SLJ Talks to Jeopardy! Champ James Holzhauer About His Love of Libraries

The record-setting game show winner and library supporter credits children’s books for his vast knowledge.

Jeopardy!'s latest champion has a soft spot for libraries.

Las Vegas resident James Holzhauer has won 22 straight Jeopardy! games (before returning to the show May 20), set numerous single-game winnings records, and basically rewritten the rules for how to play the long-running trivia game. But for one group of people—librarians—his biggest contribution is spotlighting how children’s books can provide accessible, reliable research for people of all ages.

Holzhauer, 34, told Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek that he read numerous children’s books to bone up on various topics in preparation for his game show run. He said these books hold his interest while doling out facts, while typical reference books bore him. “Perhaps the books whose purpose is imparting information could learn something from children’s authors,” Holzhauer wrote in an email to School Library Journal.

But Holzhauer’s impact goes beyond promoting children’s books. He has spoken frequently about his love of libraries and has already donated $10,000 to the Las Vegas library system while posing for a picture with his library card.

“One great thing about Las Vegas is that you can drive anywhere in town in under 30 minutes, so I’ve taken my daughter to seven different library branches here. It’s a great resource for adults and kids,” he said. The Las Vegas-Clark County Library District covers 8,000 square miles with 25 branches, says Ronald R. Heezen, executive director.

“If there’s a topic you want to learn about, children’s books are a great way to start,” says David Della Terza, deputy director of the Naperville Public Library. “I’ve done it myself for a project about podcasting.”

Holzhauer frequented Naperville’s Nichols Library when he was growing up in Illinois, remembering that he mostly played Oregon Trail and Number Munchers on the library’s Apple II. The professional gambler admits that his background has helped him devise a strategy for Jeopardy! success—taking the highest valued questions first, and then maximizing his earnings when he hits any of the game’s three Daily Double clues. To date, he’s earned nearly $1.7 million on the show.

The contestant laid out a list of 31 books he used to help study for the game show, including series from National Geographic and the “Decades of the 20th and 21st centuries” series from Enslow Publishers. Holzhauer says his favorite authors as a child were science writer Martin Gardner and Calvin and Hobbes cartoonist Bill Watterson. Today, he enjoys reading Watterson’s books and Harry Potter with his four-year-old daughter.

Holzhauer says that he was an indifferent student, frequently finishing his work quickly and then “bugging” other students. “I prefer being an autodidact and I think the library is a fantastic resource for that,” he adds.

Holzhauer’s history of library usage fits in perfectly with Naperville’s current mission statement, which is “A Place to Be, The Place to Become…,” says Della Terza. “There are still so many kids that come here to play video games. You never know how staff are affecting them,” he adds. Naperville’s library system, located west of Chicago, includes three branches and 240 employees.

Heezen agrees libraries serve a wide range of patrons, adding libraries are about “igniting people’s dreams.”

Both librarians said Holzhauer’s winning streak has ignited interest among staff and patrons. At least one bar in Naperville is holding viewing parties every time Holzhauer competes.

“Even if he hadn’t been a winner, he’d be a favorite of mine,” Heezen says, adding that Holzhauer’s donations to the library and a local museum show he “has a good heart.”

Neither librarian knows if Holzhauer can approach Ken Jennings’s record 74-game Jeopardy! winning streak from 2004, but Della Terza speaks for both communities when he says, “We’ll keep rooting him on.”

Wayne D’Orio writes frequently about education, equity, and rural issues. He is a regular contributor to The Hechinger Report, and his byline has appeared in The Atlantic, Wired, Pacific Standard, and Christian Science Monitor. His education stories have taken him from backstage at Broadway’s Hamilton to inside a maximum-security prison in California. Follow him on Twitter @waynedorio.



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