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Wonks for the win: Chicago librarian changes the 'Jeopardy!' story

University of Chicago librarian Emma Boettcher unseated Naperville native James Holzhauer as "Jeopardy!" champion on June 3, 2019.

James Holzhauer, a professional gambler with uncanny timing at the buzzer, won at “Jeopardy!” so decisively in recent weeks that people accused him of destroying the game. As his streak stretched to 10 games, then 20, then 30, viewers began to despair at the sheer monotony of his dominance. Who could deliver a decisive plot twist and end his reign?

In retrospect, perhaps it should have seemed obvious: a librarian, one of those often unsung champions of having the right answer.


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Emma Boettcher, a librarian at the University of Chicago, struck the fatal blow to Holzhauer’s 32-day winning streak, inspiring her bookish brethren to strut and tweet #LibrariansRock! Her game-show coup offered unusual bragging rights to the proudly wonkish University of Chicago, home to Nobel laureates.

Boettcher didn’t know in advance that she’d be pitted against a legend in her long-sought appearance on the show, but she came to play: She’s got a master’s degree in “Jeopardy!” Actually, she earned her master’s in information science from the University of North Carolina, studying features that predict difficulty in trivia questions. Her research focused on clues from “Jeopardy!” Boettcher also has an undergraduate degree in English from Princeton. If anyone told her she’d never make any money studying Shakespeare, we refer them to the Final Jeopardy! question on Monday. She plans to pay off her student loans with her winnings.

"Jeopardy!" contestant James Holzhauer.

Holzhauer was known for his aggressive strategy, but of course he had to have a great many correct answers too. A graduate of Naperville North and the University of Illinois who now lives in Las Vegas, he could solve complex math equations in his head as a child. He grew up watching the game show with his grandmother.

Not to be outdone, Boettcher has fake-buzzed along with the show from home and tracked her scores in a notebook for five years. As nerding out on a show goes, their meeting was a perfect storm. Facts matter on “Jeopardy!” and neither Boettcher nor Holzhauer got a wrong answer all game long.

Their mutual show of mastery gave audiences a thrilling ending to the Holzhauer saga, though spoilers leaked in advance and are now being investigated. Holzhauer’s excellence in all aspects of play earned him $2.4 million and brought fresh attention and high ratings to the show, whose longtime host, Alex Trebek, has been undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer. A next generation of studious kids watched at home, maybe also with grandma. What subjects will they excel at one day — madcap movies, military generals or maybe even Shakespeare? Maybe some will be inspired to become librarians.

Let’s call this “Jeopardy!” showdown a win all around.