UChicago librarian halts ‘Jeopardy!’ champ’s historic run

Emma Boettcher, who wrote her thesis about the show, beats 32-time winner James Holzhauer

Three years ago, Emma Boettcher finished writing a master’s thesis about “Jeopardy!” Now the University of Chicago librarian has become a trivia answer herself—as the person who stopped James Holzhauer’s historic run on the TV game show.

In a drama-filled episode that aired June 3, Boettcher knocked off Holzhauer, whose high-risk style made him a celebrity during his streak of 32 consecutive wins. Holzhauer entered the contest having won $2,462,216—$58,484 shy of Ken Jennings’ record for regular-season “Jeopardy!” winnings.

“It was surreal, for sure,” Boettcher said Monday afternoon of defeating Holzhauer. “I taped back in March, so I had not heard of him before showing up that day. I didn’t know there was this 32-time champion out there. I thought it was a joke.”

Boettcher trailed Holzhauer by $2,600 after the first round, but pulled ahead in the Double Jeopardy! round by unveiling and correctly answering both Daily Doubles. She clinched her victory in Final Jeopardy!, correctly wagering $20,201 on this 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.” (The answer: “Who is Marlowe?”)

That brought her to $46,801—comfortably ahead of Holzhauer’s $24,799.

When Boettcher’s total flashed up, “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebeck exclaimed: “What a payday!” Holzhauer, meanwhile, rushed over and gave her a high-five. In an interview with The New York Times, he said Boettcher had played “a perfect game.” And once clips from the show began surfacing, requests from local and national media flooded in.

“It’s been quite a day,” Boettcher said.

‘The quest for knowledge’

A native of suburban Philadelphia, the 27-year-old became a “Jeopardy!” fan around middle school, when she began participating in similar academic competitions. At the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, she wrote an award-winning master’s thesis titled, “Predicting the Difficulty of Trivia Questions Using Text Features.”

The paper was inspired by a class she took on text mining. Because “Jeopardy!” already assigns value to bits of text, Boettcher thought it was perfect for a series of experiments to assess “if the computer can make the same assessments that a user does” based on factors like word length and syntax.

That task, as she told Trebek, turned out to be “very hard to do.”

Boettcher’s work at UNC was one of the things prompted the University of Chicago Library to hire her as a user experience resident librarian—part of a residency program which brings in top recent graduates to expand staff expertise in new and rapidly developing areas of librarianship. In that role, which she has held since 2016, Boettcher coordinates user research to support the improvement of the Library’s public website, intranet and discovery tools.

She is currently involved in a national and international open source project to develop a next-generation library management system.

“One of the things I love about being a librarian is I’m surrounded by people who value and support the quest for knowledge,” Boettcher said. “That’s true in many environments, but it’s especially true of librarians, and at the University of Chicago in particular.”

She also has shared her enthusiasm for trivia on campus before, writing pub quiz-style trivia questions for the University of Chicago Library Staff Day.

After two-and-a-half months of secrecy, Boettcher is also happy that she can finally talk to her friends and colleagues about her win. However, she doesn’t take any extra pride in having cut short Holzhauer’s historic run.

“It’s nice to be a little part of ‘Jeopardy!’ history,” Boettcher said. “Regardless of who I was playing, I just wanted to play a good game.”