Anyone following James Holzhauer’s historic Jeopardy! run was in for a shock on Monday night, when the record-setting professional gambler was dethroned after he lost in the Final Jeopardy round, bringing his acclaimed 32-game streak to an end.
The new champion? Emma Boettcher, 27, a University of Chicago librarian, who beat Holzhauer before he could break the $2.52 million record set on Jeopardy! by Ken Jennings during his legendary streak in 2004.
During the game, which aired Monday, Boettcher landed two Daily Doubles in the second round, and led Holzhauer by $3,200 before they went into Final Jeopardy, to answer the clue: “The line ‘A great reckoning in a little room’ in As You Like It is usually taken to refer to this author’s premature death.” Both contestants gave the correct response: “Who is Marlowe.” Bottecher wagered $20,201, enough to win a total of $46,801 — and enough to knock down Holzhauer, who won a total of $24,799 after an uncharacteristically low bet of $1,399.
Beyond winning on the show itself, Boettcher’s life has been shaped by Jeopardy! Her capstone for her master’s degree in information science at the University of North Carolina used Jeopardy! clues to assess how wording and length in trivia questions could impact their difficulty.
“The question I started out with was, “How do people perceive what’s difficult, and how can we train a computer to make those same types of predictions?” Boettcher told Vulture. “The Jeopardy! board values its clues going from top to bottom. I was parsing the text of those clues for length, the words used in each, the syntax, and whether or not they linked out to audiovisual materials.”
Boettcher’s love for trivia began long before she completed her master’s paper in 2016. The Philadelphia-area native, who now lives in Chicago, auditioned for Jeopardy! four times before being called in after a 2017 audition, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. As a student at Princeton University, she watched the quiz show and kept a close eye on which clues she answered right, and which ones she got wrong. By the time she made it to Jeopardy!, Boettcher was aware of her weak spots, she told the Inquirer.
Because Jeopardy! is filmed months before the episodes actually air, Boettcher did not know she was going up against a contestant who would gain national attention for his winning streak until she arrived to tape her episode on March 12 — before any episodes that featured Holzhauer had aired.
“Somewhere in the course of the morning a contestant coordinator pointed out James and said, ‘Here’s our returning champion, he’s won 29 games, and he’s won $2 million, but anyway, here’s more paperwork for you,’” she told Vulture. “There’s a lot of information coming at you quickly, and that was one data point I had to deal with.”
She added: “My first reaction was that I honestly didn’t think it was a real number. I thought they were playing a joke on us.”
Despite the surreality of the situation — competing on a beloved game show against a remarkable champion — Boettcher stuck to her strategy, she told Vulture. “I pretty much did what I planned to do when I came in, to be honest, which was to jump around the board a little bit so the higher-value clues were taken care of first … I knew jumping around the board was a tried and true success on the show.”
The entire experience was a dream come true on many levels, she said.
“It’s an amazing feeling, truly. Just being on Jeopardy! was one dream for me. And then to be on and hold my own was another dream,” Boettcher told the Inquirer. “And then to be on and hold my own and then win was just way beyond anything I ever expected.”