SILS alumna Emma Boettcher (MSIS ’16) makes headlines with 'Jeopardy!' triumph

June 10, 2019

Emma Boettcher (MSIS ’16), an alumna of the UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS), became a media sensation in early June after her defeat of “Jeopardy!” phenomenon James Holzhauer. Before Boettcher’s debut, Holzhauer had enjoyed a 32-game winning streak and amassed $2.46 million, putting him within striking distance of Ken Jennings’ all-time record of $2.52 million. Boettcher won their match-up by betting big on a Double Jeopardy question and in the Final Jeopardy round.

Alex Trebek and Emma Boettcher on the set of Jeopardy
Alex Trebek and Emma Boettcher (MSIS ’16)
on the set of Jeopardy! in March.
Photo courtesy of Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

Boettcher, a UX Librarian at the University of Chicago and long-time “Jeopardy!” fan, had focused her SILS master’s paper on determining the difficulty of "Jeopardy!” questions using textual features.

“Because I was planning to go into UX after graduation, my first thought was to do a UX-related master’s paper,” Boettcher told American Libraries. “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.”

She included nearly 22,000 different “Jeopardy!” clues in the analysis. Her research proposal received the SILS Elfreda Chatman Research Award, and her resulting paper, “Predicting the Difficulty of Trivia Questions Using Text Features” won the Dean’s Achievement Award for best master’s paper at her graduation from SILS in 2016.

“She investigated a real question: how we say things can be manipulated to influence how someone understands or interprets them,” SILS Professor Stephanie Haas told The News & Observer. “That can be fun in a game, but more serious in other settings, for example to mislead people.”

The narrative of a librarian unseating Holzhauer, a professional gambler, captured the attention of dozens of national media outlets, including the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, Washington Post, NBC News, and TIME.com (see a list below with links to some of the coverage).

Boettcher, who “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek nicknamed the Giant Killer, won two more games after her victory over Holzhauer, earning a total of $97,002. She told the New York Times that she plans to use the money to pay off her student loans and give back to SILS.

While members of the SILS community were thrilled by Boettcher’s win, they weren’t surprised that a SILS grad excelled on “Jeopardy!”. The School has seen several alumni compete and win on the show over the years, including Margaret Miles (MSLS ’83), who earned a bit of fame for her banter with Trebek in 2016.

Anyone wondering why librarians make such good “Jeopardy!" contestants should check out SILS Professor Paul Jones’ editorial for WRAL.com “Science behind the 'Jeopardy!' giant killer” or American Libraries’ 2017 feature “The Badass Librarians of Jeopardy!”

sample News coverage of Emma Boettcher's win

Watch Emma Boettcher win on Jeopardy!