this! is! an interview!

Amy Schneider and Matt Amodio Browsed Reddit Before Their Big Jeopardy! Tournament

“I’m hypercompetitive, and there was stress because I wanted to go in and win. But it didn’t interfere with the fun,” Amodio says. Photo: Jeopardy Productions

Over the past year, you didn’t need to check local listings to know that something pretty astonishing was making the Jeopardy! world all abuzz. No, not the hosting thing. Or the other hosting thing. Rather, mega-champion after mega-champion was dominating the podium in a way never experienced in the show’s history, kind of like a bunch of academic Pokémon evolving with each new blue screen. This polymath progression began in the summer of 2021 with computer science Ph.D. student Matt Amodio, who won 38 games; engineering manager Amy Schneider soon followed with 40 games won; and then, finally, with tutor Mattea Roach in the spring of 2022, who clinched 23 games. Rideshare driver Ryan Long also entered the show’s leaderboard of legends with a victorious 16 games mere days after Roach departed. What the hell is in that Culver City water? Clue molecules?

Amodio, Schneider, and Roach are now competing in Jeopardy!’s Tournament of Champions — the true Super Bowl of knowledge — which will be airing, at minimum, until Wednesday, November 16, given the required three-game count to win. While we won’t know until the end of the week if they’ll indeed all make it out of their semifinal rounds, the trio participated in the first of its kind “exhibition” match on Tuesday, November 8, which allowed them to play against each other as contestants. (Roach won, by the way.) Amodio and Schneider, both of whom were nervous going into the tournament, prepared in different but effective ways.

Matt, your reign of intellectual terror last year set off a wave of mega-champions that the show had never experienced before. What was it like for you, Amy, to watch his run before you became a contestant?
Amy Schneider: It was intimidating because it was still going on when I went down to tape my episodes. When I flew down, for all I knew, Matt was still going to be there. It was a relief not to see him. It was funny because when I won all of those games, I thought to myself, Boy, I bet Matt is sitting there thinking his record is going to stand for a while. I wound up having the same experience in reverse with Mattea Roach.

I’d like to pose the same question to you, Matt. During Amy’s historic run, what were your impressions of her as a player?
Matt Amodio: I was very impressed. I did think I’d have that record for a long time, two months at least. But it turned out to not be that. I rooted for Amy the entire time. It was possible in my mind that somebody, let’s say, harder to root for would be taking down my record. But I’m happy Amy is so great. I’m an advanced-statistics kind of guy; I was looking to see if the next person who gave me a run for my money would be a fluke. Amy is incredible up and down the board. It was hard not to root for her in spite of it.

I’m curious as to how you two prepared to play against each other. What were your strategies during the regular season, and how much did you alter them for the tournament?
MA: I really think of Jeopardy! as a game of “you versus the board” or “you versus the writers.” Even though we have opponents next to us, I don’t think of them as my opponents in the same way that the board is. That was my strategy during the regular season, and it didn’t change, even when I knew I was going to be up against much stiffer competition.

AS: The thing I organized my thinking around was eliminating everything that keeps me from thinking about the next clue, or eliminating any extra things to be thinking about as much as possible. The difference for the tournament was, well, I was on Reddit seeing people’s commentary about me my first time around, and they felt I was suboptimal in certain ways. Most of the comments didn’t seem worth it to me, but the one thing I did realize was I needed to pay more attention to looking for Daily Doubles, keeping an eye on where they had been and where they were likely to show up again. That was one thing I changed. Another thing I changed was for Final Jeopardy!: Practicing writing my answer down and staying calm if it didn’t come to me right away. That got into my head during my first run.

Matt, did you also consult Reddit about your performance?
MA: I glanced at it, I have to say. And it’s a little presumptuous of me, I admit. I’ve watched a lot of Jeopardy! in my life, so I came about my strategy from decades of honing it in my mind hypothetically. I was pretty happy about my Daily Double hunting strategy being the best anyone could think of. I didn’t think about anything else other than the question ahead. I totally understand Amy’s perspective there. I worked really hard to get to a place where I was comfortable before stepping onstage. I was proud of how it played out. There are Redditors giving feedback, but for the most part, I said, No, I think I did it right, thanks, though.

Did social media help inform your gameplay in other ways?
AS: The need to look for Daily Doubles more was definitely a big help. People also had comments about my wagering. It’s not that they were wrong, but there’s a lot going on and I was doing the best I could. In retrospect, I could see that some of my wagers were suboptimal. What I realized during my run was that the part of my brain that does simple arithmetic just isn’t engaged when I play Jeopardy! I find it incredibly difficult to do basic addition and subtraction. I didn’t expect that.

MA: I was very happy that we have little pencils and papers to do our wagers during the commercial break before Final Jeopardy! When I doubled the second-place score and everything, I’d always add the number twice together, multiply by two, and do some dividing and subtracting, the same arithmetic over and over again to make sure I came to the same answer. There’s now a time limit on Final Jeopardy! wagering, actually, because the producers don’t want you to take all day. I’m glad it wasn’t there when I was playing. Maybe they did it because of me.

What were your respective levels of confidence going into the tournament?
AS: I really wasn’t sure how confident to be. Having everybody — friends, family, strangers — being like, “You’re going to win, and you’re going to crush it,” wasn’t helpful to me. From the statistics-head perspective, I felt that, going in, Matt was the slight favorite. But there is so much luck to this game. Will your timing be there on the day a year after the first time around? That’s so important. So I went in feeling like I could win. That was what I was there to do.

MA: I didn’t like the feeling that, like Amy said, among friends and family I was the runaway favorite going in and they could hardly fathom the possibility where I didn’t win. That’s just not helpful. I felt less confident about myself than I felt that other people around me felt in me. The underlying skill differential between me, Amy, and other top players wasn’t as wide as other people would think.

How thoroughly did you two research each other as opponents? I guess I’m interested in, say, if you went so far as to look into statistics, weaknesses — that sort of thing.
AS: I thought about it a bit. I didn’t research much beyond just watching Jeopardy! What I came up with was, Don’t play the way Matt wants to play. That’s why I tended to start at the top of the board. Not that I thought it made much difference. Ultimately, you’re up against the board. There’s not really anything you can do about the other contestants. The right move in every situation is to ring in on the next clue and give the correct response, no matter who you’re playing against or what’s going on.

MA: I’ll admit that I looked into our buzzer timing. At the very end of Amy’s run, Jeopardy! started to introduce buzzer stats for each day on its website after each game. I’m very self-conscious and think I’m terrible at the buzzer. I think I don’t get it about a third of the time in three-way battles and 50 percent of the time in two-way battles. I think I’m bad, but it’s probably because I want to get in on every single one. I looked into where Amy ranked on that compared to me. But it doesn’t really do any good, you know? It can’t change the strategy. It’s just trying to gauge where you are as opposed to informing strategy.

AS: Throughout my run and the tournament, if I didn’t get in on the buzzer for four or five clues, I would think, Oh no, I’ve lost it all. It’s gone. It’s ridiculous, but I couldn’t help myself.

MA: For perspective, another thing affecting my confidence was it always felt like it took me quite a while to ramp up. Streaks are harder because of the endurance factor, but streaks are easier because you have a lot of runway to practice and you can get into a groove and improve your timing. I always felt the mornings were my worst games.

Did you find your strategies shifting by necessity?
AS: There wasn’t necessarily a lot of time for that to happen. I don’t think so. Part of my philosophy was that everything seemed to work well the first time, so don’t change for the sake of changing.

MA: I take a mathematician’s and engineer’s point of view. If it’s better, then I should’ve been doing it all along anyway. I feel confident that my strategy was still the best.

Do you share that point of view, Amy?
AS: I was a programmer for my whole career, so I’m sure that had some influence somewhere. I think more of my strategy was almost from a therapist’s perspective. I was focused on the psychological side. How do I find that focus? How do I stay in it? How do I not beat myself up when things go wrong?

Tell me about actually going into the studio to film the tournament. Would you say this was a fun experience, or did the competition get into your head?
AS: It was absolutely fun. There was the stress and pressure of it, sure. But that’s fun in its own way too. One of the great things was, among all of the contestants, we all enjoyed each other’s company. It was such a great group of people. We all shared the same weird experience of winning on Jeopardy! It was nice to be around people who understood that.

MA: I second everything there, just a wonderful group to get to know. I’m hypercompetitive, and there was stress because I wanted to go in and win. But it didn’t interfere with the fun. That’s not orthogonal to the fun; that’s part of the fun. If there were no consequences, having fun, and partying, it wouldn’t have been as much fun.

Viewers have a lot of ideas about why Jeopardy! is suddenly dominated by mega-champions — we have you two and Mattea, of course, and Ryan Long. I did the math, and you four won a collective 117 games in the span of about a year. What do you credit this pronounced uptick to? Is it something that can easily be explained?
AS: At first, I was inclined to say it was statistical clustering and it was bound to happen at some point. But then it kept happening and I found it harder to credit that. Maybe it’s a combination of the test being more accessible and being available to take anytime. You don’t have to remember certain dates and times to audition. There are probably people who were always a lot better than they thought they were and always meant to get around to it, so it was easier for them to take the test. For me, for instance, I had been trying to get on Jeopardy! for 13 years. How could any recent change explain a group of people that includes me, who had been trying that whole time? I really don’t know.

MA: I have questions, rather than answers. The one I’d fight back against, though, is I hear that a lot of people think it’s a burst of preparation. Like, you have people who are more prepared now. I don’t think that’s a fully thought-out or valid explanation. I look back at the show’s history when I was growing up watching it, and they often had some of the best trivia people in the world, the people who would attend national trivia championships and beat every other person in the country. And then they’d arrive at Jeopardy! and end up in third place. So I think that if it was preparation, we would’ve seen the people who prepare for trivia the most winning all along. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t think it’s that.

AS: I agree with that essentially, but it reminded me of something I noticed. Matt and I were at a recent trivia-themed charity event with top-level trivia people, and I was like, “Oh, I’m actually not good at trivia per se. I’m just good at this show because I’ve been watching and preparing my whole life.” It’s highly overlapping, but not quite the same skill set.

Do you get the sense that the game has fundamentally changed with all of these winning streaks?
AS: Maybe the perception of it or the way people think about or watch the show. I’m really curious to see over the next year or two if there will be more long streaks or if it settles back into the pattern it used to be in. I have no prediction.

MA: Likewise. I could see it going both ways. I also know that the Jeopardy! contestant staff had been operating under the same pandemic restrictions as everybody else, and they’ll presumably be going back out there in person a little more often. There are all sorts of things that make this a very special period of history.

When I talked to Ken Jennings about it a few weeks ago, he attributed it to the fact that Jeopardy! is in its “moneyball” era.
MA: There are several close calls. There are games where I think I could’ve played with a very poor strategy and still done very well. There are some games intermingled around my stretch where it was just a clue or two that pushed me to win. It was turning over the Daily Double or not that helped me win; otherwise, I might’ve had a seven- or 12-day streak. The strategy of optimizing when I can get the Daily Doubles, every little bit, might have edged me forward in a game and given me another stretch of wins. I totally buy Ken’s argument.

AS: I think it’s plausible. I do think, though, that idea has been around for a while. The post–James Holzhauer era is people doing different wagering. My whole life I’ve been like, People are wagering too conservatively! And then I got onstage and realized why they wagered conservatively. It’s hard to bet like you theoretically should.

MA: It’s necessary but not sufficient.

If you were given the opportunity to play against Ken, would you do it?
AS: Of course. Like, absolutely!

MA: I find it a little suspicious that he has “retired from Jeopardy! to host the show” just as we’ve come onto the scene. It sounds like he’s afraid of something.

AS: The only argument to me against Ken getting the hosting job is that he now can’t play. That and I can’t be friends with him.

MA: It buoys my spirit a little bit because obviously he wasn’t going to be friends with me anyway, but now I can say it’s because of those game-show regulations.

Amy and Matt Browsed Reddit Before Big Jeopardy! Tournament