this! is! a winner!

A Talk With That Cool-Glasses Guy Who Defeated Amy Schneider on Jeopardy!

“I think it really helped that I let go of winning. I was so Zen-like and happy.” Photo: Casey Durkin/Sony Pictures Television

What is … a yellow-hued defeat? After winning an astounding 40 games, amassing over $1.3 million in winnings, and cementing her status as an all-time Jeopardy! legend, Amy Schneider was defeated on Wednesday’s episode by Rhone Talsma, a librarian from Chicago with impeccable taste in eyewear and zippy buzzer skills. The slaying occurred at the end of the Final Jeopardy round, when Talsma, within reach of Schneider’s winnings, pounced with his robust geographical knowledge; he knew the answer to “the only nation in the world whose name in English ends with ‘h,’” while Schneider did not. (It’s Bangladesh, by the way.) Talsma walked away from the lectern with an even $29,600 compared to Schneider’s $19,600.

Talsma, who filmed his big game against Schneider in early November, hopped on the phone with Vulture for a debrief about the experience — which he had to keep a secret until now. We chatted about his whirlwind day in the studio, how being a librarian enhanced his gameplay, and why he thinks Ken Jennings should be the show’s permanent host.

Congratulations! The secret is out.
I can’t imagine how Amy and other Jeopardy! champions deal with this attention. We’re regular people and not used to being in the limelight. We’re a bunch of nervous and self-conscious nerds. It’s really intense, but I’m so grateful.

I simply must begin by asking about your glasses.
I wish they had a cooler story, but I bought them from an Instagram ad for an online glasses company called Nihao Optical. I have a lot of accessories in this color, so I thought, Why not? I took a risk, and the second I put them on, I was like, This is the look! It’s my new signature look! A month after I got the glasses, I auditioned, and people certainly commented on them during the audition. I do feel like they got me there, on some level. It’s a nice way to stand out.

I love that Buzzy Cohen is challenging you as Jeopardy!’s official dandy.
That could never happen. He was wearing these custom-tailored suits and stuff like that, and I was there in head-to-toe Uniqlo. [Laughs.] No contest, he’s the winner.

Tell me about your history with the show. Was it a longtime goal of yours to be a contestant?
Absolutely. I’ve been watching Jeopardy! my entire life. My first memory of the show was Ken’s winning streak when I was a kid. My uncle was a huge Jeopardy! fan. I have great memories watching it with him. I’ve always had a knack for trivia and memorization, especially with geography, history, and social sciences, which come up a lot on the show. I realized when I was getting older that I was getting a lot of the clues right. By the time I was out of college, I decided it was my dream and I wanted to be a contestant. I started taking the online test once a year for the past five years. 2021 was the first year I got invited to audition, and I made it to the stage.

When you arrived at the studio, was Amy far enough into her run that you knew who she was?
I didn’t. The next taping day after us was after Thanksgiving, and her first episode aired on November 17, about a week after I beat her. She was the first person in the greenroom who I saw and introduced myself to. There was another contestant, Joanne, who played earlier in the week; she was the only person who knew Amy was the returning champion and had won so many games. Before we were even briefed, Joanne got Amy to tell me she won 38 times.

Were you like, Oh, shit?
Pretty much that. [Laughs.] It was a kaleidoscope of emotions. I couldn’t settle on one. Part of me went into this thinking that it’s such a huge accomplishment to begin with. I’m a librarian from Chicago and not in the limelight at all, and to get to do something like this is so rare and special. It was a huge privilege, and I’m a huge fan of the show, so when I found out Amy was going on this record-setting run, I was briefly crestfallen but immediately bounced back. I thought, This is really cool. I’m going to be a part of Jeopardy! history as someone who got Schneider-ed, and people will maybe remember me for my glasses. I wanted to make her sweat a little bit. That’s all I wanted to do. I wanted to let go of any attachment I had to winning or doing super well.

Since Jeopardy! films five episodes a day, I watched Amy play two games before I taped my own episode. She crushed them. I mean, I think those were the two most dominant performances in her run. She destroyed them all. I was shocked by how good she was. So I was watching her and thought, She’s beatable. Random chance plays a huge role in the game. Inevitably, something will happen and she’s not going to make it. Even though I wasn’t going into my game thinking I’d beat her, I had that mindset of, Well, someone might beat her. Maybe not today, but it will happen eventually. I was paying attention to her strategy and decided when I went in that I was going to play differently than she was.

In what ways?
She tends to play from the top of the board to the bottom. She runs those categories, and she’s really good on the buzzer. I realized during rehearsal that I wasn’t half bad at the buzzer myself. I also knew that if I could stay within a decent range of her and find a Daily Double and make some money on that, and if I could get into Final Jeopardy with more than 50 percent of her money total and get Final Jeopardy right while she got it wrong, it would be my path to victory. And that’s exactly what happened. [Laughs.] I bet all of my money on a Daily Double and got it correct, and then it became Amy’s first non-runaway game in quite some time. The Final Jeopardy category was “Countries of the World,” and I could’ve written the clue. It was so in my wheelhouse that it felt like destiny or fate. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it was my knowledge base. I didn’t know for sure that I won until the last second when it was revealed that Amy didn’t get Final Jeopardy correct. I had 30 seconds to celebrate at the end of the episode.

I think it really helped that I let go of winning. I was so Zen-like and happy. I ate a nice lunch beforehand. I was maybe projecting confidence more than I realized. A lot of people told me after I won, Oh, I had a feeling about you, you seemed so confident up there. I didn’t have that feeling at first, but my mindset was so comfortable because I didn’t care. I thought I was destined to lose, so I just did my best. I wasn’t putting that pressure on myself and wasn’t as hard on myself as the other contestants who played against Amy. I didn’t jump in and guess; I only buzzed in when I knew the answers. I stayed calm as much as possible. I was biting her heels like a little dog the whole time.

Did you and Amy have a nice chat after the game?
I wish we could’ve talked more, but Jeopardy! is such a tight ship with the COVID compliances. I had very limited time to debrief with Amy before I played my next game. During the little conversation we had with Ken after the game, it could’ve been about me, but I made it about Amy. I was like, Amy, you’re so amazing, and I’m so humbled. You’re a legend. It was hard to read her reaction to losing. I would love to know how she felt. On some level, there could be a sense of relief, but also disappointment. I don’t know. She did say that she felt glad that I was the one who beat her, and that she liked me. That was validating. We’ve since connected on Instagram. She’s a lot less active on social media than I am. Very good-humored and kind but a lot more reserved. We exchanged a few messages there.

Did you freak out seeing Ken after all these years?
It was like meeting Barack Obama. I was beside myself. It was that level for me in terms of celebrity. I admired him my entire life and have always felt this kinship with him, with his personality and interests. Seeing him be so successful while also being so humble, funny, and himself is so wonderful. If Amy is Ken, I’m now slotted into that Nancy Zerg role. But also, was Ken reliving his own trauma of his run ending while hosting? [Laughs.] But he was so nice to me. He complimented my glasses! I tried to soak up as much as I could. I didn’t really get to express all of this to him, but I’m such a massive fan, and he’s a god. When I found out that Ken was the host, I was so excited and thought, Who cares how I do, I get to meet Ken Jennings!

Should I assume you’d want him to become the permanent host?
If I’m able to endorse a host, I 100 percent endorse Ken Jennings. His knowledge of the game gives him so much credibility. His ability to comment on the way that the game is going, as well as his wit and quickness — being able to make little jokes here and there without taking away the pace of the game — is different from the way Alex hosted but equally effective. There’s nobody better suited for the job.

I found it interesting that both you and Emma Boettcher, the woman who defeated James Holzhauer during his run, both work as librarians. What is it about the profession that helps you excel at Jeopardy!?
Not only that, but we’re both from Chicago and the same age. The parallels between us are crazy. Librarians have a little bit of a reputation in the Jeopardy! fandom. The reason we’re so good on the show is that we’re generalists by trade. I don’t consider myself to have “deep” expertise in a lot of subjects, but we’re very interdisciplinary and know a little bit about everything. We’re able to make connections and recognize patterns. We see names and dates come up a lot and can commit them to memory. Jeopardy! is the same. A broad range of topics come up, and often it’s hitting the surface. It’s not about deep or technical knowledge on a topic but about memorization and recall of the important stuff. As a public librarian, I’m sitting at a reference desk for eight hours a day, and anybody can come up to me and ask me questions. Every single day at work, I learn something new. That’s helped me a lot in getting ready for the show, and it certainly paid off.

If there was a dream Jeopardy! category where you would get every single clue correct, what would it be?
I could do 12 full categories related to Pokémon. I’m humble and self-effacing, but no, if we’re talking about Pokémon trivia, you don’t stand a chance against me. Legends: Arceus comes out on Friday, so it’s been a great week for so many reasons.

A Talk With That Cool Guy Who Defeated Amy Schneider on Jep!