If you would like Matt Amodio to tell you the secret to winning on Jeopardy!—or, better yet, the secret to winning more than $800,000 and a vaunted place in the quiz show’s record books—he is sorry to say that he can’t be of much help.
“It’s a miracle that anybody ever wins multiple games,” he says.
This spring, Amodio, 30, walked into the Jeopardy! studio, where Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts was taking a turn as the show’s guest host. He won three games. He came back to find LeVar Burton at the lectern, and won five more games. Then it was David Faber and five more wins, then Joe Buck, and, well, you get the picture. He closed out Jeopardy!’s 37th season last month as an 18-time champion, then last week kicked off Season 38 by blazing through five straight eye-popping runaway victories. He now stands at 23 wins and $825,801, a streak and regular-season total that are good for third place in show history, behind just Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer. He’s also tacked on two more hosts: Mike Richards and, beginning Monday, Mayim Bialik.
Longtime host Alex Trebek was fond of saying that the show’s contestants, not its host, were the program’s stars. But recent turmoil—beginning with last season’s raucous guest rotation and culminating in Richards’s stepping down last month just nine days after being named the new permanent host—has kept the spotlight thoroughly on the other side of the stage. Throughout all of it, though, Amodio has quietly carried on winning. With Holzhauer’s total of 32 wins now in reach, he is quickly emerging as a candidate to anchor the show during the most tumultuous period in its 57-year history—an anchor who just so happens to have lights-out buzzer timing and the sort of trivia knowledge that makes his fellow contestants shake their heads in amazement.
Just don’t ask him how he does it. “The game’s really hard,” he says.
In the world of Jeopardy!, dominant superchamps like Amodio are known as buzz saws, and they are a source of immense dread and anxiety among contestants who are getting ready for their day on the stage. Because the show generally tapes episodes about two months before they air, even historically successful contestants are usually a complete surprise to the people who learn they’ll be facing them when they arrive at the studio. Jay Sexton, who played against Holzhauer in the final game of the Las Vegas gambler’s 2019 winning streak, recalled his shock upon being introduced in the greenroom and learning that Holzhauer, whose first episode had not yet aired, had already racked up 32 wins and almost $2.5 million. “We thought they were pulling our legs,” Sexton said. “Like they’d gotten together with the champion and said, ‘Hey, let’s freak the newbies out a little bit.’” For trivia obsessives who’ve long dreamed of getting their shot on Jeopardy!, little chills the blood like the prospect of turning up and discovering that a buzz saw awaits them.
Pity, then, the group that spent the period between the airing of the Season 37 finale and the filming of the Season 38 premiere knowing that they would face him.
Emily Sharp-Kellar knew that her taping would be the first of the new season, meaning that the day’s contestants would play whoever the finale’s defending champion was. As Sharp-Kellar’s taping got closer, she immersed herself in prep—including tuning in to each night’s episode of Jeopardy! as Amodio’s run began to air in July. “I’m watching every single day, I’m playing probably three or four practice games a day, I’m getting ready for this. At first it starts out and I’m like, ‘Surely he can’t win 18 games and win out the season. Like, that’s a lot of games. He’s not [20-time champion] Julia Collins …’ And then he just kept winning and kept getting better and better.”
Amodio’s style bears more than a passing resemblance to Holzhauer’s, dependent most notably on bouncing around the bottom of the board and raking in the most valuable clues first instead of the classic top-down, one-category-at-a-time style. Because Daily Doubles typically lurk among the lower clues, Amodio has found a whopping 77 percent of them in his first 23 games, including all but two of the ones in last week’s games; Holzhauer uncovered 77 percent during his own streak. (Those marks also point to a shared prowess in buzzer timing: You can’t get to the Daily Double first if you aren’t ringing in first, too.) As he continued to win, Amodio’s scores kept growing: In his seventh game, he hit $74,000, the highest one-day total ever by anyone other than Holzhauer, Jennings, or Roger Craig, another all-time Jeopardy! great.
Sharp-Kellar didn’t know for sure that she would face Amodio. Jeopardy! records a week’s worth of episodes on each tape day, and the 10 new contestants who will play over the course of the “week” are randomly assigned to the day’s games. In theory, Amodio might have lost in the first game, ending his run on Monday so that Sharp-Kellar, who was assigned to the Thursday—i.e., fourth—game, might have faced another champ.
But Sharp-Kellar was under no illusions about his potential. Tapings at Jeopardy! begin with a morning practice game so that players can familiarize themselves with the buzzer and other quirks of the stage. “His name starts with A, so he’s in the first one, and he is mowing down people in this mock game and he’s not even doing his high-value clues—he’s actually just going low-value first and not trying to bank up money,” Sharp-Kellar says. “I don’t even know how often the other two people against him rang in—it cannot have been more than two or three times. And I was like, Oh no. What have I done? I’m here and I have to play this guy in a little bit, probably. The other people there were great contestants but I was like, We don’t stand a chance—this isn’t going to be close.”
Apart from his dominance, Amodio’s run is unusual for other reasons. One is that he had to contend with Jeopardy!’s annual summer break. The final taping of Season 37, with Buck at the lectern, was on May 4, after which Amodio, a PhD student studying computer science at Yale, returned to his parents’ home in Cleveland knowing that he would be due back in Culver City three months later to defend his streak.
But far from being an opportunity to get rusty, super-champs have a record of only getting better after a break. Jennings, for one, won 38 games before 2004’s offseason—then came back and won another 36 (plus an additional $1.2 million). Jason Zuffranieri, who won six games in July 2019 and then returned months later and won 13 more, says he viewed his own layoff as “a tremendous advantage.” Helped by the fact that he works as a teacher and was on a professional summer break as well as a game show one, Zuffranieri buried himself in studying. “I was able to devote significant amounts of time to building up my knowledge, confidence in that knowledge, and speed at recalling it,” Zuffranieri says. “I think it took me from an OK and lucky player to a very good and lucky player.” Indeed, his statistics substantially improved in the second leg: His average winnings rose by almost $7,000 a game.
Amodio, too, studied, albeit in unusual fashion. Knowing that his best subjects are more classical trivia categories like history and politics, he decided to go after more rarefied stuff—like Stranger Things and Billie Eilish. “Where I know I’m weakest is pop culture, and that meant that I was able to be productive this summer by sitting down and watching a lot of recent Netflix stuff and listening to top Billboard songs that I would not normally be giving the time of day,” Amodio says. “I was consuming pop culture like a teenager who was in the middle of an angsty period.” (The Good Place was a surprise favorite: “I was laughing the whole time,” he says.)
Amodio’s streak began at the tail end of a season that was uncharacteristically lacking in big winners. Over the course of Season 37, just eight contestants managed to win four or more games, the benchmark that automatically qualifies a player for the next Tournament of Champions; half of those came during the first three and a half months of the season, which taped before Trebek’s death. The preceding season, which was the last hosted entirely by Trebek, had the same number of long streaks—but, thanks to two additional tournaments and a season shortened by the outbreak of COVID-19, it accomplished that mark with 10 fewer weeks of episodes; the season before that had 15 such winners. According to Andy Saunders of The Jeopardy! Fan, the period between mid-February of this year, when John Focht won four games, and late June, when Courtney Shah began a seven-game winning streak, was the longest drought of four-plus-game winners since the Trebek era began in 1984.
A variety of theories have been put forward as causes of this disturbance in the force. Much was new at Jeopardy! as Season 37 got underway, including new COVID-19 protocols that enforced extra distance between contestants and staff and, as with other quarters of life, introduced some stiffness to a usually nimble process. There were also new faces behind the scenes, including Richards, who took over as executive producer ahead of the season’s start. Early months pulled disproportionately from contestants in Southern California; with an ample backlog of players from further afield, many of those who eventually turned up—as well as their opponents—had had much longer to prepare.
Another possible explanation is the presence of the guest hosts. Sixteen stand-ins cycled through over seven months, each bringing varying cadences, styles, and preparation levels. With retaped pickups and inevitable new-job uncertainties, guest tapings frequently stretched hours past when typical Trebek tapings would wrap, tiring contestants, crew, and staff alike. For any Jeopardy! contestant, but in particular for one in the position of playing in all five of the day’s games, it can be grueling. For the first tape day of the season, contestants were asked to arrive early; most turned up around 7:30 a.m. The final game wrapped a full 12 hours later.
“Having to go for a full day, ride the energy all day with all that enthusiasm, and then knowing that you have to go to sleep early and then wake up early to be ready to do it all again—it’s tough,” Amodio says. “I think that’s one of the reasons why you have so few long-term champions right there, where even if the game weren’t also changing underneath you with new questions, that physical aspect is really tough.”
With so much variation between hosts, all-important buzzer timing—which contestants had long finessed by attempting to master the vagaries of Trebek’s voice and rhythm—became an uncertainty last season as well. But to the player who is all but certain to go down in history as encountering the most Jeopardy! hosts, the person reading the clues hasn’t been a big part of the equation. “I actually think a lot of the game’s the same no matter who’s hosting. Obviously the questions are the same, the day as a contestant is the same—you have the same contestant coordinators,” Amodio says. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s constant—even whoever’s operating the buzzer. That [timing] appeared to be the same for me. The person standing behind the podium changes, but I was surprised by how steady the experience was.”
When Sharp-Kellar learned that she would be playing during the first week with the show’s new—and then still unnamed—permanent host, she was excited.
“I was like, ‘How cool is this? It’s going to be this great, exciting, historic day,’” Sharp-Kellar says. “And it was. I mean, maybe not in a good way.”
As it turned out, Season 38’s debut tape day was a highly unusual one at Jeopardy! On the afternoon of August 18, The Ringer published a report about Richards that raised questions about his role in the permanent host search, previous workplace concerns, and comments he’d made on a podcast that he had cohosted called The Randumb Show. The following morning, a Thursday, Richards joined Sony executives, Trebek’s family, and former contestants (and guest hosts) Jennings and Buzzy Cohen for a ceremony dedicating the newly renamed Alex Trebek Stage, then spent the rest of the day recording the season’s first five episodes.
Then, on the morning of August 20, the dozen contestants meant to make up the second week of games arrived at the studio as planned—only to be told that production had been canceled. Richards stepped down as host, effective immediately; on August 31, Sony announced that he would also no longer serve as executive producer of Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune.
Samit Sarkar, who played in Friday’s game and happened to be staying in the same hotel as Amodio, ran into him late in the morning of August 20—long past the point that that day’s contestants had to be at the studio—as Sarkar and some other players from the previous tape day finished breakfast together. “We’re like, ‘Dude, what happened?’” Sarkar says. “And he says, ‘Yeah, I got to the studio, and they turned me away with no explanation. I had to find out about it online.’”
Multiple contestants scheduled to play in the second day of games had traveled to Los Angeles from across the country, increasing their disappointment about the cancellation given that, outside of tournaments, Jeopardy! contestants pay for their own flights and lodging, and must arrange work schedules to accommodate not only the weekday tapings but also new COVID-19 testing requirements that necessitate spending an additional day in the area. One of these contestants, who requested anonymity because they have not been authorized to speak publicly, and who flew back to the East Coast after the canceled taping, said that Sony had paid for a round-trip flight to return for a second taping this month. Other contestants from the group were able to attend a rescheduled taping during the week of August 23 that was hosted by Bialik, who Sony has said will serve as host through November 5; she and Jennings will then split hosting duties for the remainder of 2021.
Contestants who were present during Richards’s lone day as host remember him delivering a short, on-camera address at the beginning of his first game expressing gratitude for being named permanent host; no such address appeared in last Monday’s broadcast. Players typically pose for two photos on the Jeopardy! set, one alone and one with the host, which are sent to them shortly before their episodes air. That day’s contestants received only their solo shots.
Sarkar says that he and the day’s other contestants have formed a group chat, in part to discuss the day’s strangeness. “We’ve jokingly been referring to ourselves as the Mike Richards Ten,” he says.
Sarkar is one of multiple contestants from that group who were originally offered earlier tape dates, but deferred due to work obligations or COVID-19 travel concerns—only to find themselves facing a historically strong opponent and landing smack dab in the middle of the Richards saga. “There is this sense of—you have waited for this thing your whole life, you put everything into trying to get on the show, and then it’s subsumed by this larger drama that you had no control over and no real role in,” Sarkar says. “That’s the bigger story that is swallowing up what, for you, is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to you in your life.”
Would people boycott the episodes? some from the group wondered. Would the friends and family they might have planned watch parties with understand the circumstances? Would this be their overwhelming memory of Jeopardy!? Sharp-Kellar, who says that she had read about Richards’s podcast comments shortly before arriving at the studio, says that she refused to applaud him during any of his entrances to the stage.
“You only get one shot, and a lot of us were processing the heartbreak that we’ll never be on Jeopardy! again and this was our only chance,” Sarkar says.
As Jeopardy! seeks to move beyond the Richards episode, Sony is doubtless hoping that Amodio can reset the show—and refocus it, at long last, on the contestants.
For his part, Amodio was dreading a very specific piece of returning to the Jeopardy! studio last month: The fact that his opponents would know who he was. “I kind of expected to be the villain and be hated because I’m the one who’s ruining all these people’s lifetime opportunity to win on Jeopardy!,” he says.
Indeed, as Amodio reaches his sixth host on Monday, he also reaches his sixth tape day, and the fifth time he has been introduced to the day’s new contestants as the prevailing favorite to send them right back home. Thirteen of his first 18 games were runaways, as well as a 14th that was a “lock-tie” (i.e., the second-place player had half of Amodio’s score, so at most could have tied him had he wagered nothing). So far, his return has pointed to an even greater ferocity, with five more runaways; last week, he topped $60,000 twice. (The average winning score last season was just under $22,000.)
His propensity for runaways is something Sharp-Kellar is all too aware of: With a week to prepare for facing him, she set about trying to find potential weaknesses in his gameplay. “I wanted to see: Does he wager to the dollar specifically? Like, if I get into a situation where I can have a chance in Final Jeopardy!, how should I wager?” she says. “I blocked out this time in my hotel room in L.A. to sit down and look at Matt’s wagering strategy when it wasn’t a runaway, and then it took five minutes because he had so many runaways.”
After the better part of a day watching Amodio dominate in the studio, Sharp-Kellar says she found herself almost in tears as she prepared for her own game. “He is so fast on the buzzer, he knows so many different things, he’s totally unafraid to wager big when he needs to and then conservative enough to keep that lead,” she says. She and the day’s other players watched from the Jeopardy! audience, which remains closed to the general public. “There was this huge feeling of dejection among all the other contestants. He would get another Daily Double and we would just look at each other from 6 feet away in the audience and be like, Are you kidding me? It was so frustrating. I don’t want to sound negative at all because on the one hand it was exciting to watch, but on the other hand it was like—we are just Matt fodder here.”
But as she made her way down to the stage at last, Sharp-Kellar decided to channel Nicolle Neulist.
Neulist faced Amodio in his 18th game, repeatedly—even cheerfully—forcing the reigning champ onto his back foot and pushing him into that sole lock-tie. “The mindset comes from my experience playing poker—the only way you’re ever going to go toe-to-toe against an aggressive player is to also be aggressive,” Neulist says. “And I feel like on Jeopardy!, when you’re being aggressive you’re taking the upper hand in the game. My plan was that, no matter what, even if I was against two players who weren’t particularly aggressive, I was going to go for the biggies. I was going to look for the Daily Doubles. That was just what I was planning on doing. So to see Matt was doing that, I’m like, OK, great, the only way you can actually play against a player like that and hope to have a chance is to be just as aggressive as that player. So let’s rumble.”
Like Neulist, Sharp-Kellar got close. Amodio went all in on an early Daily Double and missed it; as they entered Double Jeopardy!, he was in the red and Sharp-Kellar had $4,600. “For 10 minutes, I am living the Jeopardy! dream,” she says. “I am losing my mind at this point—I’m like, Oh my God, it’s gonna be me, I’m going to be the one who does it!” Then Amodio pulled off what Sharp-Kellar characterizes as one of the show’s “all-time amazing comebacks” and triumphed, walking away with a score of $35,400.
Amodio has gained a reputation for grace. After coming back in Thursday’s game, Sharp-Kellar says that Amodio turned to her and said, “You were amazing. That was so great.” “He made me feel very special after he thoroughly trounced me in Double Jeopardy!,” she says. Sarkar, too, remembers an exchange from the end of his game: “I will take to the bank forever that he turned to me at the end of the game and said, ‘You scared me.’”
To Amodio’s great relief, Jeopardy! contestants—even the ones who spend a whole day watching their dream of becoming a champion fade away—are still Jeopardy! contestants, the sort of trivia-mad faithful for whom the quiz show is not so much television but a lifestyle. “I was just amazed by how happy they were for me,” Amodio says. “I’ve made friends, and definitely that was a thing I did not expect.”