this! is! an interview!

Jeopardy!’s Sam Buttrey Hopes You’ll Invite Him to Your Fancy Parties

“I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to compete with these young people. I was delighted to learn I was competitive.” Photo: Tyler Golden/Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

The house always wins at casinos, and the board always wins at Jeopardy! Never has that proverb been more obvious than in this year’s Tournament of Champions, where megachamps Matt Amodio and Mattea Roach fell in their semifinal matches — leaving room for Sam Buttrey, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and the 2021 Professors Tournament victor, to swoop into one of the coveted final spots. Alongside software developer Andrew He, he pushed Amy Schneider into an epic six-game standoff before she clinched the tournament on Monday night. Yet Buttrey emerged as the standout contestant thanks to his delightful mannerisms and dance moves, winning one game in this series of smarts. Now, having time to reflect on the experience, he hopes it can usher in more unique opportunities in its aftermath. “The fact that you’re willing to take part of your day to ask me questions,” he said, “is a big win for me.”

Has Steve Martin been in contact yet?
He hasn’t, and it’s disappointing. I had that whole Steve Martin bit worked up and I was anticipating at least … something. He’s a busy man. It’s amusing that a lot of people think I look like him, and I’d be interested in knowing his take.

What’s the ideal endgame here? Jam session at his place?
I’m hoping this “fame” gives me an opportunity to have some experiences I wouldn’t have otherwise have. That might be a conversation with Steve Martin or getting the opportunity to see him perform. I hope Steve Martin is amused rather than annoyed.

What’s an experience not related to Steve Martin that you’d like to enjoy now?
It would come down to meeting people whose work I admire. Maybe they would say, Oh, you’re the guy from Jeopardy! If Tina Fey or John Krasinski or Simu Liu were to call me up out of the blue … the last one was for my wife. I don’t think I’ll get a new career out of this or a bunch of money, but I think it would be amusing to get invited to nice parties, for example. I was just reading about the basement at Barbra Streisand’s house, where she has little shops set up to display all of the things she’s acquired during her career.

With your job, you had the unique opportunity to choose your path to getting onto the show, either with the Professors Tournament or the regular season. What made you go with the one dedicated to your craft?
I wasn’t explicitly given the opportunity to be on regular Jeopardy! They called me up and said, We’re having this tournament just for professors. Would you like to be in it? My wife and I were on vacation down in Mexico and it was all a blur. I suppose if I had my wits about me, I might have said, Look, am I being given a choice between these two options? But as soon as I heard “come on Jeopardy!”, I was all in. When people tell me, Isn’t it a shame that you didn’t get a chance to play in the regular season because you might’ve won a bunch of games, I don’t have an opinion on that. I’m not going to feel bad about what Jeopardy! has given me.

The professors were a great group of people. I loved being in an environment where new people weren’t coming in and old people weren’t going out. We were all a cohesive group. Almost all of us went out to dinner after the tournament ended.

How long had you been trying to get on Jeopardy! prior to the Professors Tournament?
On and off for at least ten years. No, more than that. My wife is also a Jeopardy! fan and has tried to get on the show as well. I had gone to a hotel up in the Bay Area years ago to audition, and my wife had gone to hotels three times. But she’s not a professor by trade, so — ha! Don’t tell her I said that. [Laughs.] I even mailed in stuff back in the day to try to become a contestant. I’ve been watching the show regularly for quite some time. Even during the Art Fleming days.

What were your goals or expectations with the Tournament of Champions?
It’s hard to have any goal when you’re coming into a group filled with people who are really, really good at what they do. I had told myself that if I flame out in the first round, I still have plenty to be proud of. But deep in my heart my goal was to get to the second round. It’s asking a lot of myself to outright win a game, but, boy, wouldn’t it be something to get into the second round? That was my thinking at the time. When you’re able to win that first game, you’re playing to win. Then I realized I had to play against one of those three super-champions next. I had to come out swinging and see if things broke my way. And they did. But I would’ve been pretty excited if I won the first game and got crushed by Matt Amodio.

How did knowing your competition inform your strategy going into the tournament?
My strategy changed during the tournament when I realized I was being dumb. I should’ve learned this earlier from James Holzhauer or even Matt, hunting for Daily Doubles from day one. I didn’t internalize that strategy until further along in the tournament. But Amy Schneider doesn’t do that, and she’s very successful.

My big worry was the buzzer. It’s a huge part of the game and it’s very difficult to prepare for. The studio has two columns of bright white lights that turn on when you’re able to ring in. It’s not enough to know the answer to the clue — you have to buzz in first. If you press the button too early, you’re locked out for a quarter of a second. So training for the buzzer is hard, since you don’t get to see those white lights. Listen, I’m an old guy. I was told that I’m the oldest person to ever compete in the Tournament of Champions. I felt that my reaction time was going to be what brought me down. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to compete with these young people. I was delighted to learn I was competitive.

Buzzer theory is much more complex than exercising your thumb, that’s for sure.
When I was first practicing for the Professors Tournament, I used a little spring device that holds toilet paper. It’s about the right size. When I first arrived at the tournament, the contestant coordinators said something like, “You don’t want to just buzz in once; you want to buzz in multiple times.” I took that to heart, so I ended up with this two-handed grip that nobody else uses. The purpose of that is to get the index finger into play and to be able to repeatedly buzz.

A lot of people, including myself, assumed the finals would consist of an Amy-Matt-Mattea showdown, which in hindsight was a dumb thing to believe. When you defeated Matt in your semifinal game, what was going through your mind?
At that level, the game is very variable. There’s a lot of one-time luck that has to do with the board and the Daily Doubles. I suspect that if I played Matt one hundred times, I’d win a chunk of those games, but who knows what the specific number would be. It’s correct to say I beat Matt, but it’s probably more correct to say I won a game in which Matt was playing. It’s almost as if all of us were playing against the board. I don’t think I could’ve won a game that Matt was playing in, or that Amy was playing in, without a very strong third player. I did feel that any one of the three super-champions could’ve been beaten. We’ve all seen them be beaten.

I will say — for about 30 minutes after the game I won against Matt, the only thing I could say was, “Holy cow.” That was certainly one of the top moments of the past decade for me.

You played six games in total with Amy and Andrew for the finals, clinching one win. What have you learned about yourself after competing against some of the smartest people in the country?
The knowledge that it takes to be good on Jeopardy! is very incomplete and shallow. To be good at Jeopardy!, you don’t have to know things, you just have to know about things. One thing that studying for Jeopardy! did was make me appreciate all the things I need to learn before I die. I need to listen to more music and I need to read better books. But I was happy to learn that I could compete in this form. In the first few games, I took a bit of a beating from Andrew and Amy. Winning one game against them persuaded me that I’m pretty good at Jeopardy! 

What will you look back on most fondly from this experience?
Winning a game in the finals is a big deal, but the bigger deal was winning the game against Matt. He’s sort of like Andrew in his ability and strength. It was a must-win game.

What Jeopardy! category would you get every single clue correct?
I would have said “Before, During, and After,” which is my favorite category. You piece together three answers and they all overlap. Wordplay categories play to my strengths. But I didn’t get them all against Amy and Andrew. So I’ll say “Old Baseball.” Or “Dance Hits of the 1980s.”

The Doja Cat community is rallying behind you after you correctly and enthusiastically answered a clue about her. Tell me more about your taste in music. Do your students keep you apprised about the Billboard Hot 100?
My students are military officers, so … no. They’re fine people, hard workers, and smart, but they’re not hip in any way.

My apologies to your students reading this interview.
[Laughs.] A lot of Jeopardy! clues give you a bit of extra information, and in this case, it was “feline.” That was a huge giveaway. How I knew that name, I’m not sure. Maybe she appeared on Saturday Night Live, which I watch every week. I tried to give a little C’mon, it’s got to be obvious in my answer. There isn’t much room for hilarious improvisation in the middle of a game of Jeopardy! and I was delighted to be able to do that. One of the things you need to know to be on the show is pop culture. I’m not very good at it, but I knew Doja Cat. Just the other day, I was listening to one of her songs to see what I had missed. It’s not entirely to my taste, but it’s solid. I’d listen to more.

You’re a keyboard player, and as you told Ken in an anecdote, your music can range from “the unfunny all the way to the offensive.” What do you enjoy playing most?
I’m a traditional jazz guy. I haven’t played with a band much. I don’t want to say “cocktail piano,” but I love to play traditional jazz. If I were in a band, I think I would be playing rock music, which I enjoy listening to. Or ska or reggae because those are fun to play. I even enjoy listening to classical music.

I checked out your SoundCloud page and you haven’t uploaded a new song in a year. What’s the deal?
I have a song, which is hilarious to me, but it’s sufficiently X-rated. I won’t give you the key lines. I took it down because I was going to be on Jeopardy!, and I didn’t want the Jeopardy! people to find it and think I’m a scumbag. I’ve tried to keep the SoundCloud page family-friendly.

Jeopardy!’s Sam Buttrey Is Waiting for Steve Martin’s Call