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Photo Courtesy of Emma Boettcher ’14

In one of the most anticipated matchups in Jeopardy! history, Emma Boettcher ’14 faced off against the legendary James Holzhauer in last week’s Tournament of Champions two-day finals. Despite being the sole player in Jeopardy! history to ever beat Holzhauer, Boettcher could not catch her rival, who walked away with a grand prize of $250,000, this time around.

Holzhauer, a newly minted Jeopardy! legend, entered the record books last spring when he accumulated $2,714,416 in just 33 games, using a combination of a broad knowledge base and high-risk betting strategies. He also shattered the record for highest single-game earnings, winning the top 10 most profitable Jeopardy! games ever.

Boettcher, a User Experience Librarian at the University of Chicago, ended Holzhauer’s winning streak on June 3, 2019 and went on to be a three-day champion. She advanced to the Tournament of Champions finals after victories in the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds.

When asked how she prepared for the tournament, Boettcher explained that she studied diligently in advance of the taping.

“At one point I probably had as many books checked out from the library as I had when writing my senior thesis at Princeton,” said Boettcher, who graduated with an A.B. in English, “though sadly, fewer of these books were about Shakespeare.”

Boettcher also said that she reviewed past Tournament of Champions games to prepare for the appropriate level of difficulty for the Jeopardy! clues.

Competing alongside Boettcher and Holzhauer was Francois Barcomb, a high school physics teacher who won this year’s Teachers Tournament.

In the first round of Thursday’s game, Boettcher started strong, with five correct responses and $3,200, but Holzhauer took the lead with 17 clues answered correctly. An incorrect Daily Double response, however, reduced Holzhauer’s round earnings to $7,400.

Clues in Double Jeopardy! were spread more evenly among players, with all answering between eight and eleven correctly. Despite this, Holzhauer’s two correct Daily Double responses netted him an extra $20,412, which turned the first game into a runaway.

“I don't recall what I felt during that game,” Boettcher said, “but overall, I found the one-clue-at-a-time mentality most helpful when playing. If another player gets a Daily Double, there's really nothing I can do about that after it happens. All I can do is try to ring in and respond correctly to the 57 clues on the board that are open to all contestants.”

On Day Two, the stakes were raised for Boettcher and her opponents, as tournament winners are determined by the player’s overall winnings from both days.

“[I was] nervous,” Boettcher said. “My hands were shaking a bit when we were getting ready for game two. But I was happy to have gotten Final Jeopardy! right in the Thursday match and doubled my score — in some ways, I think I was nervous because I felt I still had a chance going into the second game of the final.”

In the Single Jeopardy! round, Holzhauer gained a narrow lead over Boettcher and Barcomb, thanks to a correct Daily Double response. Notably, there were two “triple stumpers” on the board: one about measuring liquid volume, and one about large, black-lipped edible sea snails — otherwise known as “abalone,” the correct response that no player could provide in time.

The tides changed in Round Two, partly due to an ambitious Daily Double wager by Boettcher and a costly error by Holzhauer on the other Daily Double. Barcomb earned just $400 from the round, while Boettcher responded to seven clues correctly and picked up $15,000.

Barcomb, Holzhauer, and Boettcher entered Final Jeopardy! with $1,600, $17,785, and $21,600, respectively. The clue — on the topic of international disputes — was no trouble for any player, as all provided the correct response of ‘Japan and Russia.’

“Final Jeopardy! is too intense for me to be 100 percent confident of my responses while playing, but that being said, I felt good enough about that one,” Boettcher said.

Despite Boettcher’s second-day victory, Holzhauer finished the finals in first place, with a grand total of $76,923, to Boettcher’s $65,000 and Barcomb’s $5,000.

“To have won another game feels great, but I knew at the time that [Holzhauer’s] lead from game two would make him the tournament winner so long as he got Final correct and wagered appropriately,” Boettcher said, “and he's a great player, so of course he did both those things. I'm happy to have held my own throughout the tournament.”

Holzhauer was unable to comment fully at the time of publication, but did remark to The Daily Princetonian in an email that “Emma sure punches like a heavyweight!”

Friday’s game also made Jeopardy! history — and not just because of the famous names who competed. Boettcher, despite being a runner-up, surpassed all previous Tournament of Champions (ToC) players in earnings.

“Prior to 2019, the highest winning 2-day total score in a #Jeopardy ToC final was $56,800,” Holzhauer wrote in a Tweet on Friday night. “Emma scored $65,000.”

Boettcher told the ‘Prince’ that she plans to spend her winnings in several ways.

“Many members of my family were able to watch the last game with me in Chicago, and my happiest splurge so far was getting to treat them to dinner afterwards,” she said. “Besides that, I think my fellow competitors Gilbert Collins [GS ’99], Steven Grade, and Dhruv Gaur — among others — have done something wonderful in how they’ve used their ToC appearances to encourage donations toward pancreatic cancer research, and some of my winnings will be going toward that cause as well.”

Longtime Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek is currently battling pancreatic cancer. Larry Martin, the 2019 Teacher’s Tournament Champion, passed away from the disease earlier this year.

Boettcher also revealed that an anecdote from her time at the University helped her with Final Jeopardy! on Thursday’s game.

“Regarding the Final Jeopardy! clue [of Game 1], one of the reasons I recall ‘jeremiad’ after learning it probably over a decade ago is because Jeff Nunokawa used it casually in a lecture in his 19th century novel class one day,” Boettcher said.

“It's clues like that,” she added, “that remind me of particular people [who] are my favorite to respond to, and one of the reasons I like Jeopardy! so much.”

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