Downtime

Emma Boettcher Is the Chill, No-Nonsense Jeopardy! Champ of My Heart

Emma Boettcher on Jeopardy!
Emma Boettcher.
Jeopardy!

Chicago librarian Emma Boettcher made headlines on Monday when she ended James Holzhauer’s 32-game winning streak on Jeopardy! But history was not in her favor when she returned to defend the throne the next day. As Jeremy Samuel Faust noted in Slate earlier this week, a surprising number of so-called dragon slayers who took down the game’s longest-reigning champions have gone on to lose their very next games. When Alex Trebek introduced Boettcher’s second appearance on the show, he couldn’t resist reminding her of that history. “Remember, Nancy Zerg defeated Ken Jennings and lasted only one game,” the host said as he introduced the new champ. “Hmm …”

It’s early days in the Boettcher era, but I love her already. She is no Nancy Zerg. She appeared totally unfazed by Trebek’s Debbie Downer introduction on Tuesday. She opened the game by choosing the category “Vowelless Bible Books” (“VWLSS BBL BKS”) and briskly claimed every answer in the category, earning an appreciative burst of applause from the audience.* “You know your vowelless Bible books, young lady,” Trebek chuckled. (She ran the first category on Wednesday, too.)

Trebek chuckled again Tuesday when the “young lady” (Boettcher is 27) bet all her earnings on her first Daily Double. “Influenced by James, are we?” Boettcher’s face flickered ever so slightly with a mixture of confusion and annoyance. She won the Daily Double, and by the end of the first round, she had $14,200 on the board, more than four times the earnings of her nearest rival.

There was a reason Boettcher may have been perplexed by Trebek’s suggestion that she was “influenced” by Holzhauer. First of all, betting it all on a Daily Double is a classic move, not one of Holzhauer’s several real innovations in gameplay. Boettcher felt confident about going all in—a move she also made in her first game—in part because she had calculated her own accuracy rate at home and knew the odds were with her.

More to the point, Boettcher barely knew who Holzhauer was. Her first episode taped in March, and Holzhauer’s 32-game streak did not begin airing on television until April. (Jeopardy! records episodes months before they air.) She found out about her competitor’s historic ongoing streak when she arrived on set, but she had not experienced the hubbub around it. “It was weird to be a daily watcher of Jeopardy! and somehow there’s this phenomenon that I’d never heard of,” she told the New York Times in an interview printed this week, accompanied by a photo of her smiling and holding a daisy. But Trebek returned multiple times in Boettcher’s second episode to the idea that she stood trembling in fear of Holzhauer. “How did you feel coming in to play against him?” the host asked during the contestant interview segment on Tuesday. Boettcher looked briefly stymied as he continued: “Were you intimidated, or did you just say, ‘Hey, I’m as good as anybody else?’ ” “Mostly the latter,” she said.

Boettcher’s confidence is well-placed. She’s not just a trivia buff who got lucky. She wrote her capstone project for her master’s degree in information science on Jeopardy! clues, analyzing whether a computer could determine how difficult a clue was based on characteristics like clue length and number of noun phrases. Before receiving the call to appear on the show this year, she had auditioned four times in person, starting in high school. She trained, she told the Times, by standing a few feet from the television, “buzzing” on a toilet-paper holder for practice.

That practice paid off when Boettcher beat the curse of the Jeopardy! Dragon slayers in her first game after vanquishing Holzhauer. She didn’t land on either Daily Double in the second round, but she still ended the round with more than twice the cash of anyone else onstage, ensuring her victory even before the Final Jeopardy clue was announced. “This was a runaway game for Emma,” Trebek said as the game drew to a close. Boettcher flashed another modest smile. And then she won again on Wednesday, too.

Why do I find Boettcher so endearing? Probably in part because she is not overtly charming. She sports a business-casual wardrobe and a no-fuss Dorothy Hamill wedge. She is not “ethereal, floating through the game with peerless grace,” as Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern wrote of Holzhauer. Holzhauer is a professional gambler who lives in Las Vegas; Boettcher is a university librarian in the Midwest. In her third game, on Wednesday, she flagged a bit in Double Jeopardy and did not secure her victory until the final question. She has worked tremendously hard to get where she is, trying out over and over and tracking her own scores at home for five years. And now she’s finally here, and she’s winning—$97,002 and counting. Her fourth episode airs Thursday.

Correction, June 6, 2019: This article originally misstated that Boettcher had earned $4,600 in the Vowelless Bible Books category. Some of that total was earned in other categories.