This interview with Matt Amodio originally ran in early August amid his record-breaking Jeopardy! run. We’re republishing it now, as the game show begins its new season tonight with Amodio back at the lectern.
So, yeah. You might be aware of some stuff going on over at Jeopardy! right now. Two new hosts? In this economy? Whatever. We’re not here to talk about that. What you need to know is Matt Amodio, a fifth-year computer science Ph.D. student at Yale University, is currently igniting the show with a hot streak that’s placing him into Hall of Fame status alongside legends like James Holzhauer and, dare we say, perhaps even his idol Ken Jennings, if he keeps chugging along: As of publishing time, Amodio has amassed $574,801 over 18 days and is now the fourth-highest earner in the show’s history. He’s also, it goes without saying, extremely intelligent; and also just really damn fun to watch while answering clues … very … slowly. Earlier this week, Vulture had the chance to Zoom with Amodio to learn more about his preparations and strategies for Jeopardy!, which evolved into a more humorous chat about, among other things, TMZ and his love for Jennings.
I feel like the past two weeks of Jeopardy! hosting drama has overshadowed what’s been going on with you in the studio. From the outside, how has it been to see your winning streak unfold?
It’s been amazing. I’m an introverted and quiet person. I generally don’t like my time in the sun, so it’s been strange to get interview requests and hear from people who I haven’t heard from in a long time. Random strangers are emailing me just from finding my email address online. I’ve been getting a ton of attention. Maybe you get used to it over time, but it hasn’t come yet. I’m tickled and a little bit uneasy with all of it. Many Jeopardy! contestants have messaged me with congratulations. I worry about becoming a bit of a villain; a Death Star of someone who just keeps winning. You accumulate reasons to not be liked, you know? I’ve been pleased that everyone has been very nice to me.
Tell me about your relationship with Jeopardy! prior to getting on the show. Did you grow up watching it?
Absolutely I did. It was on in my household from before I was able to understand what the words were. My parents were everyday watchers for my entire life, so I grew up with it. Eventually, I started to be able to interact with the show on my own. I was a huge Ken Jennings fan. It was like a sporting event. If there was gear, I would’ve bought gear and a big foam finger to root him on from my living room. I’m a huge Ken fan. Need to say that again. When I grew up, I started to learn more things, but it never really occurred to me to try out for the show.
When did auditioning eventually occur to you, then?
My dad thinks highly of me. As any dad should, I guess. [Laughs.] He said, “You’re so smart, you should try out for the show.” I said no. I didn’t think I was good enough. Finally, just to shut him up, I obliged and took the online test. That led to an in-person audition and eventually being a contestant. I begrudgingly said, “All right, dad, you were right on this one.” I’m very glad I did it. I was always expecting to be a lifelong fan and viewer. To get the chance to be on the show? I still can’t believe it.
I loved your tweet about Ken knowing who you are and now love it even more given your fanboy status.
I still can’t believe it. In terms of the top moments of my life, I assume getting my Ph.D. will be a good one. When I get married, that’ll be a good one. I’m not sure they’re gonna unseat Ken Jennings recognizing me. That’s really number one in my book.
You’re now the fourth-highest earner in the show’s history. I know this sort of achievement can’t be anticipated from day one, but did you have any goals for yourself before you competed?
I wanted to win one game. Being on the show is a tremendous accomplishment, and I don’t want to denigrate that at all. But once you win, you’re a Jeopardy! champion. You can call yourself a “Jeopardy! champion.” Not a “Jeopardy! participant.” That’s something nobody can take away from you. You might lose the next game, or you might lose 71 games later if you’re Ken Jennings. You’re going to lose eventually. But that never takes away from the descriptor. I wanted to have that under my belt, and I was very worried for most of my first game that it wasn’t appearing to happen. I squeaked one out and it was a close call. I don’t think anything has surpassed that moment winning the first game. But, again, just standing on that stage is such an accomplishment.
Well, your competitors seemed pretty fine with losing to you, if not happy.
I’m as proud of that as anything else. I heard several times — I’ll brag about this — people say, “I couldn’t have lost to a nicer guy.” Those comments made me feel good. I try to be gracious. I mean, I got lucky. I feel like I could’ve easily been on the other side of it. There’s just a lot of things beyond our control about buzzing and answering clues. I didn’t feel like I was in control a lot and just happened to win. There’s nothing to feel bad about at all.
From a mental perspective, how was it filming all of these games back-to-back? How did you stay centered?
I’m not a morning person. I was happy the first day because I started in the afternoon. I’m not my best that early. So the next day, coming back, I was worried. I took way too many energy drinks. I increased Red Bull’s stock valuations during my time there. I stayed energized as well as I could, but it’s a long day. You arrive at 7 a.m. and don’t leave until 8 p.m. I didn’t know how my body would react to that. I was pleased that I didn’t seem to wear down as the days went on, but I’m lucky. I didn’t do anything to earn that. When I knew I was on a roll, every day I went in feeling more fragile than the next. I felt like I was accumulating mistakes that I had made. In my head I was like, Oh man, I made that mistake, it didn’t cost me but next time it will. I knew from the opponents I was facing how intimidated they were by me, but meanwhile it felt like I was shattering little bits at a time on the inside. I never really felt like I was on a roll.
Has computer science, or studying artificial intelligence and machine learning, influenced your strategy at all?
I’m deep into the world of both of those things. And you know what I learned? I know it’s not good enough to help at this task at all. [Laughs.] I’ve read about other people who posted blogs over the past few years who wrote stuff like, “I analyzed the topics that are most likely to come up.” All of these Watson-like techniques to do it. I write those algorithms. I build those models in my research. And I know how bad they are and how much work they need. I wasn’t going to rely on that for Jeopardy! My studying was good old-fashioned reading. I just read a lot. I knew my weaknesses coming in. I’m a computer science student, but my recreational reading is history, geography, and literature. I love classical music. I was thrilled to answer all of those clues.
What were your weaknesses?
Anything that has ever been published in TMZ in the last ten years. Pop culture in general. I did my best. Thankfully, if there’s one thing the internet has information on, it’s celebrities. [Laughs.] That’s pretty easy. I did my best to be interested in the minutiae of the celebrity eye. I’m naturally a curious person, which helps, but I still went in very skeptical. This is gonna be miserable every second I spend on TMZ reading about these people. But as I learned more, I was able to appreciate the nuances of things and started asking questions. I would read about Brad Pitt and how he was married to Jennifer Aniston before Angelina Jolie. How did that end? Well, that was an interesting outcome. I found myself interested in the answers to these questions more than I thought I would be. I went down Wikipedia pages for a lot of awards shows and then went down the rabbit holes of links.
What was the most interesting piece of information you learned from TMZ?
I’ll drop a celebrity marriage for this one: To learn that Elvis Presley’s daughter was married to Nicolas Cage. I was like, There’s no way that’s the same Presley? There can’t be two Presley families in pop culture? That blew my mind. Two worlds colliding.
People keep fixating on how you like to start your responses with “what’s,” which I don’t recall past contestants doing. What’s the reasoning behind that?
I’ve never been on television before, so the one thing I was very concerned about going in was … however calm and collected I am now in my personal life, I might go on Jeopardy! and forget what my name is. I don’t know if I’m gonna have stage fright. I went in trying to think about what moving parts I can eliminate that I just don’t have to worry about. One less thing to go wrong. That was the reasoning behind the “what’s.”
I knew the show accepted that response as okay. Through watching I knew what the rules were, so I devised a plan within the rules to keep me from messing up. That motivated a lot of my strategizing going in. What can I do to make my life easier at that moment? Once that moment starts, who knows what is going to happen.
Did your strategy change as the show went on and you grew more comfortable?
It actually did. I had these ideas in my mind, Well, this is what I’ll do if I’m good on the buzzer, but this is what I’ll do if I’m not having a good time on the buzzer. I had a lot of those types of conditionals on my mind. I went through good and bad games on the buzzer. I think the important thing was not going in too rigidly and being able to change based on the environment that played out.
What’s your Daily Double ideology?
Oh, I’ve thought about that a lot. One thing that frustrates me on behalf of people when I watch is when they get a Daily Double in a close game, bet timidly, get it right, and then get slightly outplayed for the rest of the show and lose in a close game. If they had just bet on themselves, they could’ve won big. So, the main thing I went in with was the idea that, I know a lot of the Daily Double answers, not every single one, but I know a lot. If I have the opportunity to, I’m not gonna let timidity get in my way. I’ll bet on myself and try to take the game out of the control of the opponents. It’s scary.
James Holzhauer defined his Jeopardy! strategy as “strategically aggressive.” How would you define yours?
The opposite. If I had to put one word on my strategy sheet, it’s “cautious.” I realize that’s deceptive because it might seem not cautious to bet a large amount on a Daily Double, but it’s a cautious move if you’re worried that you don’t have control of the rest of the game. If you’re on the stage and it’s your Daily Double, that’s where you have the most control. That’s also the reason why I try to speak as slowly as possible.
I’ve gotten criticisms from strangers about that, which is fine. Haters gonna hate. [Laughs.] You have a couple of seconds before the timer goes off. I don’t have to hastily say something. I always try to slow the game down and use every second I’m given by the rules of the show to make sure I’m comfortable with my answer and go on that basis.
You’ve had the wild distinction of appearing on the show with four hosts. Who’s been your personal favorite?
Oh my God, that’s so hard to pick. As a parent, you’re not supposed to choose favorites, right? I’ll give you a tie. I live and breathe baseball, so to get to play with Joe Buck was tremendous. I didn’t know what to expect going in because I’ve never seen him in any context other than calling baseball games, but he brought such energy to the show. His voice gives the roller coaster building up to the climax. He treats Jeopardy! like a sports game. I was on the stage constantly smiling and laughing when he was hosting. I’ll also give a shoutout to David Faber. I wasn’t familiar with David prior to meeting him, so I had no expectations. He came in so prepared and so charismatic and calm. If I had a chance to be friends with David, I think I could spend significant amounts of time with him and enjoy it.
You have more than $500,000 at the time of this interview. Any idea how you’ll be spending it?
I’ll be saving it. I’ve been living from small Ph.D. paycheck to small Ph.D. paycheck for a long time now. Rent in New Haven isn’t cheap. It’s going to be awesome to have a cushion and a rainy-day fund that I hopefully won’t have to dip into for some time. It’ll definitely ease the stress. I’m gonna do the boring thing and try to invest it wisely. I’m learning about the art of investing. It’s fun … I guess.