Who is the all-time greatest Jeopardy! contestant? Unlike many good questions, this one will soon have an answer: The Jeopardy! Greatest of All Time tournament matches Brad Rutter, the all-time winningest Jeopardy! contestant, Ken Jennings, who won 74 straight games when he first appeared in 2004, and James Holzhauer, who won fewer than half as many games but nearly equaled Jennings's total money winnings.

Jennings just won the third match last night, meaning he needs to win only one more match to take home the title and $1 million prize. (Holzhauer has one win, Rutter zero.)

Why are these three contestants so good?

Clearly all three are incredibly smart; during the first of two games Tuesday night, no contestant answered incorrectly.

Since they rarely get a question wrong -- Rutter's failure to answer a Daily Double question correctly after going all-in with his wager basically doomed him in a later game -- other factors come into play.

Physical skill

Much is made of Holzhauer's and Jennings's mastery of the buzzer, a skill requiring exquisite timing. If you don't control the board, you can't score points. And if you can't stay focused -- a trait that physical conditioning can help you develop -- then all that intelligence and experience can go to waste.

Strategy

Holzhauer's "Daily Double hunting" strategy has turned conventional game play on its head. For years, most contestants selected squares in a top-down fashion, going vertically from easy answers to harder (and more valuable) ones.

Now, Holzhauer, Jennings, and Rutter start at the bottom and work across, choosing more valuable squares in order to build up a bank. Then, when they find a Daily Double, they often bet their entire bank so they can double their money.

Do that and you don't have to worry about losing in Final Jeopardy; you can bet as much as possible while ensuring no one can overtake you. 

Mental approach

Holzhauer's analytical skills -- adopted by Jennings and Rutter -- have allowed him to overcome the common cognitive bias of loss aversion, a mental approach that causes most people to prefer avoiding a loss to acquiring an equivalent gain. (I talk about Holzhauer a lot, but he really did revolutionize the game.)

How much more does the average person tend to avoid a loss than acquire a gain?

Research by Daniel Kahneman, author of the great book Thinking, Fast and Slow, shows that losses are twice as psychologically powerful as gains. To most of us, a bird in the hand really does seem to be worth two in the bush.

Ignoring loss avoidance allows the contestants to take full advantage of their game strategies. After all, I can't go all-in on a Daily Double if I'm not willing to risk everything I have. 

Success

Plenty of people are smart, but intelligence, education, and experience aren't enough. You have to apply that intelligence correctly. While clearly intelligent, Holzhauer's strategy may have allowed him to beat smarter people who simply didn't play the game as well.

The same is true for the physical side of success. Rutter, Jennings, and Holzhauer are all masters of the buzzer; they're extremely good at timing the moment the buzzer "window" opens after host Alex Trebek finishes reading the answer. But they're also able to maintain mental stamina, fighting off mental -- and with it, physical -- fatigue to not only get the questions right but also stick to their game strategies.

In short, they don't get tired and make, "Oh, what the heck," decisions. (They don't appear to be affected by decision fatigue at all.)

And they avoid other common cognitive biases, quickly calculating the odds, factoring in sensitivities, and thinking long-term rather than short-term.

They have a plan, and stick to that plan -- unless circumstances, not emotions, cause them to deviate. 

Like Jennings: He began his Jeopardy! career playing conventionally: Top-down, one-category-at-a-time. He also tended to bet relatively cautiously: Jennings bet an average of $3,265 on Daily Doubles through his first 33 games, while Holzhauer bet $8,984. (As a result, Jennings won over $159,000 on Daily Doubles in that window while Holzhauer won over $650,000.)

Now Jennings bets more aggressively on Daily Doubles. He's adapted to the new Jeopardy! reality. And it's working.

Because that's what most successful people do.

They aren't just smart. They aren't just good strategists. They aren't just mentally and physically fit. 

Sure, one attribute may stand out... but look deeper, and most successful people combine a number of attributes into a goal-achieving whole.

And so should you.

Plenty of people rely solely on their intelligence. Or their education. Or their experience. Or their new "strategy." Or their network. Or, really, on any one thing they think is important. (Often because that one thing is what they feel they do best.)

But a single-focus approach rarely works, because someone, somewhere, will always be smarter. Or more experienced. Or savvier. Or better connected.

But what they can never be is you -- and the unique combination of skills and attributes you've worked hard to develop.

Correction: An earlier version of this article included a misspelling of Alex Trebek's last name.

Published on: Jan 10, 2020
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