Jeopardy! champion and professional sports gambler James Holzhauer, a University of Illinois alumnus, once noted that “most people think [he] went to Princeton or something.” Yet, on an episode that aired on June 3, a University alumna broke his 32-game winning streak.
After winning $2,462,216 over 33 games of Jeopardy!, James Holzhauer has been defeated. Emma Boettcher ’14, who currently works as a User Experience Library Resident at the University of Chicago, has been referred to by Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek as “the giant killer,” after she beat the 32-time champion. She has won $97,002 in her first three days on the show.
Boettcher first auditioned for the show as a high school senior and tried again in 2013 while she was a student at the University. Though not a member of the Princeton Quiz Bowl team, Boettcher competed regularly in “quiz nights” hosted at Mathey college with her friends during her time at the University. After graduation, Boettcher auditioned twice more, in 2015 and 2017. Ultimately, the fourth time was the charm, and she was brought to Los Angeles to compete.
Boettcher had not heard of Holzhauer until just before taping her game against him on March 12, nearly a month before Holzhauer’s first game aired.
“I got to the studio that day and along with all the other contestants found out, ‘there’s a 32-time champion here to play a couple of us,’” she said. “I thought it was a joke at first.”
Not only was Holzhauer on a 32-game winning streak, but he held the top ten spots for highest single-game winnings. Before his run, the most money won in a single game was $77,000, but Holzhauer has passed that marker ten times and averaged over $70,000 per game.
“I knew academically how good of a player he must have been, but I had no direct experience of it,” Boettcher noted. “I just knew, ‘here’s this very smart guy who wants to win,’ but that’s true of every contestant.”
The game itself was very fast-paced, with few pauses. Out of the 60 total clues, the contestants answered 59 correctly, only stumped once by a $400 Double Jeopardy! clue about cigarette taxes. In Single Jeopardy!, Boettcher dominated the “Jukebox Musicals” category, where she correctly responded to four of the five clues, earning $2,600.
“When I saw ‘Jukebox Musicals,’ I wasn’t necessarily super thrilled with the jukebox aspect of it, but musicals I know for sure. I felt really confident and optimistic about that category,” she said.
Altogether, Boettcher answered 11 of the 30 Single Jeopardy! clues correctly, earning her $6,400 and placing her $2,600 behind Holzhauer going into Double Jeopardy!. After a strong opening to Double Jeopardy!, Holzhauer pulled $6,200 ahead of Boettcher, but with a correct answer followed by a true Daily Double! in the “Capital ‘A’” category, Boettcher surpassed Holzhauer.
“I had a lot of ground to make up. For me, it was kind of a slam dunk in terms of what to do,” she said. “I needed to gain a lot of money very quickly, and it was a category that I felt pretty comfortable in. It was a clue that was lower value, so I thought I’d have a good chance of getting it correct.”
Though she changed leads with Holzhauer twice more, Boettcher’s 10 correct answers in the Double Jeopardy! round gave her a $3,200 lead over Holzhauer heading into Final Jeopardy!.
In Final Jeopardy!, Boettcher’s education at the University came in handy. The category was “Shakespeare's Time,” something Boettcher was very familiar with. At the University, Boettcher majored in English with a certificate in Theater. She wrote her senior thesis on “ghosts and magic” in plays, mostly Shakespeare’s. Additionally, her thesis incorporated the works of playwright Christopher Marlowe, who was the correct response to the Final Jeopardy! clue. Confident about the category, Boettcher wagered $20,201 of her $26,000.
“I’ve read a lot of [Shakespeare’s] plays, and I’ve seen a lot of his plays performed,” she said. “It felt like this category was tailor-made for me.”
All three contestants answered correctly in Final Jeopardy! Boettcher’s large wager brought her up to $46,801. Holzhauer ended with $24,799 on the day, giving him a 33-day total of $2,462,216 and the second-longest winning streak in the show’s history. Though 42 games short of Ken Jennings’ 74-game streak, Holzhauer came within $60,000 of Jennings’ total regular season earnings record, a gap smaller than the $70,000 Holzhauer was averaging per game.
Boettcher noted that many of her friends who had never been huge Jeopardy! fans, but who promised to watch the June 3 show, became interested in Holzhauer’s winning streak.
“They were telling me, ‘Have you heard of this guy? He’s amazing. Look at this,’” she said. “I’ve loved the show for years, of course, but now it seems like everyone else is finding out how fun it can be as well.”
In her second game, which aired on June 4, Boettcher noted that there were “a lot more pauses.” Unlike in her game against Holzhauer, in which only one question went unanswered, the contestants failed to come up with the correct answer nine times in her second game. With 19 correct answers, including a correct $4,600 Daily Double!, Boettcher dominated Single Jeopardy!, going into the Double Jeopardy! round with a $11,000 lead.
With nine correct answers and two incorrect answers in Double Jeopardy!, Boettcher was able to maintain a commanding lead. Her closest competitor, Ph.D. student Matthew Swanson, missed a $6,000 Daily Double! late in the game, allowing Boettcher to lock things up before Final Jeopardy!, where she wagered $0 knowing it would guarantee her the win.
“It ended up being a lock game, a runaway game as Alex would say, but it didn’t necessarily feel like that playing it,” Boettcher said, noting that she was more comfortable with the categories in the game against Holzhauer. Though she was able to come up with three correct responses in the “Parasitic Plants” category, she said the category was “a tricky one” for her.
“Jeopardy!’s all random knowledge all the time, and sometimes that really works in your favor if the final category is something like ‘Shakespeare,’ and sometimes it really doesn’t with something like ‘Time Zones,’” Boettcher said, referring to the Final Jeopardy! clue that she answered incorrectly in the second game.
In her third game, which aired on June 5, Boettcher got off to a hot start, sweeping the first category and amassing $7,000 before either of her opponents answered a single correct question. She went into the first commercial break with $7,200 after 12 correct answers, with her opponents both in the negatives with -$600 and -$800 respectively. Boettcher slowed down somewhat after the break, answering three more questions correctly and ending with $7,800, still holding a $6,600 lead despite both of her opponents moving into the positives.
Boettcher answered 12 questions correctly in Double Jeopardy!, including a $3,000 Daily Double! about the Chrysler Building. She ended with $24,400, but things were not yet out of reach. Though high school social studies teacher Jonathan Greenstein fell back into the negatives and was unable to compete in Final Jeopardy!, education policy analyst Erin Garratt pulled her score up to $12,800 at the end of Double Jeopardy!, keeping the game in reach.
The Final Jeopardy! category was “The NATO Phonetic Alphabet.” Garratt answered incorrectly and lost all of her earnings, but Boettcher was able to come up with the correct response, “X-ray.” With a modest wager of $1,201, she ended the game with $25,601, bringing her three-day total to $97,002.
Boettcher plans to use a portion of her earnings to pay off loans. Additionally, she said that she plans to donate to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she received a Master’s Degree in Information Science after graduating from the University. Boettcher wrote her Master’s paper on Jeopardy!.
“I’ve kind of been planning on making an alumni donation, at least there, maybe Princeton as well, but certainly to bring that full circle,” she said, adding that she also plans to donate some of her winnings to her church.
Boettcher’s next episode will air on June 6 at 7:30pm on ABC.