Former poker pro Alex Jacob won over $400,000 last year on Jeopardy! and in this article he explains the strategies that helped him do it.
Jacob won six consecutive games, pocketing $151,802 and went on to win the Tournament of Champions for an additional quarter-million dollars.
But it was the way he won that got people's attention.
Host Alex Trebek called Jacob's TOC win “the most dominant performance” he'd ever seen in the show's history.
The hallmark of Jacob's strategy involved jumping around the board searching for Daily Doubles and then betting the maximum in order to gain an early stranglehold on the match.
Jacob was the first player ever to secure a prohibitive lead going into Final Jeopardy in all four of his TOC games.
Most Dominant Performance in Jeopardy! History
Armed with a ton of professional poker experience and a degree in mathematics and economics, Jacob was clearly thinking about more than just trivia knowledge while preparing for the show.
In this interview from the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, Jacob explains the ins and outs of his Jeopardy! strategy.
PokerListings: It was pretty clear from your performance that you've put some time into thinking about Jeopardy! strategy. How did it all start?
Alex Jacob at 2016 World Series of Poker
Alex Jacob: It probably started just watching the show with my mom when I was a kid, just wanting to know more answers.
Playing on the show was always a dream. I felt like I could win. When I got on the show it wasn't one of those things where I was just happy to be there.
It's different than poker tournaments. There's always another tournament but Jeopardy! you only get one shot and if you blow it you're done and you can never go back on.
PL: Did you have nerves on the first episode?
AJ: It was just like anything else. If just one question goes wrong, especially with me betting it all on the Daily Doubles, if I just missed one.
I never missed one doing that. I was just fortunate not to come across anything I didn't know.
But yeah definitely nervous the first episode, that it wouldn't go well and that would be it.
It's over so fast. It pretty much goes as fast as you see on TV.
PL: You obviously have to know the answers but you really made it clear that there's a lot of strategy and meta-game stuff that you can do as well.
AJ: Yeah a lot of people don't really think about the strategy too much. It's probably because it's so fast-paced you kind of feel like you don't have the time.
With my poker background I definitely put some time into thinking about strategy and how I wanted to play.
Where did your strategies come from?
AJ: It always seemed natural to me that the Daily Doubles are important as a question that only you get to answer and no one else, and you can double your score on it.
After studying for a while and watching shows I felt like I had a pretty good percentage.
Jacob and Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek.
It's like in poker, if you know you're 80 per cent, pocket aces or whatever, you're going to take that every time.
So if I know I'm 80 per cent on the Daily Double I'm going to bet it all and try to maximize my score.
Also just trying to find the Daily Doubles is so important. A lot of people go straight down the line, 200, 400, 600, and the Daily Doubles are most often in the second-to-last row so I'm jumping around from that row to the last row to the third row too.
PL: Was part of that strategy in order to keep your opponents off-balance by not sticking to the same category?
AJ: That's kind of a bonus but first and foremost I want to find the Daily Doubles. Even if it's a category I hate or I'm way ahead I still don't want anyone else to get it.
The possibility of throwing people off is kind of a bonus. I can't say for sure whether it works but I know it's not throwing me off so why not?
PL: Did you get any bad feedback on that from the Jeopardy! purists who say you have to go in order?
AJ: Definitely on Twitter yeah. After I taped I was expecting a little bit of hate because I thought people might think I was arrogant or that people don't like jumping around the board.
People were pretty positive for the most part but every once in a while.
I remember someone said something like, “Only a sociopath would jump around the board like that.”
So I definitely got some of the mean tweets but 90 per cent were so positive. I was really pleasantly surprised.
PokerListings: We've seen a few other players in the past use some of the strategies that helped you win but does it surprise you that it hasn't caught on more?
Like when you see someone bet super small on the Daily Double for example.
Jeopardy wasn't the first time Jacob competed on TV for big money.
AJ: Yeah I'm definitely not the first person to look for the Daily Doubles, for example.
I'm not too surprised I guess. It's just human nature. A lot of people are just more comfortable starting with an easy question and moving down in increasing difficulty.
Maybe just because that's the way they've seen the game played.
PL: Is the risk of losing a big Daily Double early mitigated a bit by still having a lot of time to catch up?
AJ: Yeah, in my mind. One of my rules is that in single Jeopardy I'm going to bet it all no matter what because there is a lot of time to catch up.
And you can really put the hammer down on somebody. If you have like $6,000 in the first round it's not that big a number but if you have $12,000, psychologically it can be big if they're looking at $12,000 and they have $2,000.
PL: I don't think I've seen opponents' spirits broken quite as badly as you did in some of your wins. How important is the psychological aspect of the game?
The momentum aspect looked really similar to what we see in poker matches sometimes.
AJ: I definitely think it's important. It's kind of built-in to the idea of being really aggressive with the Daily Doubles.
I think in general in games you want to be doing the thing your opponent doesn't want you to do.
No one wants to play against the guy who's betting it all and scoring huge on the Daily Double. It makes it tough to play against someone like that.
PL: Did you feel that psychological edge at times?
AJ: Definitely after I won a couple. They tape five shows in a day so the people you're going to play are usually in the audience watching you beat other players.
So it's like feeling that mental edge building over other people when they've seen you kind of demolish people a couple games in a row.
"You want to be doing the thing your opponent doesn't want you to do."
I think that's definitely a tangible thing. It's a big advantage for the returning champion.
PL: Some people speculated you were stalling with a lead. Was that an intentional strategy?
AJ: Well, mostly in the first game I played. I had like barely double the guy's score near the end so I slowed things down a bit. It was mostly in the first game.
I think overall I was pretty fast but yeah, if the opportunity arose. Usually I was way ahead and I didn't need to.
PL: Do you see it as a viable strategy in the right situation?
AJ: Until someone on set says you can't do that, yeah. There's different opinions. Some people might say it's unsportsmanlike.
PL: Is it though?
AJ: That's a good question. I didn't do anything too drastic. If I slowed things down I only did it by a couple seconds here or there.
PL: Any other strategies we don't know about?
I read somewhere that in between matches you'd mess with people's heads by telling them you'd won like 20 straight matches. Is that true?
AJ: (Laughs) Yeah I did that once, as kind of a joke.
Before each episode tapes a contestant coordinator comes out and introduces the returning champion and says how many games they've won but before that, I told a guy I was a champion and I'd won 17 games.
Another thing I focused on was really using the time for the Daily Doubles.
There's no extra points for answering right away and I've seen people blurt something out really quick without thinking about it and maybe they misread it or just had a brain fart or something.
Jacob's been rocking the fro off and on since at least 2007.
And as a bonus, if it tilts someone that I took the full 15 seconds to answer and then came up with it right at the end, who knows. If that annoys someone it's just gravy.
Mostly it's just to make sure I don't say something stupid.
PL: Alex Trebek called your TOC win the most dominant performance in the history of the show.
As someone who grew up watching it and dreamed of competing, what was it like to hear that?
AJ: Yeah it was really crazy. I kind of had the crazy goal of locking up every game and having a runaway in all four games of the tournament.
I didn't know if it was possible. It had never been done before. But it all worked out.
PL: Did your poker background give you a big advantage?
AJ: Yeah just having had experience playing on TV for lots of money was a big advantage.
A lot of people say how they're so good from the couch but it's different up there under the lights.
PL: Were nerves a factor for your opponents?
AJ: You assume it has to be. For anyone out there watching it on TV, you have to shave like 10 or 20 per cent off your ability right off the bat when you're actually on the show.
PL: What was your approach to studying for the game?
AJ: I probably put a good five years into it in my spare time, not knowing if I'd ever get on the show.
There's a website called j-archive.com. It's actually a fan site but it archives all the questions going back many years and it's searchable so it's all there for you.
PL: What about buzzer strategy? Was that something you thought about before the show?
AJ: Yeah for sure. I knew coming in that you can't buzz until the question's over.
So what happens is there's a guy off-screen who waits for Alex to finish the question, and then he presses a button and the lights come on the board and then you can buzz in.
So the question is, do you wait to see the light or do you try to anticipate off Alex's voice?
For me I was anticipating. If you're waiting for the lights, you're already too late, unless you're a super-gamer or something with crazy reflexes.
PL: Is it the same guy working the light every time?
AJ: I think there's a couple guys. You just kind of get in the zone and get a feel for it.
PL: How important is buzzer strategy? It seems like a significant number of questions are kind of giveaways that everyone will be buzzing in for.
AJ: Yeah I'd say maybe half the board everyone's buzzing so it's important.
Now Jacob is using his trivia skills to help develop a new trivia app called Trivia Monster. Jacob says they plan to launch before the end of summer.