Jeopardy! star James Holzhauer, whom the Washington Post called “undeniably the most dynamic, unstoppable force in the show’s modern 35-year history,” used a secret weapon—children’s books—to become a game-show millionaire. (The 34-year-old sports bettor also chooses the highest-priced clues.) We checked in with the quiz-show phenom about his prepping strategy and his favorite titles.
You told the New York Times that reading kids’ books is part of your Jeopardy! strategy, and said the library’s children’s section is the place to go for books “tailored to make things interesting for uninterested readers.” Which books and series did you find the most helpful?
I particularly enjoyed Zachary Hamby’s books on mythology, and the Classics Illustrated series of literary adaptations.
How did you find the most Jeopardy!-friendly books at the library? For example, did you approach librarians there, or did you just browse randomly?
I started off with the shotgun approach. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself because I was living in Seattle at the time [in 2012] and their libraries actually don’t allow adults in the children’s section without a kid.
So did you bring friends’ kids with you? Or did you just explain to a librarian why you needed to be in the children’s section?
I mostly placed holds on books. When I needed to browse the shelves, I did so quickly and tried not to look like a creeper. No one ever made an issue out of it.
Which library or libraries deserve a shout-out?
I’ve lived in four different cities since I started my Jeopardy! journey [in 2012]: Seattle; San Diego; Naperville, Ill.; and Las Vegas. All had excellent library resources.
What kids’ books and authors were your favorites as a child? Did your parents read you lots of nonfiction, or did you prefer more traditional Dr. Seuss-like stories then?
My parents read me some typical children’s books: Green Eggs and Ham, The Little Engine That Could, Peter Rabbit. But I quickly developed a preference for nonfiction books about baseball and math, by the likes of Bill James and Martin Gardner.
Did you search for information on anything and come up short in the kids’ section?
Easily the hardest Jeopardy! categories to study in the kids’ section are the so-called “trashy” pop culture ones. No kids’ book would have helped me name the lead singer of the Pixies or the movie about two Chicago men on a mission from God. I think this is the only thing that would stop a bright 10-year-old from winning on adult Jeopardy!
What formats or content did you find hard to find in the kids’ section that publishers might consider adding?
There were certainly Jeopardy! categories that were difficult or impossible to prepare for with children’s books (current events, classic films, Latin etymology, etc.), but I can understand why these books don’t exist.
You’re a professional sports bettor and investor, not just a Jeopardy! champion. Have you thought about becoming a children’s librarian or children’s book author next?
Don’t you have to go to school to become a librarian? And I’m not sure there’s much of a market for children’s gambling strategy books. It could be fun to write something, though.
Which are your favorite Jeopardy! facts you learned from children’s books that you would not have answered correctly otherwise?
One of my episodes had clues on the minutemen and Paul Revere—I had just read a book on the American Revolution—as well as one about Maurice Sendak.
Do you own any children’s books, or are you just a borrower at this point?
My four-year-old daughter has her own full bookshelf, but I’m not sure that counts. I eventually bought a bunch of the books I especially enjoyed from my studies.
If you were to write a children’s book, what would you call it? James and the Giant Jeopardy Win?
James and the Giant Paycheck seems more punny. There actually is a book called Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen about a contestant on Jeopardy!’s Kids Week, but the title character’s dad is a deadbeat gambler, so I can’t objectively review it.