James Holzhauer one win away from ‘Jeopardy!’ Tournament of Champions title

“Emma, it’s payback time.”

That’s what “Jeopardy!” whiz James Holzhauer jokingly said ahead of Thursday night’s rematch against foe Emma Boettcher. The 27-year-old librarian from Chicago famously beat Holzhauer on June 3, ending his epic 32-game win streak on the iconic game show.

But the 35-year-old professional sports gambler from Las Vegas made good on his payback promise against Boettcher and Teachers Tournament winner Francois Barcomb, a 50-year-old physics teacher from New Paltz, NY, in the first half of the “Jeopardy!” Tournament of Champions finals.

Host Alex Trebek dubbed the competitors something of a “fantasy league trio” at the top of the show. All three wore purple ribbons in memory of fallen competitor Larry Martin, a second-grade teacher from Kansas City, Mo., who died at 61 of pancreatic cancer in January.

Ever unflappable, Holzhauer held the lead throughout the game, ending the first round with the highest score on the podium: $5,000. Then, going into Final Jeopardy, Holzhauer racked up $37,412 to Boettcher’s $13,200 and Barcomb’s $7,800. Unlike a regular-season “Jeopardy!” game, which is just a single night, whichever contestant has the most money cumulatively at the end of Friday’s game will take home the $250,000 Tournament of Champions grand prize — and bragging rights.

Holzhauer and Boettcher both aced the final question, ending the first night of play with $49,326 and $26,400, respectively. Barcomb, meanwhile, still has $1,800 going into Friday night’s game.

When Trebek asked Holzhauer if his televised cash haul has made him any more conservative in his real-life gambling endeavors, the night’s big winner said, “Oh, goodness no,” flashing a bashful smile. “I still have the app set to ‘Bet the Max’ whenever possible.”

Over the summer, “Jeopardy!” lovers closely tracked Holzhauer’s exciting chase of legend Ken Jennings’ regular-season consecutive win record (74 games) and regular-season earnings record ($2.5 million). During his run of 32 wins in the regular season, Holzhauer earned $2.4 million.

Sharing their excitement — mostly on Twitter — “Jeopardy James” fans are eager to see Holzhauer best the contestant who brought him down.

The Tournament of Champions — which “Jeopardy!” hosts about every two years or so — started last Monday with 15 of the most successful players since the last champion tourney. The five winners of the games during the first week, plus the four other contestants with the highest dollar-value scores, faced off Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week in the semifinals, with Boettcher, Holzhauer and Barcomb emerging as victors.

A clip of Boettcher’s semifinal game went viral because another contestant, Dhruv Gaur of Brown University (who won the College Tournament last year), penned a heartfelt note to legendary host Trebek on his podium screen during the Final Jeopardy round.

The 79-year-old host — who is battling pancreatic cancer — choked up and held back tears when he read Gaur’s answer (in the form of a question): “What is ‘We [love] you, Alex!,’” with a heart standing in for the word “love.”

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