play is a current priority. He plays aggressively to establish defensive tricks quickly.

The master of the quick buzz-in when he was demolishing Jeopardy opponents, he no longer rushes to make a bid or play a card. A math major at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, he understands the importance of odds; “It's good to have math at the back of your mind” when you are deciding on a line of play.

Even when he loses the finesses that the odds dictated he take, he has learned to keep his temper and keep apprising what the bids have meant and how the play of the cards might give him the extra edge. He is confident that he will know “when do I take a 10 percent risk or a 50 percent risk.”

Like many an older player, Holzhauer is worried about the game's future and the ability of clubs and the ACBL to market to a new generation. (“I'm not sure I'm going to teach my 6-year-old daughter, Natasha," he said.)

His recommendation for bridge books: Bridge in the Menagerie. The Victor Mollo book reminds him, he said, that the game is always an entertaining story.

Read more from our First Hands series here.


Jonathan Friendly, Author of

By Jonathan Friendly

Do you have an interesting story to share about how you started playing bridge?

Please provide a few details and your contact information here so we can follow up with you.

We'd love to hear about your experience and may feature it here within our First Hands series.