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On ‘Jeopardy!’, It Took a Librarian to Beat a Gambler

Who is Emma Boettcher and how did she take down James Holzhauer?

After 32 consecutive wins that earned him $2,464,216, James Holzhauer’s dominant Jeopardy! run came to an end last night, leaving him less than $60,000 short of Ken Jennings’ legendary record. For months, it seemed that Holzhauer was unbeatable, as his aggressive mindset allowed him to have insurmountable leads by the end of each night. Most people assumed that he would far surpass Jennings’ earnings and set a brand new, potentially untouchable record.

So who finally defeated the loose canon gambler? Meet Emma Boettcher, who was equipped with a specific set of skills that allowed her to take down her formidable opponent. What set her apart from the 65 other challengers Holzhauser faced? She’s a librarian and she approached Jeopardy with an academic ferocity that would make Hermione Granger proud.

Boettcher currently works as the “user experience resident librarian,” at the University of Chicago, which basically means that she helps visitors find books in the most efficient and informative way possible. That alone makes her a natural fit for Jeopardy! but she’s been preparing for this moment since her time as a grad student at UNC, where she literally wrote her master’s thesis about the trivia show. “What is Difficulty?: Estimating the Difficulty of Fact-Finding Questions Using the Jeopardy Archive” won her the library school’s Elfreda Chatman Research Award and showed that she had a deep understanding of the show that would make her a distinct threat.

It’s this background that allowed her to play pretty much the perfect game that knocked Holzhauser off the throne. By the time Final Jeopardy rolled around, the 32-game champion found his fate in the hands of an opponent. He had earned $23,400 while Boettcher was in the lead with $26,600. Holzhauser’s mastery of strategy and odds made him realize that his only shot at winning was Boettcher missing Final Jeopardy, which is why he bet an unusually low amount. He knew his time on the show was all but over.

“By the time Final Jeopardy rolled around, I knew my goose was cooked if Emma answered correctly. It’s a little like needing a team to miss a last-second field goal — nothing you can really do but watch,” he told The Atlantic. “I made peace with my fate before the clue for Final was even revealed.”

So while Holzhauer’s loss may come as a shock to many, a closer look shows that he finally faced an opponent who understood the game better than him. Because all the strategy and gambling tactics in the world are no match for a good old fashioned bookworm.