Something streaky is happening on Jeopardy! right now.
In September, Matt Amodio kicked off the show’s 38th season by tacking another 20 wins onto the streak that he began over the summer, making him the owner of the second-longest winning streak (38 games) in Jeopardy! history. He was finally defeated by Jonathan Fisher, who went on to win 11 games of his own. Fisher fell to Nancy Donehower, who faced Tyler Rhode in her next game; Rhode won that as well as the next four games. One week after Rhode’s loss, Andrew He kicked off his own five-game winning streak. He was beaten by Amy Schneider, who on Wednesday won her 26th straight game, good for the fourth-longest Jeopardy! streak ever.
That makes five different contestants this season who’ve punched their ticket to the next Tournament of Champions (four wins makes a player eligible; five guarantees them a berth). Through Wednesday, just four of the 73 non-tournament episodes since the season premiere on September 13 have not featured a future Tournament of Champions contender. (Last month also featured a 10-day Professors Tournament whose winner, Sam Buttrey, will move on to the Tournament of Champions as well.)
As Ken Jennings, the 74-time champ who is currently serving as host, put it during one of this week’s episodes, “Season 38 has certainly been the season of the super-champions.”
It is unprecedented, to put it mildly. This season has already blown up many of the show’s longstanding records. Three of this season’s players (Amodio, Fisher, and now Schneider) have joined the vaunted—and, at least until this season, ultra-exclusive—ranks of the “super-champs,” with double-digit victories; just nine other players have managed to reach that mark in the 19 seasons since the show lifted its five-day cap. Amodio’s 38 wins put him between Jennings and James Holzhauer (32) on the all-time list; Schneider could match Holzhauer if her streak continues through next Thursday’s game. Fisher, meanwhile, tied the streak length of Arthur Chu. To Jeopardy! diehards, names like Jennings, Holzhauer, and Chu carry something like mythical status. To have so many new entries to the pantheon in such a short period of time is positively dizzying.
It’s also, well, weird, especially given what happened in 2020 and the first half of 2021. Season 37 was notable for how few long streaks there were: At one point, the show went 88 straight episodes—four and a half months—without a player hitting that crucial four-win mark.
The reason for last season’s drought has mostly been laid at the feet of the show’s guest-host rotation: While contestants differ about the significance of host cadence and how much the changing voices and tempos might throw off a defending champion, there’s no denying that the onslaught of newbie hosts led to significantly longer tape days than existed during the Alex Trebek era, with all the delays and retaped pickups having the potential to disrupt.
Explaining this season’s radical inverse of the trend is trickier. The most obvious factor is that Jeopardy! has seen an explosion of applicants during the past two years, meaning that there are many more buzzer hopefuls—and big, beautiful brains—from which to choose. On February 12, 2020, Jeopardy! introduced the online Anytime Test, which allows aspiring contestants to take the required online contestant exam whenever they want instead of under the annual proctoring of old. Before the Anytime Test, approximately 70,000 people applied to be on Jeopardy! each year. As of Wednesday evening, the test had been taken a whopping 239,089 times, a Jeopardy! spokesperson confirmed to The Ringer. While some of those tests might reflect multiple attempts by the same person, that still comes out to an average of roughly 125,000 applicants per year in the Anytime Test era.
The pandemic might have had a hand in that growth as well. Before the past two years, would-be players who passed the 50-question online test were invited to a regional audition, often held in the closest major city. While the Jeopardy! contestant department rotated the locations of these auditions in most years—Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans in one year might be followed by Seattle, Orlando, and Boston in the next—this system still posed logistical and financial hurdles to quiz-show hopefuls. When the pandemic hit, in-person auditions were scratched in favor of ones conducted over Zoom.
The pandemic also affected the pool of prospective contestants in another way. Jeopardy! was among the first wave of shows to cautiously resume production in the summer of 2020. Some of the safety adjustments, like the newly separated contestant lecterns, were visible to the naked eye. Others were subtler. Careful viewers noticed that Season 37 took to announcing contestants not by their places of residence, but rather by their hometowns. Suddenly, “Claire McNear, a writer from Washington, D.C.,” became “Claire McNear, a writer originally from San Anselmo, California.” This change resulted from Jeopardy! dramatically restricting its contestant pool last season to only those residing within driving distance of the show’s Culver City studio. That meant that the overwhelming majority of players were from California; the show introduced them by their hometowns to give the illusion of geographic diversity when the real thing was deemed infeasible, either by show protocols or by contestants wary of cross-country travel.
Jeopardy! gradually relaxed its restrictions, and by last April filmed a much-delayed Tournament of Champions with 15 players from across the country. But by holding back so much of the talent pool, the show created a backlog of elite players from beyond the West Coast.
The quirks of filming in the midst of a pandemic might also be subtly affecting the results. Buzzy Cohen, who won nine games in 2016 and hosted last year’s Tournament of Champions, says the circumstances in which games are now taped could put new contestants at a disadvantage. Tape days are radically different than in the pre-COVID era, with a closed audience and constant reminders to space out and disinfect surfaces. “It’s much less warm and fuzzy now,” Cohen says. “I wonder if it’s harder for people to relax. Your family isn’t there with you. Having my wife looking up at me and giving me a little, ‘You can do this!’—that was a big help for me, especially when I was in a tough spot.”
Trebek long had a tradition of meandering to the front of the stage between episodes, where he would take questions from the audience. Cohen says this provided a crucial moment for players to decompress—something that’s now lacking. “If you’re coming in and are already on edge, there’s nothing to help you mellow out.”
But the biggest change of all might be how contestants approach playing Jeopardy! Many fans wondered whether Holzhauer’s winning streak, which saw him routinely shatter the show’s daily winnings record and top out with an eye-popping high of $131,127, would spark a revolution of aggressive play and big bets on the show. Cohen suggests that we might be seeing the dawn of a different, if related, revolution. “Maybe it’s the aggressive preparation era. If you’re in control of the game, you can win a lot of games. You don’t have to win with $100,000.”
Players training for Jeopardy! today have a wealth of resources at their fingertips, from a bustling subreddit packed with former and aspiring contestants to sites like The Jeopardy! Fan and the database J! Archive, which hosts the clues from nearly every game since 1984 and offers an easy entry point into the world of advanced Jeopardy! statistics. Players rig mock signaling devices and study the wisdom of buzzer guru Fritz Holznagel, whom Holzhauer credited as the person responsible for his own buzzer timing. A Jeopardy! obsessive might spend months or years before their appearance honing their technique.
“When I first appeared on the show, I was more like an old-school contestant, in that I was just someone who watched the show,” Cohen says. “I feel like more and more now, people are actively trying to get on the show for a long time and preparing themselves for that and studying what other successful contestants have done. I think that information is maybe just starting to have been around long enough to bear fruit.”
The collision of the ultra-prepared and what Cohen calls the “sofa players”—he includes himself in this category—might be part of what’s fueling the sudden rise of so many dominant champions. “It’s sort of like if tennis went from being an amateur game to being a professional game but it didn’t happen overnight, so each season there were two new players who were full-time training and everyone else was a club player,” Cohen says. “We’re at a point where it’s not all pro, but there are a couple people that are preparing in a different way than everyone else.”
Jeopardy! has always been eager for long streaks: The elimination of the five-day cap in 2003 was an explicit ploy by then–executive producer Harry Friedman to drum up interest in the show. And streaks do precisely that: Ratings are up 6 percent compared to last season, and there is a report of a coming bidding war between incumbent network ABC and rivals CBS and NBC. But long winning streaks are rare, for the simple reason that Jeopardy! is hard—and all the harder when you have to play it against two hand-picked Jeopardy! contestants.
It could be that now players are unlocking enough of the game’s secrets in great enough numbers to become the rule and not the exception—or at least to dominate until the rest of the contestant pool goes pro too. Should Schneider win on Thursday, she’ll sit at 27 straight wins. In almost any other season, that total would seem preposterous. But in this season of streaks, she might just keep on going.