TV Notes (Syndication)
How Emma Boettcher Beat James Holzhauer on ‘Jeopardy!’
By Julia Jacobs, The New York Times
- Jun. 4, 2019
Before Emma Boettcher arrived at the “Jeopardy!” studio in California on a Tuesday in March, she hadn’t heard of James Holzhauer.
Boettcher, a 27-year-old librarian at the University of Chicago, did not know that the contestant she would soon face had already won 32 games, amassed $2.46 million and established himself as one of the game show’s greatest players of all time. Games are prerecorded, usually five in one day; Holzhauer’s first win would not air until April 4.
“It was weird to be a daily watcher of ‘Jeopardy!’ and somehow there’s this phenomenon that I’d never heard of,” Boettcher said in an interview last week. (The interview was conducted before the episode aired under the condition it not be published until Monday.)
[After 33 games, James Holzhauer is defeated on “Jeopardy!”]
Holzhauer was working to beat one particular record: the highest all-time winnings during regular-season game play, a title held by Ken Jennings, who won $2.52 million during 74 games in 2004. At the rate Holzhauer was going, it seemed possible for him to surpass Jennings’s mark during the first game recorded on March 12, when Boettcher arrived along with about a dozen other contestants who were prepared to play that day.
“I was holding out a small sliver of hope that maybe one of these other people in the room that I’m with will get called up first,” Boettcher said.
But as the first game was coming together, Boettcher’s name was called.
A master’s paper on “Jeopardy!” clues
As a book and theater lover growing up outside Philadelphia, Boettcher first tried out for “Jeopardy!” in high school. As she continued to chase her goal, her father, Kevin Boettcher, bought her books on topics that she needed to bone up on, such as sports.
After finishing college at Princeton, she went to graduate school at the University of North Carolina, where she studied information science. While there, Boettcher decided to write her master’s paper on her longtime obsession with a certain game show.
In her 70-page final paper, Boettcher explored whether certain characteristics of a “Jeopardy!” clue could predict its difficulty level. She said she wanted to determine if a computer could predict whether a clue was easy or difficult based on the words it was using or the length of the clue. In essence, she was asking if there was a material difference between a $200 clue and a $1,000 clue.
Boettcher included nearly 22,000 different “Jeopardy!” clues in the analysis. She concluded, among other things, that the number of component phrases in a clue could help a computer predict its difficulty level. She said the paper helped her understand what makes people perceive language as easy to read, a concept that applies to her current job, where she tries to ensure that the library’s website and catalog are user-friendly for university students and faculty.
Meanwhile, she kept trying to get on “Jeopardy!” and after four in-person auditions, Boettcher got the call asking her to appear.
“When she wants something, she is very focused,” her father said.
Boettcher prepared for her appearance by simulating the experience of a “Jeopardy!” contestant. Each day, she would stand several feet from the television, pretending that she was standing behind the studio’s podium.
Boettcher would hold a pen in her hand, clicking it when she had the answer to one of Alex Trebek’s clues. She soon realized that a pen was too skinny, and a toilet-paper holder would work better as a stand-in for the “Jeopardy!” buzzer. She wore different shoes to figure out which pair would be the most comfortable for standing. And she recorded her scores in a notebook, trying to figure out her weak spots on the board.
A winning strategy
In the studio, Boettcher stood behind the podium with a real buzzer in her hand. She was on one end, with another contestant standing between her and Holzhauer, a professional gambler from Las Vegas who was running out of personal facts to share with Trebek during the episode’s round of small talk.
“I was trying just not to dwell on it,” Boettcher said of Holzhauer’s dominance. “I had already steeled myself to expect the unexpected, just roll with whatever was happening, take one clue at a time.”
The game started as usual for Holzhauer: with him going straight for the high-value clues, hunting for the Daily Doubles and betting everything he could when he found them. Boettcher had never seen his strategy in action, but she said she knew that players with his level of success typically deployed similar tactics.
Holzhauer’s ease making large bets was one reason for his success. His opponents did not always have the same affinity for risk-taking. But Boettcher, who had calculated her rate of accuracy with Daily Doubles while watching at home, felt confident enough to go all in.
When Boettcher hit on a Daily Double, she wagered everything she had, $7,600. Boettcher got the clue right, and she felt like she was back in the game.
By Final Jeopardy, Boettcher was ahead of both her opponents. She felt confident that she had the answer right (it related to Shakespeare, and she had been an English major), and she knew she had wagered enough to come out on top. But it didn’t quite feel real yet.
“I don’t think I felt like I won until Alex said so,” she said.
After her victory, Boettcher said she had to begin preparing for the next game and did not get to have much of a conversation with Holzhauer. (To calm herself, she sang out loud the music from “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” until the next game.)
Later, Boettcher said, Holzhauer emailed to congratulate her and offer some insight from his weeks in the spotlight. In an email to The New York Times, Holzhauer said he told Boettcher to expect a lot of attention and advised her to have a “game plan to get what she wants out of it.”
In an interview, Holzhauer commended Boettcher for playing a “perfect game.” All three contestants played impressive games, in fact. Neither Boettcher nor Holzhauer answered a single clue incorrectly, including the Final Jeopardy 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 correct response: Who is Marlowe?)
“As soon as the game was over,” Boettcher said, “I turned to the guys and I said, ‘I’m so proud of us. This is so rare. Look at what we did.’”