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What investors can learn from "Jeopardy" phenom James Holzhauer



He's back, and he's taking no prisoners.

James Holzhauer, a previously obscure sports gambler, is making national news and captivating millions by running the board on the long-running quiz show "Jeopardy." Fast-moving style of play has flabbergasted competitors and up to the normal reserved format of the game.

Holzhauer just roared back after a two-week break in the show, extending his run to 26 games and nearly $ 2 million. Ken Jennings's all-time champ took home $ 2.5 million over 74 games before being dethroned in 2004. By one estimate Holzhauer is on track to beat the Jennings record in well under half games. So what is Holzhauer doing, and how can retirement investors profit from his example?

The first thing to realize is that Holzhauer knows a lot of obscure facts. He has been playing competitive trivia in bars for years. You can't compete in trivia without knowing the questions about quantum physics, royal families, rare birds and so on.

Winning big

He knows a lot because of a group of "Jeopardy" geeks databased the universe of Questions from years of show transcripts and put them all online. They also study how to locate a daily double on the board ̵

1; they are mostly in the fourth row.

The second thing to understand is that Holzhauer is a gambler by profession, so he understands risk. Rather than build up through categories like players traditionally have done, Holzhauer leaps to higher-dollar questions and assets to get them right most of the time. Which he does.

By doing this, Holzhauer quickly takes the big bucks off the board, robbing his opponents of the opportunity to catch up.

Then there’s Holzhauer's whole buzzer strategy. He knows that you can save the fraction of a second off your response time. Good players who know the correct in-the-form-of-a-question response still out because he buzzes in first.

The Daily Double, though, is the key to Holzhauer's big winnings. A “Jeopardy” player who finds it can double his money, but only if he locates that first and bets big. Since Holzhauer knows he's got a high likelihood of getting the answer right, he goes all-in.

"Jeopardy" experts predict that Holzhauer's approach to the game will change how it's played going forward. Anyone expecting to play in the more traditional slow, orderly, buildup style will be toast. In time, speedy challengers will crowd the auditions, and the game will go even faster. A new era of "Jeopardy" has begun.

In that sense, Holzhauer is bringing to "Jeopardy" what Sabermetrics brought to baseball. Popularized in the great Michael Lewis book "Moneyball," the study of specific, previously ignored stats in baseball changed the game and how it's managed.

Don't miss: Michael Lewis says this is where you should put your money

Now any major-league team hoping to become a perennial contender has to have its own analytics operation. Field managers who insist on “going with their gut” might win here and there, but they won't find it easy to put together a winning season, let alone make a postseason splash.

Bogle's innovation

Investing started toward a similar revolution in the mid-1970s, the cumulative effects of which we see in full force today. It was a scientific but utterly out-of-left-field idea: Since nobody can consistently pick only winners, it's better to own the whole stock market.

The late, great John Bogle – who died in January at 89 – first questioned the value of actively managed investment funds in his 1951 senior thesis at Princeton. He later built on the work of Burt Malkiel, among others, to launch the first index fund at Vanguard.

Today, indexing has become a proven investment process – because it works.

Financial advisers who fight it and do things the old way can find a winning stock idea here and there. But they can't overcome the effectiveness of low-cost funds, risk-adjusted investing and plain old compounding – or sometimes Google put it, "humble arithmetic."

Read: Forget Warren Buffett – this fund manager has lost the stock market over the past decade

Also see: Where is the best place for me to retire?

"Jeopardy" has been on TV since the mid-1960s, and the Alex Trebek – hosted edition for 35 years. For decades, everyone looked at "Jeopardy" one way. Then a single player took a hard look at the game and turned it all upside down.

In the same way, bringing the game to investors changed science. It took the mystery out of Wall Street and created a completely different investment environment, one that favors the individual investor and disfavors the opaque, costly, old way of doing things.

As the guys at Planet Money, the great NPR podcast, explained in an interview with Holzhauer: "By the way, this is how you are supposed to manage your retirement portfolio – riskier stocks when you're younger, when you're heading into retirement." Or, to answer in the form of a question: "What is retiring with more?"


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