Where 64 people tried and failed, one alumna outwitted a Jeopardy! phenom

Emma Boettcher ’14, a librarian at the University of Chicago, bested Jeopardy! titan James Holzhauer in June. She went on to win her next two games.
Jeopardy Productions Inc.
Even if you don’t watch Jeopardy!, the news in June was hard to miss, trumpeted as it was across all forms of media. The champ had fallen: Sports gambler James Holzhauer, whose Jeopardy! winnings totaled a gargantuan $2.46 million, and whose nigh-invulnerable trivia prowess across 32 wins had reignited America’s love for “Daily Doubles,” had been toppled by Emma Boettcher ’14, a straight-shooting, 27-year-old librarian at the University of Chicago. 

When Boettcher taped the show back in March, none of Holzhauer’s shows had yet aired on TV. It was only later that Boettcher watched Holzhauer rise to become a national fixation — holding secret the knowledge that she would be the one to bring his run to an end just shy of Jeopardy!’s regular-season winnings record.

As the airdate for their showdown approached, Boettcher deactivated her Facebook page and prepared for the worst. “I didn’t know what the media response would be,” she tells PAW. “Toward James it’s mostly been positive, so I wasn’t sure if I would be this Jeopardy! villain. Especially because Jeopardy!’s had such great ratings, and now I kind of feel like I’ve taken that away from them. He’s such a tough act to follow.”

In fact, Boettcher has become something of a Jeopardy! star in her own right. The New York Times profiled how she prepared — she pretended she was behind a podium by standing several feet from the television and used a toilet-paper holder to simulate a clicker — and then updated readers when Boettcher’s streak ended after three games and $97,002 in winnings. (She added another $1,000 to her winnings after her defeat in the fourth game.)

 Slate published a paen titled “Emma Boettcher Is the Chill, No-Nonsense Jeopardy! Champ of My Heart,” which noted that Boettcher’s success, while less flashy than Holzhauer’s, was certainly no fluke: She has been studying trivia for years in preparation for a possible Jeopardy! appearance, and in 2016 had even written her master’s thesis (for a degree in information science at the University of North Carolina) on ways to assess the difficulty of the game’s clues. 

 In her personal life, Boettcher says, the response to her run has “been lovely. I’ve heard from a lot of people that I hadn’t spoken to in years, including Princeton professors. And it’s just been really nice talking to those people again.”

Boettcher’s time in college has echoed across her Jeopardy! experience in surprising ways. Academically and socially, Boettcher found herself drawn at Princeton to the theater: She joined the Princeton Shakespeare Company as a sophomore, serving as a stage manager for plays including Titus Andronicus, Taming of the Shrew, and Shakespeare contemporary Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. As a senior pursuing a major in comparative literature and a certificate in theater, she wrote her thesis on ghosts and magic in the tragedies of Shakespeare — with some Faustus thrown in toward the end for good measure.

So it was a stroke of fortune — or perhaps fate, as the old playwrights would say — when host Alex Trebek revealed the Final Jeopardy category at the end of Boettcher’s close-fought game against Holzhauer. It was Shakespeare: “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, as Boettcher well knew, was “Marlowe.”