Kazuko Ide relocated to the Chicago area from Osaka to help raise her grandson, James. The boy grew up to keep his promise to his grandmother, that he would someday be a champion on “Jeopardy!” (Courtesy James Holzhauer)
By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Arts & Entertainment
Aside from the astounding winnings he amassed on the TV game show, James Holzhauer’s run on “Jeopardy!” has revealed his intimate dedication to family and a sense of duty as a citizen.
During his 32-day winning streak on the show – a run that netted him more than $2.4 million – Holzhauer often dedicated his final winning answers to a family member or friend. One such dedication was particularly near and dear to him.
On April 17, he set a new record for a single day’s winnings on the show, a whopping $131,127. Along with his correct answer – “Who is Atticus Finch?” – he added a little note: “This is for you, Granny,” accented with a heart.
It was a fitting tribute, as Holzhauer quite possibly would never have appeared on “Jeopardy!” if not for the love and enthusiasm Grandmother showed for the program, despite not understanding much of it.
“Granny’s name was Kazuko Ide,” Holzhauer told The Rafu last month. “She was born in Niigata and later moved to Osaka, where my mother was born. She moved to America just before I was born to help raise me and my brother.”
Holzhauer explained that his parents, Nachiko and Juergen, were frugal people who sought value in everything they did, and that it was Grandma Kazuko who played the primary maternal role in his childhood.
“I think she was just so eager to spend time with me that she would sit through ‘Jeopardy!’ even though she couldn’t follow the game,” he said.
Growing up in Naperville, a suburb of Chicago, Holzhauer dreamed of becoming a baseball player, or perhaps a chemical engineer, like his dad. He had a penchant for baseball statistics and was keen with numbers, which might explain how he eventually came to his current career in sports betting.
“If I had known this career existed, it would have been my dream job since age ten,” he added.
After “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek (right) announced he was battling pancreatic cancer, Holzhauer made a donation to a Chicago-area event to raise money for research into a cure for the disease. (Courtesy “Jeopardy!”)
Beyond the winnings, Holzhauer’s strategy has had a stark impact on the way “Jeopardy!” is being played. He would routinely choose the highest dollar amount questions first, and make huge wagers on Daily Doubles and the final questions. Many subsequent players have tried their hand at this approach.
Of course, the betting means nothing if the answers are incorrect, and with a dizzyingly broad knowledge base, most of Holzhauer’s responses were right on the money.
In addition, his knack for trivia led to something that no amount of cash can match.
“I suppose my career indirectly led to meeting my wife,” he explained. “I took a hiatus from betting sports in 2011 and went to volunteer as an English teacher in Thailand, where I met her in my training program. I only met her because I fell off a cliff and broke my foot, which delayed my trip by a month and allowed our schedules to line up.”
As it turns out, Melissa Sassin Holzhauer is pretty skilled with a buzzer herself. In 2014, she won more than $28,000 on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”
The Holzhauers make their home in Las Vegas, along with their 4-year-old daughter, Natasha. They are known for their community involvement and support of local charities. During the run on “Jeopardy!” they have pledged more than $300,000 to causes that include the Las Vegas- Clark County Library, the Las Vegas Natural History Museum, and the Ronald McDonald House in Las Vegas.
After “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek announced he was battling pancreatic cancer, he received a get-well card from youngest Holzhauer.
“I want to express my thanks to your beautiful little daughter, Natasha, for having made this get-well card for me,” Trebek said on the show. “That was very sweet of her.”
Holzhauer followed the card with a donation, sending more than $1,100 to the 2019 Naperville Pancreatic Cancer Research Walk, set for July 14.
Along with the donation was a note from the former “Jeopardy!” champ: “For Alex Trebek and all the other survivors.”
“Right now my focus is on finding ways to use the winnings to help others who need the money more than I do,” Holzhauer said. “Some of the projects my wife and I are passionate about include Project 150 (for homeless teens in Las Vegas) and the local community centers and libraries.”
Holzhauer knows how fame can be fleeting, and is doing his best to make the most of it while he can. He will certainly appear on a future Tournament of Champions on “Jeopardy!” and he recently entered the ongoing World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.
“I’m excited to see what my next step will be, but I don’t think you’ve seen the last of James on ‘Jeopardy!’” he wrote.
Holzhauer is also in search of a project that will be a lasting tribute to the woman who introduced him to “Jeopardy!” as a boy.
“I’d like to donate to a Japanese garden in my Granny’s honor, but there isn’t one in Las Vegas and we haven’t chosen a recipient yet.”
Though she didn’t live to watch his success on TV, on the program during which they shared so much precious time together, Holzhauer is hopeful that he she knows all about his historic run.
“I really hope that Granny was somehow able to see me on ‘Jeopardy!’ It was my childhood promise to her that I’d make it on the show.”
There are plenty of fans across the country who might well see that as a pretty good bet.