On Jeopardy!, It Pays to Know Your Trivia

Whether you’re a casual game show watcher or a dedicated trivia buff, you’ve probably heard the name James Holzhauer by now.

The professional sports gambler has dominated Jeopardy! for weeks now, increasing viewership and sparking debate with his aggressive play style and confident wagering. By going after the highest-value questions first and purposely bouncing around the board in search of Daily Doubles to pad his bankroll, he appears to have “cracked” the Jeopardy! code unlike any other contestant in history.

Holzhauer has amassed 20 consecutive victories as of last night, becoming only the second contestant in history to pass the million-dollar mark on the show. His winnings currently stand at $1,528,012.

But his single-game performances are just as impressive. Not only does he hold the top score for most money won in a single game — $131,127 — but he holds the top ten positions on the board for single-game winnings. (The amounts in the top ten range from his top score of $130k to $80,006.)

He is the only person to earn more than $100,000 in a single game. In fact, he has done so on FIVE separate occasions. (For some context, the previous single-game record was $77,000, a record which stood for nine years before Holzhauer obliterated it.)

How do I know all this? Easy. Jeopardy! has launched an official tracker to keep viewers up-to-date on his stats.

With an impressive amount of knowledge behind him, the guts to wager big money, and the rapid-fire reaction time to buzz in first more often than not, he is a Jeopardy! triple threat, a juggernaut that shows no signs of slowing down.

In an interview with The New York Times, he credited his profession with preparing him for game-show dominance:

The fact that I win and lose money all the time helps desensitize me, so I can write down $60,000 as the Final Jeopardy wager and not be trembling at the thought of losing that money.

But it’s not always big money that makes the difference. On Monday’s show, he won by a mere $18 in a heartstopper of a Final Jeopardy.

And, despite his mind-blowing performance thus far, he has awhile to go before he surpasses Jeopardy!’s top money earner, Ken Jennings.

Jennings holds the all-time record with $2,520,700, which he amassed over the course of 74 victories in 2004. But Jennings was more conservative in his wagering than Holzhauer, who has closed the gap between them to less than $1 million dollars in just 20 days. Statisticians postulate that he is on track to pass Jennings’s total after 34 games. (Fewer than half the number of games won by Jennings!)

What does host Alex Trebek think of all this? According to reports, he’s not a fan of Holzhauer’s Daily Double hunting and aggressive betting, but I suspect he’s more than pleased with the boost in ratings and notoriety for the long-running game show.

Of course, Alex might be miffed for another reason. On average, Holzhauer is making more money than the estimated $50,000 per episode that host Alex Trebek earns.

Holzhauer might want to start tipping the host from time to time, just to keep him happy.


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Puzzles… in… Space!

When you’re a puzzle enthusiast, you never know where your interest might take you, or what interesting and unexpected people you’ll encounter along the way. All sorts of folks enjoy puzzles, after all.

If you enjoy puzzles with trivia, you could bump into Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? winners or Jeopardy! champions like Ken Jennings. The New York Times has introduced us to several famous crossword enthusiasts. The British government is publishing puzzle books. Heck, actors Joel McHale and Neil Patrick Harris both included puzzles in their autobiographies!

Even astronauts are getting into the puzzly spirit!

Astronaut Tim Peake spent half a year in one of the most fascinating places in the solar system: the International Space Station. He was the first British astronaut to serve under the banner of the European Space Agency, and the first British astronaut to perform a spacewalk.

Upon returning to Earth, he turned his attention to more literary efforts, penning three books about space. The third, published last year in partnership with the European Space Agency, takes readers behind the scenes of the ESA screening process for astronauts.

Yes, puzzles are part of the screening process for the ESA.

Would you like to try your hand at solving some of them?

How did you do? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you

And if you’d like, you can find more of these puzzles in Peake’s delightful book The Astronaut Selection Test Book: Do You Have What it Takes for Space?

Do you have what it takes? I suspect that you do, fellow puzzler.


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Computer Program Teaches Itself to Solve Rubik’s Cubes!

I tried to warn you, fellow puzzlers.

I wrote posts about computer programs that play chess, Scrabble, Go, Atari games, and Jeopardy! I wrote posts about programs that solve crosswords. I even wrote posts about robots that solve Rubik’s Cubes in a fraction of a second.

And they’re getting smarter.

Say hello to DeepCube, an AI program that is now the equal of any master Rubik’s Cube solver in the world at solving 3x3x3 cubes.

And unlike other AI programs that have learned to play games like chess and Go through reinforcement learning — determining if particular moves are bad or good — DeepCube taught itself to play by analyzing each move, comparing it to a completed cube, and reverse-engineering how to get to that move.

It’s labor-intensive, yes, but it also requires no human intervention and no previous information. Chess-playing programs like Deep Blue work by analyzing thousands of previously played games. But DeepCube had no previous history to build on.

It started from scratch. By itself.

And became a Rubik’s Cube master.

In only 44 hours.

Compare that to the 10,000 hours it supposedly takes for a human to become an expert in anything, and that’s a mind-blowing accomplishment.

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

From the Gizmodo article on DeepCube:

The system discovered “a notable amount of Rubik’s Cube knowledge during its training process,” write the researchers, including a strategy used by advanced speedcubers, namely a technique in which the corner and edge cubelets are matched together before they’re placed into their correct location.

Yes, the program even independently recreated techniques designed by human speed-solvers to crack the cubes faster.

The next goal for the DeepCube program is to pit it against 4x4x4 cubes, which are obviously more complex. But supposedly, deposing human puzzle solvers as the top dogs on the planet isn’t the finish line.

No, this sort of three-dimensional puzzle-solving is only an intermediate goal, with the ultimate endgame of predicting protein shapes, analyzing DNA, building better robots, and other advanced projects.

But first, they’re coming for our puzzles.


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The Robots Are Here and They Can Spell

[Image courtesy of World of Weird Things.]

I warned you, fellow puzzlers. You can’t say I didn’t warn you.

The robots are coming, and they want our puzzles and games.

Let’s look at the hit list:

  • Deep Blue defeated Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov under standard chess tournament time constraints
  • IBM’s supercomputer Watson bested previous Jeopardy! champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings to nab a million-dollar prize
  • An AI program called DeepMind taught itself to play several Atari games with superhuman proficiency
  • There are several robots constructed out of LEGOs that solve Rubik’s Cubes in seconds flat
  • Dr. Fill, the crossword-solving computer program, competes at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and in a matter of five years, it has jumped from 141st place in the 2012 tournament to 11th place in the 2017 tournament
  • Just last year, an AI developed by Google, AlphaGo (a product of DeepMind), twice defeated Ke Jie, the 19-year-old Go tournament champion ranked number one in the world

And Scrabble fans, you’re the next ones in the crosshairs of the machines.

During last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the Industrial Technology Research Institute out of Taiwan debuted the IVS Robot — aka The Intelligent Vision System for Companion Robots — a machine capable of defeating human competitors at Scrabble.

[Image courtesy of ABC News.]

Instead of tiles and a standard Scrabble board, the IVS reads letter cubes (similar to a child’s alphabet blocks) played on a slightly larger gameboard. But time limits for play and standard rules still apply.

From an article on Engadget:

It’s hard not to be impressed by all the moving parts here. For one, the robot has to learn and understand the rules of the game and the best strategies for winning. It also needs to be able to see and recognize the game pieces and the spots on the board. That means it can read the letters on the cubes and identify the double-letter and triple-word score spots.

And, last but not least, it needs the dexterity to place the pieces on the board and not disturb the existing letters — which is especially difficult when you’re laying down two words next to each other to rack up those two-letter combos.

A quick Google search confirms that the robot bested practically every reporter, tech-savvy or otherwise, that crossed its path.

In the video below, North American Scrabble champion Will Anderson teams up with reporter Lexy Savvides to battle the robot, but a technical error prevents the game from getting very far:

Still, you can see the potential here. I’m sure it won’t be long before the IVS Robot is making appearances at Scrabble tournaments, attempting to establish machine dominance over another puzzly activity.

Stay strong, fellow puzzlers.


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Rise of the Machines!

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I don’t mean to alarm you, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, but the machines may be taking over.

First, there was Deep Blue, defeating Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov under standard chess tournament time constraints.

Then, there was IBM’s supercomputer Watson, sitting at the buzzer on Jeopardy!, besting previous champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings to nab a million-dollar prize.

An AI program called Deep Mind can play several Atari games with superhuman proficiency.

These days, you can design robots with LEGOs that are capable of solving Rubik’s Cubes in seconds flat.

And, of course, crossword fans probably know of Dr. Fill, the crossword-solving computer program that competes at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament each year. In a matter of five years, it has jumped from 141st place in the 2012 tournament to 11th place in the 2017 tournament.

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Now, the machines are coming for Go players next. Google has developed an artificial intelligence known as AlphaGo which twice conquered Ke Jie, the 19-year-old Go tournament champion ranked number one in the world.

This strategy board game is played with white and black gamepieces called stones, and the objective is to surround a greater total amount of territory on the game board than your opponent. Along the way, you can surround your opponent’s pieces in order to capture them and remove them from play.

Wikipedia aptly describes the depth and difficulty of the game:

Despite its relatively simple rules, Go is very complex, even more so than chess, and possesses more possibilities than the total number of atoms in the visible universe. Compared to chess, Go has both a larger board with more scope for play and longer games, and, on average, many more alternatives to consider per move.

go-game

People have been playing Go for over 2,500 years, and yet, machines have already surpassed our greatest player.

Science fiction movies have been warning us about this for years. I just never expected them to come after our games and hobbies first.


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Trebek Raps edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’d like to quickly revisit two of my most recent blog posts.

In last week’s Follow-Up Friday post, we celebrated the 144th birthday of creator of the crossword Arthur Wynne, and I set up a little puzzly challenge for my fellow PuzzleNationers: How many words of four or more letters can you make from the letters in ARTHUR WYNNE’s name?

Here are the 110 words I came up with:

Anew, Ante, Aren’t, Artery, Arty, Aunt, Awry, Earn, Earth, Earthy, Entry, Errant, Hare, Hart, Hate, Hater, Haunt, Hear, Heart, Hearty, Heat, Henna, Hewn, Hunt, Hunter, Hurray, Hurry, Hurt, Hyena, Nary, Nature, Near, Neat, Neath, Nehru, Newt, Rant, Ranter, Rare, Rate, Rater, Rather, Rawer, Rear, Rent, Reran, Rerun, Retry, Return, Rune, Runner, Runny, Runt, Runty, Runway, Tanner, Tannery, Tare, Tarry, Tawny, Tear, Teary, Tern, Ternary, Terra, Than, Thane, Thaw, Then, They, Threw, Thru, Thruway, Tray, Trey, True, Truer, Tuna, Tune, Tuner, Turn, Unearth, Unwary, Wane, Want, Ware, Warn, Warren, Wart, Wary, Water, Watery, Wean, Wear, Weary, Went, What, Wheat, When, Whet, Whey, Wrath, Wreath, Wren, Wryer, Yarn, Yawn, Yeah, Year, Yearn.

I’m sure I missed some, so let me know what words you came up with!


[Image courtesy of hlntv.com.]

In yesterday’s post, I discussed some of the newer trivia-based game shows on TV these days. I didn’t really discuss Jeopardy!, easily the most popular trivia game show of all-time, simply because I didn’t have anything new to say on the topic at the moment.

Well, lo and behold, last night I stumbled across a video clip from Monday night’s episode that I simply have to share with the PuzzleNation audience.

In this brief clip, host Alex Trebek gives us a rare glimpse into a rap career that never was — and channels William Shatner’s peculiar rhythmic cadence — as he sings a bit of the theme song from the beloved NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Enjoy:

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