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UChicago librarian dethrones ‘Jeopardy!’ champ: ‘I was just trying to stay focused’

In Monday’s episode, Emma Boettcher, 27, ended the 32-game winning streak of Naperville native James Holzhauer.

University of Chicago librarian Emma Boettcher (left, with show host Alex Trebek) knocked off “Jeopardy!” champ James Holzhauer Monday after his historic run.
Jeopardy!

Even for the show’s longtime host, 27-year-old Emma Boettcher’s victory on “Jeopardy!” Monday — in which she dethroned one of the most dominant players in the show’s history — came in shocking fashion.

“What a game, oh my God,” Alex Trebek said after Final Jeopardy wagers were revealed. “What a way to start the week.”

Boettcher, a librarian at the University of Chicago, took home nearly $47,000 on the episode that aired Monday, ending the 32-game winning streak of Naperville native James Holzhauer. He grossed $2.46 million in his run.

“Nobody likes to lose,” Holzhauer said in an interview with the New York Times. “But I’m very proud of how I did, and I really exceeded my own expectations for the show.”

Boettcher has had to keep her victory a secret since March 12, the day Monday’s episode was taped. Among her family and friends, only her parents — who were in the audience to watch her victory — knew about her success.

Speaking with the Chicago Sun-Times Monday evening, Boettcher said she had to keep her emotions in check to dethrone the champ.

“I was just trying to stay focused,” she said.

Her strategy was to search the board for the lucrative Daily Doubles, starting with the highest value clues. She answered both Daily Double clues correctly in the Double Jeopardy round.

“You can jump around in the categories a little bit,” she said. “It makes it a little more fun because of that variety.”

Boettcher held a $3,200 lead over Holzhauer — $26,600 to his $23,400 — going into Final Jeopardy. The contestant in third place had amassed $11,000 going into the final round. Throughout the game, the three players answered all but one clue correctly.

As the game progressed, Boettcher said she was working to “stay focused, stay in the zone and not get too hung up on any clue that I didn’t know.”

Boettcher — who auditioned twice to be on the show, most recently in August 2017 — said her biggest surprise of the game came during the final round.

In the past, when she’s watched the show at home and played along, she would also write down her Final Jeopardy answer, though her handwriting is small — “a six-point font,” she said. In the real game, contestants must use what is essentially a felt-tipped marker to write down their answers, she said. The large handwriting she needed “kind of threw me for a loop.”

“I thought I knew everything about that show,” she joked.

The Final Jeopardy category was “Shakespeare’s Time.” Boettcher — a big fan of the playwright’s work, especially “Macbeth” — was feeling good about the category, despite the clue not directly involving Shakespeare. All three contestants answered correctly.

Immediately after Boettcher’s victory was secured, a smiling Holzhauer walked over to her and gave her a high-five.

Boettcher grew up outside Philadelphia and was on her high school’s quiz bowl team. The academic competition — which, she said, was a great way to make friends and was one of her favorite high school experiences — helped foster her interest in the show.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Princeton University and her master’s degree in Information Science from the University of North Carolina. She’s worked at the University of Chicago since 2016.

As part of her studies at UNC, Boettcher authored a 70-page paper that examined the language of “Jeopardy!” clues. Naturally, Trebek asked her about it during the show’s brief Q&A session with contestants between rounds.

Boettcher told Trebek that she sought to find out if a computer could predict how difficult a clue was “based on things like how long it was, what words were in the clue, what the syntax was and if it had any audio or visual elements in it.”

“And what did you discover?” Trebek asked her.

“That it’s very hard to do,” she replied, eliciting a chuckle from the host.

Boettcher said that when she approached her master’s thesis adviser and told her that she wanted to write her paper on “Jeopardy!” clues, the adviser was extremely supportive.

And though Boettcher doesn’t expect to make any flashy purchases with her winnings — she’s a big fan of the CTA, so a new car is not in her future — she’d like to give something back to UNC as a thank-you.

“I’d like to make an alumni donation for once,” she said with a laugh.