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Television

Meet ‘Jeopardy!’ champ Emma Boettcher, the librarian who ended James Holzhauer’s streak

Meet Emma Boettcher, the University of Chicago librarian who gave James Holzhauer a run for his money on today’s ‘Jeopardy!’
University of Chicago librarian Emma Boettcher, right, with “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek.
(Jeopardy Productions / TNS)

Professional gambler James Holzhauer’s “Jeopardy!” streak came to a stunning conclusion on Monday’s episode when Emma Boettcher out-wagered him.

Holzhauer, the 34-year-old trivia titan, had a remarkable run that reeled in more than $2 million, which he earned at the fastest rate ever. Holzhauer also appeared poised to break the $2.5 million all-time winnings record set by Ken Jennings over a 74-day run in 2004.

But, despite a correct Final Jeopardy answer during his 33rd game, Holzhauer didn’t bet enough and lost. Boettcher’s win was spoiled by media reports and Holzhauer himself before the episode aired.

Here’s some trivia about her:

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She’s a University of Chicago librarian

The 27-year-old Boettcher joined the university in August 2016 and is a “user experience resident librarian.” Her background is notable because Holzhauer famously said that he obtained much of his trivia smarts from nonfiction children’s books he read at the library.

According to a 2018 profile on the school’s website, “Denizens of Regenstein [Library] may recognize Boettcher as the librarian who frequently conducts user testing in the lobby.” Her work is meant to enable faculty and students’ “research in a changing environment.”

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She wrote her master’s thesis on “Jeopardy!” questions

Boettcher obtained a a master’s degree in information science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after studying English and Shakespeare as an undergrad at Princeton University. (No surprise that she nailed the Final Jeopardy question, which asked the contestants to identify Elizabethan writer Christopher “Kit” Marlowe.)

At UNC, she wrote an award-winning paper about the show’s trivia answers, titled “What Is Difficulty?: Estimating the Difficulty of Fact-Finding Questions Using the ‘Jeopardy!’ Archive.”

She examined the text of more than 22,000 clues’ words, length, syntax and whether they linked to audiovisual materials and fed that information to a machine-learning tool to determine the difficulty of answers and questions.

She tried out for “Jeopardy!” before

Boettcher first auditioned for the show when she was a senior in high school in hopes that she could make it into the game’s college tournament (she would have been a college freshman by the time they shot the episodes). She told Vulture she was relieved that she didn’t make it on then because she “was much too awkward to be on the show,” but she was “hooked on the audition process,” which required taking a 50-clue test and playing a mock game.

In the meantime, she honed her skills as a trivia buff and hoped to return to the syndicated series to put her “lifelong love of trivia to good use.”

“I’ve always loved trivia. It’s how I found my people again and again, all throughout school. Academic contests were one of my favorite activities. Finding people to sit down and answer a few questions with is what I consider home, in a lot of ways,” she told Vulture. “Watching ‘Jeopardy!’ and trying to get on the show is a natural outgrowth of that.”

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Her strategy was not unlike those of other “Jeopardy!” champions

She described her approach as “whimsical” and “data-driven” while other contestants are more “systematic.”

Boettcher has been a longtime fan of the Alex Trebek-hosted series and simulated game-play at home by using a pen or toilet-paper holder as a makeshift buzzer. Like other big winners before her, she hunted the board for Daily Doubles and bet big in categories she was comfortable in. She also jumped around the board to eliminate the high-stakes clues and took a statistical approach by collecting her own game-play data to figure out her chances based on what row she was playing.

She wasn’t really fazed when she came up against Holzhauer

“Jeopardy!” tapes its episodes months in advance, and its outcomes are highly guarded. Upon arriving at the studio, Boettcher hadn’t yet heard of Holzhauer but was told that he had already earned $2 million, a fact she dismissed because she didn’t think it was real.

“I was trying just not to dwell on it,” Boettcher said of Holzhauer’s streak in an interview with the New York Times. “I had already steeled myself to expect the unexpected, just roll with whatever was happening, take one clue at a time.”

Follow me: @NardineSaad


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