James Holzhauer on how children’s books turned him into a Jeopardy! champion (Q&A)

 

By Jill Grunenwald, Staff Writer | June 2019

At the end of his 32-day winning streak, Jeopardy! champion James Holzhauer finished in all of the top 10 spots for single-game winnings, breaking his own record several times over and amassing more than $2.4 million. He even had a perfect game on April 17, correctly identifying the question to all 41 answers provided by host Alex Trebek.

Perspectives on Reading was given an opportunity to talk with Holzhauer, who employed several strategies for his incredible run, including using children’s books that he checked out from his local public library in Las Vegas (he’s pictured above with his library card) for research.

PoR: Part of your Jeopardy! strategy included reading children’s books, especially when it came to a subject you weren’t interested in and couldn’t get into with the adult reference titles. For certain subjects, there were probably multiple children’s books available — how did you decide which ones to read? Or did you read many of them to try and get a complete view?

James Holzhauer: Often it was just whichever book caught my eye first, although I kept coming back to certain series like Classics Illustrated. I did usually read more than one book per subject to ensure I wasn’t missing anything important.

PoR: I imagine that there were certain subjects that were near-impossible to find in the children’s section at the library. That said, in recent years there has been a growing trend of picture books aimed at adults (or, at least, with crossover appeal to adults). I’m thinking of titles like Go the F*ck to Sleep and All My Friends Are Dead. Do you think there are opportunities available to publishers to expand into creating “children’s book for adults” specifically to make certain nonfiction subjects more appealing?

James Holzhauer: This is an interesting idea for an untapped market. I’ve definitely seen a lot of books aimed at adults who want to relearn the things they forgot from school (I Used To Know That, etc.), and I think anything that gets people reading more is a positive.

PoR: Not only did you use children’s books to read up on subjects, you got them from the library. As a publication focused on reading, we are huge supporters of libraries because they are a true equalizer when it comes to education and literacy. Anyone can go into the library and find a book on a topic that interests them — all for free. Plus the librarians are there to help if you’re not sure how to find what you’re looking for. Would you agree that libraries really are “the people’s university?”

James Holzhauer: I think “the people’s university” is an excellent way of describing our libraries. Even though I went to fine schools, I think of myself as an autodidact. Unless your best friend happens to be a pro sports gambler who wants to teach you, you basically have to learn everything on your own. Preparing for Jeopardy! was basically a one-man job, though, of course, my wife was there to support me at every step. Libraries are here to make sure everyone with the proper initiative can educate themselves to meet their goals.

PoR: Did you use the library growing up? I see as you the type who would wander into the adult section to find books.

James Holzhauer: I remember playing a lot of Oregon Trail and Number Munchers on the Apple II as a kid, and wandering into the adult section to find books on baseball cards and Monopoly strategy. As a teen I studied poker books.

PoR: I’ve read that getting on Jeopardy! has always been a bit of a pet project for you and that even as a child you gravitated toward nonfiction books. As someone who has succeeded on a game show all about facts, what it is about nonfiction and factual knowledge that appeals to you so much?

James Holzhauer: I’ve never really been a fan of fiction books. Getting lost in a different world doesn’t appeal to me the way maps and numbers do. I’m not sure I can explain this; it’s a personal preference.

PoR: What’s the most interesting fact you’ve learned from a children’s book?

James Holzhauer: I learned that the Arctic tern (bird) literally migrates across the world every year. Mind-blowing.

PoR: When you’re not studying for Jeopardy!, what types of books do you enjoy reading?

James Holzhauer:
Most of the books I read for pleasure are about bridge, popular economics or rock music.

PoR: You have a young daughter, and I imagine you read a lot of children’s books with her. What are some of the popular kid books in your house?

James Holzhauer:
My daughter really likes National Geographic Readers, Harry Potter and the poems of Shel Silverstein.

PoR: What I really love about your use of children’s books is that you are being open about the fact that sometimes adult reference books can be inaccessible. I find it important because I think sometimes reluctant and/or struggling readers feel embarrassed if they can’t get into a book or have a hard time with the reading level. This is especially true for boys, who tend to read less than girls. As a final question, do you have any advice for the parents of reluctant readers on how to make reading more enjoyable?

James Holzhauer:
To parents: Find something that excites your kid. When my dad saw I was really into maps and baseball history, he bought me an atlas and a book of Rube Waddell anecdotes. And show your children there’s nothing to be ashamed of by reading whatever moves you, regardless of its so-called target audience.

WATCH HOLZHAUER IN ACTION:

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