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‘Not a normal game of Jeopardy!’: Duke alumnus on facing James Holzhauer

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When a professional sports gambler sat down by Sam Kooistra on a bus to the Jeopardy! studio, Kooistra had no clue who he was—but that would soon change.

Kooistra, Trinity ‘08 and a criminal defense attorney from Arizona, had watched Jeopardy! since he was a kid, played quiz bowl in high school and even downloaded an opera podcast to prepare for his appearance. He had taken the Jeopardy! online test several times and was invited for an in-person audition around January 2017.

Finally, the call came in February 2019 inviting him to appear on the show in May. But at the end of the day, Kooistra finished in third place at -$2,000 while champion James Holzhauer cruised to a $74,400 payday.

“I’ve seen a lot of Jeopardy! in my day, but that’s not a normal game of Jeopardy! when you’re up against him,” Kooistra told The Chronicle.

Holzhauer has captivated the show’s fans since April with his high-rolling gambler’s style and lightning-fast buzzer speed, winning more than $2.4 million in 32 games and climbing within $60,000 of Ken Jennings’ $2,522,700 regular-season record, as of Monday morning.

Kooistra was on the May 24 show when Holzhauer became the third player in Jeopardy! history to break the $2 million mark in winnings.

Kooistra explained that he chatted with the longtime champion, who seemed like “a very nice guy,” prior to the taping while they were on the shuttle bus to the studio. Because of the taping schedule of the show, he and the other contestants hadn’t seen Holzhauer appear on TV or heard of his massive earnings.

The full story only came out when the producers were briefing contestants immediately before the show.

“[The producers] asked James, “How many shows have you won?’ and he goes ‘22.’ They say, ‘James, how much money have you won?’ and he answered,” Kooistra recalled. “Me and the other contestants in the room—there’s just kind of a silence. Oh shit.”

He added that Holzhauer had a pregame routine of eating Reese’s Pieces before each match that day—though Holzhauer wrote in an email to The Chronicle that it’s only because he ran out of his “go-to snack,” sweet corn flavored Pretz sticks.

Jeopardy! tapes a week’s worth of shows in a day, Kooistra explained, and two of the 10 contestants for the week were randomly selected to face the returning champion each show. In the meantime, the rest sat in the audience and observed the other games.

“Because I was the Friday game, I got to sit and watch him play four games and systematically dismantle like the Terminator—person after person after person,” Kooistra said, laughing.

But the four games did seem to give Kooistra an advantage, as he chatted with the other contestants and fine-tuned his strategy against Holzhauer. They decided that being aggressive on the buzzer and betting large amounts on Daily Doubles—questions that allow contestants to wager anywhere from $5 to the entirety of their winnings—were key, Kooistra explained.

On the game before Kooistra’s, contestant Nate Scheffey nearly beat Holzhauer, showing that the champion was human.

However, when his name was called to face the champion, Kooistra saw Holzhauer quickly jump out to an advantage after finding the Daily Double in the first round, earning him a first-round total of $24,600 compared to Kooistra’s $2,200.

In the second round, Kooistra hit both Daily Doubles and bet aggressively. Unfortunately for him, he wasn’t able to finish a quote from the Book of Isaiah or identify the German city where the Wagner festival is held, leaving him at -$2,000 at the end of the second round and disqualifying him for Final Jeopardy.

The Duke alumnus added that Holzhauer’s formidable speed was overwhelming.

“I probably knew 80% of the questions in the game I was on, but you can’t get in—he’s so fast,” he said.

Kooistra added that around the edge of the game board are white lights, which light up after host Alex Trebek finishes reading the question and indicate that players can then buzz in to answer. Press too early, and they’ll be locked out for around half a second. Press too late, and another player may have beaten them to the punch.

After the game, Kooistra went out to dinner with his parents and girlfriend, and when they returned to his hotel, they saw Holzhauer sitting in the lobby and struck up a conversation. It turned out that the now-multimillionaire didn’t book a room at the hotel that night because he wasn’t sure if he’d remain the champion, so he was looking for another place to stay.

“After I won the last game of the taping day (where I faced Sam) I went back to the hotel and tried to get a room, but they were sold out,” Holzhauer wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “I ended up scrambling to get an Airbnb.”

Kooistra advised prospective Jeopardy! contestants to be “loose” on stage and not let their nerves overcome them.

And disappointed that the opera podcast he downloaded didn’t help him with the show’s opera category, Kooistra had another nugget of wisdom.

“Maybe listen to a second opera podcast,” he said.

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