On the evening of November 17, 2021, Amy Schneider was just another Jeopardy! contestant carrying out a hallowed ritual for those who manage to make the trivia Olympics: hosting a watch party with a small group of friends as her episode—and small-screen debut—aired.
In a Bay Area Airbnb rented for the auspicious occasion, Schneider looked on as she and designer Max McDonald were introduced as the challengers to five-day champ Andrew He—a dominant player who’d already punched his ticket to the Tournament of Champions. She watched as she found the game’s second Daily Double to rocket ahead of He, and then as He tracked down the last Daily Double to add a devastating $10,800 to his score. And she gritted her teeth along with her friends as she entered Final Jeopardy! trailing He by more than $7,000 … only to be the lone player to get the right answer, officially making her a Jeopardy! champ. “I was trying to be pretty poker-faced,” Schneider says. “It was such a dramatic finish on that one, so I wanted to make sure I kept the surprise for them when I won at the end.”
Schneider knew, of course, what most of the people in the room did not: that she not only won that game, but would go on to win at least another 38, not to mention $1,319,800. With her 39th win on Monday night, she is now the holder of the second-longest winning streak in Jeopardy! history, behind only 74-time champion Ken Jennings. She moved into second place by passing Matt Amodio, who finished his 38-win run in October in what has become the show’s season of electrifying streaks.
Schneider is the latest Jeopardy! champion to have her life changed in profound ways by the show—only to have to keep the news a secret for an extended period of time. Because the show does not air live—Jeopardy! records a week’s worth of games on each of 46 tape days scattered throughout the year—most players have to wait about two months between when their game records and when it airs. The show instructs players to tell as few people as possible about what will unfold in the interim.
“The rule of thumb they gave us is anyone who would have been at the taping if they had allowed an audience” was safe to tell, Schneider says. (Jeopardy! has kept its audience closed to the public since early 2020.) For Schneider, who actually won her first game on September 28, that meant keeping her success quiet outside of a group including her girlfriend and a small handful of others.
She’s far from the first player to balance secrecy and headline-worthy money. Jeopardy!’s most decorated champions all have stories about the period before their fortunes became famous. “My partner told her mom a little bit and I said, ‘OK, it’s OK that she knows I’m going to be on, but you can’t tell her anything else,’” says Jonathan Fisher, who defeated Amodio in an early-September taping and then went on his own 11-game winning streak, picking up $246,100 along the way. Beyond that, Fisher says he told only his parents and his partner, whom he says he called as soon as he left the studio on his first day. “I said, ‘I beat him! I beat him!—and then I won four more games!’”
Cue a full month of waiting for his first episode to air, all while Amodio’s winning streak drew ever more attention. “It’s this liminal space where the past is the present and also the future,” Fisher says of eventually giving interviews about winning his first game, in which he had to talk about the next day’s still unaired episode—taped, like the first, a month earlier. “It’s like, OK, how do I make sure that Sony Pictures doesn’t get mad at me and take away my big check? That’s definitely a good motivator.”
Austin Rogers, who won 12 games and $411,000 in 2017, describes the Jeopardy! policy for champions as “we can’t stop you from spoiling it, but just don’t.” Of the argument for staying mum, he says the show promises to “paint it in this great way. You want that surprise to happen for everyone else. You want it to be fun for everyone else. So don’t go around spoiling it.”
For those champions who have won not just a lot of money, but a maybe-quit-your-job, possibly-start-a-new-life-on-a-tropical-island amount of cash, though, the secret can be hard to keep. Rogers says that he, like Schneider, hosted watch parties for his games. “The snowball effect was real,” he says. “The first one, three or four friends came. The second one, five or six friends came. By the ninth one the bar was packed.”
And with great celebration comes, well, occasional inebriation. “Eventually, with a few very close friends and family, somewhere in the order of three in the morning after a couple drinks, I’d be like, ‘So here we go, guys—here’s where I’m at,’” Rogers says, slurring his words for dramatic effect.
For most contestants, checks arrive about 90 days after their last game has aired. This can create its own bizarre moments. “I remember going to the bank and depositing the check,” says Larissa Kelly, a four-time contestant who was part of the winning team in 2019’s All-Star Games and originally won six games and $222,597 in 2008 while in the midst of completing her dissertation. “The teller was taken aback a bit, with me coming in dressed like a schlubby grad student with a huge check. They were like, ‘Is this a scam?’” She was saved by a second teller who happened to be a Jeopardy! fan. “She was like, ‘No, this is legitimate, it’s OK.’”
For players like Schneider, whose streaks have necessitated repeat trips to Los Angeles for taping, the secrecy of a streak-in-progress is that much harder to preserve. Jennings, for one, was forced to tip his hand to his boss, who covered for him with a series of excuses about sudden conflicts and illnesses, to the point that Jennings felt like he had a secret identity.
“Lying to everyone I know for months on end is taking a psychological toll as well,” Jennings wrote in his 2006 memoir, Brainiac. “The secret starts to make me feel a little schizophrenic. A couple days a month, I’m the Ken Jennings who’s shattered game show records, whose ever-growing daily winnings total is starting to look like a life-changing amount of money. But nobody knows about him yet. I still have to come home and be Ken Jennings the boring suburban dad, in his same old mundane treadmill of an office job, pretending nothing has happened.”
Schneider is introduced in each of her games as “an engineering manager from Oakland, California.” But this, in fact, is a lie—or at least became one early in her winning streak. “I actually after a bit stopped being a manager just because [Jeopardy!] was taking up so much of my time that I couldn’t give my team the attention they needed,” she says. She now has a different position at the company that doesn’t involve managing direct reports.
Schneider got into a routine of flying to L.A. on Sunday nights, then heading back home on Tuesday nights, then trying to cram a full week’s worth of work into the next three days. “It’s funny because my boss and the vice president, who are the two people who really knew that I was missing so much time—neither of them really watches Jeopardy! and had no real conception of what it meant that I had to keep going down,” she says. “I had to let them know that in a shocking development in the modern world, I was actually not going to have access to my phone for the taping days.”
Because of concerns about a writers’ strike the year that he competed on the show, Rogers actually taped his first nine games that April, a full five months before his debut aired. That meant that he had to go back to defend the streak in August. For friends aware of his original taping, the return to L.A. raised eyebrows. “‘You’re going back—that means you won.’ I was like, ‘Uh-huh,’” Rogers says of those exchanges. “‘How many?’ I’m like, ‘I can’t tell you.’ They’re like, ‘How much?’ I’m like, ‘I can’t tell you.’”
“It’s like Schrödinger’s Jeopardy!,” Fisher says. “It’s happened, but it also hasn’t happened yet.”
Finally, though, Jeopardy!’s reality begins to catch up to actual reality. Rogers brought a quartet of friends to the studio with him when he returned to play his 10th game. Though contestants are given strict instructions not to interact with the audience while playing, Rogers had no trouble making out where his friends were as Johnny Gilbert read out his introduction: a bartender from New York, New York, whose nine-day cash winnings total $332,400. “I audibly heard a gasp followed by, ‘Get the hell out of here!’” Rogers says.
For Schneider, the first inkling of what was to come arrived as she drove to that Airbnb to watch her first game. She had set up a Jeopardy!-specific Twitter account—@Jeopardamy—ahead of the broadcast, and uploaded a photo of herself on set. As she made her way to her watch party, Jeopardy! began to air on the East Coast, offering audiences the initial glimpse of the person who’d in short order become the show’s resident champion.
“I had to actually pull over and turn off notifications on Twitter, because it kept covering up my navigation. It was just—” she pauses, searching for the right word. “Startling.”
With her streak ongoing, and her winnings growing ever greater, Schneider is beginning to contemplate a post-Jeopardy! life—whenever that might come. She needs to lose, after all, to get her check.
“Like so many people during COVID, I had started thinking about—is this what I want to be doing with my life?” she says. “I’d felt like, well, it sounds nice, but I really like the financial security. But now that I’ve got that anyway, I’m really thinking about it.”