Newsmaker: Emma Boettcher

This Chicago librarian took down a Jeopardy! giant and won $98,002 over four days

June 11, 2019

Emma Boettcher, user experience resident librarian at the University of Chicago, was nicknamed the “Giant Killer” by Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek after beating longtime champ James Holzhauer on June 3. Two more wins over the next two days earned her $97,002, but she came in third place on June 6 and got a consolation prize of $1,000. The episodes Boettcher appeared in were filmed in March, so she had to keep silent until the shows were aired. A lifelong Jeopardy! fan, Boettcher wrote her master’s paper in April 2016 at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science using text mining to find out whether the readability of the show’s questions could predict their difficulty levels. American Libraries spoke with her on how she prepared for the show and what it was like in the studio.

When did you first try out for Jeopardy?

I first auditioned for the show when I was just about to graduate from high school. At the time, I was trying to get on the show’s College Championship. (I could audition for that as a high school student because the tournament would tape and air when I was a college freshman.) I kept taking the online test and was eventually invited to audition again for the College Championship (2013), then for regular games (2015 and 2017). A year and a half after my August 2017 audition, I got the call to be on the show.

Were you ever tempted to give up trying to get on the show?

No, not at all! The auditions themselves are pretty fun. There’s a test everyone takes individually, and then the contestant coordinators call people up three at a time to play a mock game. Despite the stakes, everyone is cheering each other on. It’s a good way to spend your morning.

Was Trivial Pursuit your favorite board game growing up, or did you have others?

Trivial Pursuit still is my favorite game.

How did you prepare for the big day?

In some ways I’d been preparing for it for years, just by watching the show and keeping track of my scores while doing so. And since my 2017 audition, I’d made more of a habit of identifying weak spots to study up on. Sometimes those were ultraspecific (distinguishing the Romantic poets Keats vs. Shelley vs. Byron) and sometimes they were more general (all bodies of water except oceans). When I got the call, I had about three weeks to ramp up the studying before the game would be taped, and I took the time to review some wagering tutorials and focus on the classic lists: Oscar winners, world capitals, US presidents.

You’ve said your best category is Shakespeare. What are some of the other categories you excel in?

I was an English major, so Shakespeare is a good category for me, but so are most other literature and theater categories. It also helped that I worked at the Orange County Public Library in Hillsborough, North Carolina, for about a year in grad school, because I shelved a lot of recent bestsellers and children’s literature—two categories Jeopardy! goes to often. And I love the wordplay categories, like anagrams, “rhyme time,” “vowel-less bible books,” or those where each correct response is made up of two US state postal abbreviations. The show tends to only bring out “initials to Roman numerals to numbers” for tournament-level play, but it’s one of my favorites.

What are your worst categories?

Music is a huge blind spot for me. In my day-to-day life I tend to listen to podcasts or obsessively listen to the same album over and over until I have all the lyrics memorized—and that album is usually a musical theater cast recording.

What was your tensest moment on the show?

Because the show is so fast-paced, there’s not a lot of time for tension to build. The only pauses come when it’s time to wager, either for a Daily Double or for Final Jeopardy! Making the decision in my first game to wager everything on the “Capital ‘A’” Daily Double (home of the annual US sailboat show = Annapolis) was a no-brainer for me, but deciding what to wager in other scenarios, particularly when it was late in the game, was tougher.

How the heck did you know that Albany, New York, was once called Beverwyck?

I can’t speak for all Jeopardy! contestants, but I was guessing a lot of the time. I doubt I have ever read that Albany was once called Beverwyck, and if I did, I don’t think I would be able to retain and recall that information when I was on the show. But because Jeopardy!’s clues are so information-packed, responding becomes more about following a hunch and seeing if there’s enough evidence in the clue to support it. The category was “Capital ‘A’” for $1,200: “In 1664 the English changed its name from Beverwyck to this to honor James, Duke of it.” I don’t recall what my thought process was then, but looking at that clue again now, my first instinct is to focus on “James, Duke of it,” where I mentally autofill “York.” That’s not the right response—it’s not a capital, and it doesn’t begin with “A.” But it’s enough to get me thinking about state capitals. Maybe not York, but New York’s capital, Albany? That’s a capital beginning with A. I can look at other things in the clue to confirm—the English were definitely in that area by 1664, and Beverwyck sounds Dutch, doesn’t it? New York used to be a Dutch colony before it was an English one. That’s still a lot of question marks, but there’s so much pointing to Albany as the correct response that I felt like I should buzz in.

What were your winning strategies for playing the game?

I didn’t have a regimented strategy. In general, I wanted to start with higher-value clues, because the Daily Doubles are more likely to be there than in the top row of the board, and I’d prepared enough to feel like I had a good chance of getting them right. I knew I could bet big on certain Daily Doubles, but there were also categories where I felt like I should stay cautious. Apart from that, I was mostly playing to keep the momentum going. Sometimes that meant staying in a category I was doing well in, but other times it meant jumping around the board to try to find something I was comfortable with.

Were Jeopardy! questions your first choice as a final paper for your LIS degree?

In graduate school, I split my coursework between information retrieval and user experience (UX) classes. Because I was planning to go into UX after graduation, my first thought was to do a UX-related master’s paper. But at the same time I was developing a proposal for that topic, I was also completing my final project for a text-mining class, and I realized I wanted to take that work a little further. What I loved about using the Jeopardy! clues as a dataset was that it was measuring in part the cognitive effort required to process text, which is an important concept in UX as well.

Was it hard to convince your advisor that the topic was worthwhile?

Not at all, much to her credit. I’d taken several classes taught by Stephanie W. Haas, including one on natural language processing, before asking her to be my advisor, so she knew I was passionate about the topic and would approach it with academic rigor. There were some extremely creative master’s papers that came from my cohort at UNC, which I think speaks well not just of Stephanie, but of the faculty in general who were willing to mentor students no matter what their interests.

Did your research aid you in any practical way in playing?

No, but I’m still glad I did the research, if only to have something to talk about during the contestant interview portion.

What insights did your research give you about your current library work?

I’m currently the user experience resident librarian at University of Chicago. Both my master’s paper and my UX work respond to the same question: “Why is X—a Jeopardy! clue, searching the catalog, requesting a book through interlibrary loan—so difficult?” My master’s paper tried to answer that question using text mining, but the field of user experience says that the best way to answer that question is to observe people and talk with them. Even though the methods are very different, I learned a lot from researching readability in the context of my master’s paper, and I continue to advocate for simpler language in libraries.

Is there a text-mining PhD dissertation in the works some day?

There are definitely things about my master’s paper that I want to revisit and explore further, but I don’t know if it’s a PhD-level curiosity just yet. And working in user experience for the past three years has alerted me to a lot of interesting questions in human-computer interaction as well, so any further coursework might not be in text mining at all.

Did our 2017 feature on “badass librarians of Jeopardy!” inspire you?

Of course! I think it was my favorite feature in American Libraries to date.

How hard was it to keep from telling anyone about the show until now?

People were very respectful of the fact that I couldn’t say anything about the outcome of the game, so I didn’t get too many questions about it. And I knew I’d have more fun with it if everyone else was surprised, so that also made it easier to keep it a secret.

Have things changed for you at work now that your shows are airing?

Because the show airs at 3:30 p.m. in Chicago, I watched most of the games with my colleagues, who were all incredibly supportive. Elisabeth Long, the associate university librarian for my division, even brought in cake every day that I was on. Now that we’ve all gotten used to that, I think the pressure’s on to find the next Jeopardy! player among the library staff. I’m happy to help train anyone who’s interested!


Clockwise from top: Ben Almoite, Jennifer Hills, Gretchen Neidhardt, Margaret Miles, Ken Hirsh, and Sarah Trowbridge with Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek.

The Badass Librarians of Jeopardy!

For librarian contestants of the popular game show, cash, kudos, and stories galore