The ‘Jeopardy’ contestant who beat James Holzhauer has lost. Meet the Cambridge man who defeated her.

"I’m in this weird position where the first time I saw James Holzhauer play 'Jeopardy!,' he lost."

Brendan Roach Jeopardy Alex Trebek
Cambridge resident Brendan Roach with "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek. –Courtesy Brendan Roach

Emma Boettcher made history on Monday’s episode of “Jeopardy!” by defeating 32-day champion James Holzhauer before he could break the show’s all-time money record. On Thursday’s episode, the University of Chicago librarian’s run came to an end, thanks to Cambridge resident Brendan Roach.

“Honestly, it hasn’t really sunk in yet,” Roach, who won $38,200 in the episode, told Boston.com on Friday.

After earning his Master of Public Policy degree from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in 2018, Roach was ready to start a new job in Cambridge as the Morton L. Mandel Presidential Fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in September 2018, but delayed his start date so he could audition for “Jeopardy!” in New York.

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When Roach arrived for his episode taping on March 12, he met his fellow contestants for that week’s episodes, including his eventual opponents: Boettcher and Alabama freelance writer Salomé Gonstad. Then, Roach recalled the mixture of incredulity and dread he felt as a “Jeopardy!” employee introduced the contestants to the defending champion: Holzhauer.

“This is our defending champion, James,” Roach recalled a producer saying. “James, how many games have you won?”

“32.”

“James, how much money have you won?”

“About $2.4 million.”

“We were doing in the math in our heads,” Roach said, “and we were like, how is that even possible?”

“Jeopardy!” tapes a week’s worth of episodes per day, and producers didn’t choose the two challengers to face Holzhauer until right before taping started. Roach said he was steeling himself to face the “Jeopardy!” juggernaut whenever his name was called.

“Right up until we were about to start taping episode one of that day, any of us thought we could have gone up against James,” Roach said. “And then the first episode we taped, Emma knocked him off.

“I’m in this weird position where the first time I saw James Holzhauer play ‘Jeopardy!,’ he lost.”

When it was Roach’s turn behind the podium, Boettcher had won three games and a total of $97,002. But by the time Final Jeopardy rolled around, Roach found himself in the lead with $19,200, with Boettcher close on his heels with $19,000 and Gonstad with a respectable $16,400.

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When host Alex Trebek announced the category (“American Music Legends”), Roach thought he was in trouble.

“If there’s one area where I’m weak, it’s music,” Roach said. “I was really disappointed to see the category.”

Nevertheless, Roach bet $19,000, and after the clue was revealed (“Steinbeck called him ‘just a voice and a guitar’ but said his songs embodied ‘the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression’), Roach correctly answered with  “Who is Woody Guthrie?”. Gonstad, who also chose Guthrie, finished in second, while Boettcher finished in third after guessing incorrectly.

“I put that big wager down because I figured this is my only shot on ‘Jeopardy!,’ so I might as well go down swinging,” Roach said. “Then the clue came up, and somehow, thank God, I knew the answer right away.”

While the show’s non-disclosure agreement meant that Roach couldn’t discuss Friday night’s episode during his Friday morning interview with Boston.com, he emerged victorious, earning $20,500 on the night and taking his two-day total to $58,700.

Instead, Roach talked about the surreal experience of watching himself on TV with friends at Charlie’s Kitchen in Harvard Square on Thursday night.

“Taping that episode was such a blur and such an adrenaline rush even before it was decided,” Roach said. “Watching last night, it was almost like I got to watch it new myself. I forgot how close that game was, and how good everyone was, too.”

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