In the nearly two decades since Jeopardy! lifted its five-day limit on returning champions, just 11 players have won 10 or more games in a row. Two of them, Matt Amodio and then Jonathan Fisher, played last month. During both contestants’ streaks, Jeopardy! fans—the Jeoparati, if you will—made a sport out of trying to work out when Amodio and Fisher were likeliest to lose. More specifically: They attempted to guess the day of the week it would happen.
The Jeoparati had some data to work with. Of the nine “super champs” who preceded Amodio and Fisher, three each had lost on a Monday or a Wednesday; none had ever lost on a Friday. And sure enough, Amodio fell on a Monday; Fisher, on a Tuesday.
At Jeopardy!, not all days are created equal. The show shoots an entire week of games during each of the 46 tape days in a season, meaning the Monday game is the first one of the day and Friday is the last. They’re long days in the studio, and variables abound. Challengers—who are randomly assigned to one of the five games—might get thrown into the deep end before they’ve gotten a handle on their nerves, or else find themselves groggy after the scheduled lunch break following the day’s second game. They might benefit from surveying the day’s first four games, or they could discover that their adrenaline has come and gone after the better part of 12 hours in the studio.
For most defending champions, the “day of the week” doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on their performance. According to Matt Carberry, a fan who is well-known in the Jeopardy! community for his statistical analyses of the show, champs as a whole have nearly even odds as to which day they might lose, with each weekday registering between 18 and 21 percent of all toppled champs. (One caveat in this data set: Jeopardy! hasn’t always taped five games a day, and occasionally the first taped game does not air on a Monday. But while there are some deviations as a result, those circumstances are relatively rare, particularly in recent seasons.)
But super champs, who by definition win at least two full weeks’ worth of episodes, offer an interesting window into where Jeopardy!’s best players tend to struggle. (Lest you quibble with the sample size, take it from computer science PhD Amodio: “It is a small sample, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t pick a potential pattern out of it,” he says.)
There are, of course, a number of discrete challenges in a given game of Jeopardy!—chiefly, a new slate of clues and new opponents. But as long-running champions start to get comfortable onstage, they often find themselves experiencing two opposing forces: familiarity with the game and exhaustion. “You have momentum, but also you have fatigue,” says nine-time champ Buzzy Cohen. “And you also have the fact that if the right people are sitting in the audience watching you play, they’re getting hungry to beat you.”
That super champs tend to have strong Fridays suggests that a streak can also cut the other way. “When the other contestants are watching a defending champion run off win after win while they’re sitting in the audience, it demoralizes them,” says David Madden, who won 19 games in 2005. “Many people see that and then get into a mindset of ‘I’m screwed, why do I have such bad luck to go up against this monster?,’ etc. That negative attitude probably contributes to worse play, but of course, these are suppositions, not facts.”
Unfortunately for Amodio, it wasn’t just that his Monday defeat was the first game of the day—though Amodio is quick to say he isn’t a morning person—it was also that he had an unusual layoff between tapings. Jeopardy! taped the first four weeks of this season over just nine days, during which time Amodio stayed in Los Angeles. Week 5, however, didn’t tape until almost two weeks later, and so Amodio flew home to Ohio.
“In my mind, I was saying, ‘Well, this might destroy my rhythm a little bit. But there’s nothing I can do about it,’” Amodio says. “If they had asked me on my last tape day after the three tape days in a week, ‘Would you want to do a fourth tape day this week?,’ I would be like, ‘Yes!’ I would totally do 10 episodes a tape day five tape days in a row if they let me.”
Amodio has his own theory about why super champs struggle early in the week. “The bigger thing is the buzzer timing is something that you can get a rhythm on in your head, but you can’t really carry that over across days,” he says. “I think I did OK doing it on the second tape day when there were two tape days [back to back], but when there was a two-week break—or over the season break, oh my goodness—I needed a bit more time to get back into that rhythm.”
A returning champion’s greatest advantage of all might be their opponents’ lack of experience with the buzzer. In the second half of Amodio’s streak, the dynamic changed: When he returned to the studio after the show’s summer hiatus, he discovered that new contestants are now given two rounds of buzzer practice ahead of their games, instead of the previous one. In prior seasons, contestants were called down for a mock game and played until contestant coordinators felt they had a handle on the buzzer. Now, players are called down in groups of three and play 15 clues; at the game’s end, they’re called back with two different contestants to play another 15.
“They didn’t say anything about it,” Amodio says. “When we got there for the new season we were doing a rehearsal and then they said, ‘OK, now we’ll do our second rehearsal.’ And I’m like, ‘Uhh …’”
Asked about the change, a Jeopardy! source downplayed the additional rehearsal, saying that previous seasons’ single practice sessions went longer and that the change was not related to the performance of Amodio or any other contestant.
It’s not the first time Jeopardy! has altered its buzzer procedures for new contestants midway through a dominant champion’s winning streak. In 2004, Ken Jennings also returned from the summer hiatus to discover a new policy: The staff member who manually operated the buzzer during the games would also do so during the morning practice round, giving new players a crucial chance to familiarize themselves with that staffer’s tempo.
Contrary to what casual Jeopardy! viewers might expect, an automated process does not determine who first hits the buzzer. “It’s a person, and that means the buzzer timing you have to match is not exactly the same every time,” Amodio says. “Even if you were somehow a perfectly tuned musician who’s on rhythm every single time, your target is moving, so you’re not going to be perfect in terms of matching it every time. There’s a lot of variability that’s beyond your control.”
In Jennings’s case, he found that not only did the person running the buzzer start to participate in morning practice, but that the person had also been switched out altogether. It went from then–editorial supervisor (and now co–head writer) Billy Wisse—“whose timing I became very accustomed to,” Jennings wrote in his 2006 memoir Brainiac—to then-researcher (and now game material manager) Ryan Haas. “Whether by personal preference, inexperience, or design, his buzzer-activation timing seems vastly different, and varies more from question to question,” Jennings wrote.
As in Amodio’s case, Jeopardy! insisted that the change was not prompted by the returning champion, and indeed, both players went on to win many additional games. “In general, I think that opponents should have as much buzzer practice as possible until I win, and then they should have no buzzer practice,” Amodio says, laughing.
Finding a super champ behind the champion’s lectern is many a contestant’s worst fear. But if there’s no avoiding it? Cross your fingers and hope you get slotted into the beginning of the “week.”