Jeopardy super-champ Amy Schneider reflects on her historic run
Midway through our interview, the check for Amy Schneider's Jeopardy winnings arrives at her home. It takes her a moment to reorient herself to the conversation.
"Sorry," she tells EW with a laugh. "We're getting very excited by seeing this check here."
It's understandable. Schneider racked up more than $1.3 million during her historic 40-game winning streak on Jeopardy, which shattered numerous records and placed her among the top five highest-earning contestants in the quiz show's history. That run came to a close on Wednesday's episode, with Schneider having become the first transgender person to qualify for Jeopardy's Tournament of Champions, the winningest woman in the show's history, and only the fourth person to win more than $1 million in regular-season play. Her winning streak was the second-longest ever, surpassing a record set by Matt Amodio earlier this season and ending behind only the legendary Ken Jennings (who happened to be hosting Jeopardy for the entirety of Schneider's run).
"We'll be forever proud of it," Schneider says of her performance. "It was much more than I anticipated going into it. I told everyone I knew that I thought I could do okay, and if things went well, win three or four games. That was my expectation, so to have done so well, and to be forever part of Jeopardy history, is just really special. Jeopardy has been an important part of my life for my whole life; I think it's a great show, and sort of good for America, almost. So I'm glad that I've been helping the show out as well."
In the wake of her last game finally airing (the episode was taped in early November), Schneider spoke to EW about playing that final game, the significance of her success, and what lies ahead — including that "intimidating" Tournament of Champions.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How does it feel to finally be able to talk about your Jeopardy experience in its entirety?
AMY SCHNEIDER: It's definitely a relief. The last three months or so of keeping the secret has been a bit of a struggle. That's definitely a good thing about this finally ending.
What was your mindset like going into that final game?
I had a feeling that day that it might be my last day there. That may seem odd if you look at the scores from the last few games; it seemed like I was playing as well as ever. But I could just feel that I was losing a certain edge — what [Golden State] Warriors coach Steve Kerr calls "a healthy fear." I could kind of feel that slipping away.
You've said that you thought Rhone Talsma, who you lost to, was going to be a tough competitor. What gave you that sense?
Well, he looked good in rehearsal and that sort of thing, but a lot of people had. Really, what it was was a story that Ken Jennings had been telling before the games as he talked to the contestants, which was, by late in his run, the other contestants would seem to be intimidated by him, but the person who wound up beating him was the one who was just friendly and relaxed and having fun. And Rhone was exactly that way. Right before the game we'd had lunch, and I remember having a really nice conversation with him over lunch.
What was going through your mind as the game progressed? Did it feel like you had lost a step as you were playing?
For most of the game, no. It felt like it was going a lot like many of my other games had gone. But full credit to Rhone, he got his opportunity finding that last Daily Double, and went for it, and bet it all to try and win the game. I knew at that point that there was no way I could keep it from going to Final Jeopardy. And I'd been struggling a bit in Final Jeopardy, and kind of getting in my head about it. So that's when I started to really be aware of the possibility [that I could lose].
And then after the game, how did you feel once the reality of the loss set in?
A lot of different feelings. I mean, the primary one was sadness. Being on Jeopardy is the most fun thing I've ever done, and I was so sorry to see it go. But it was definitely mixed with some feeling of relief. I know that one of the first thoughts I had was, "Well, I don't have to come up with any more anecdotes!" But just as much, I don't have to come back down to L.A. and leave Genevieve, my girlfriend, at home anymore. Because that was really hard. We hadn't really been separated for that period of time before I went on Jeopardy, and I didn't enjoy that part of it.
Let's go back to the beginning: What was your history and experience with Jeopardy before you became a contestant?
The version with Alex Trebek launched when I was 5 or 6, and my parents always watched it [when I was] growing up, so it was sort of always there. They were both intellectual people, both worked at universities, so it wasn't just an entertainment thing for them. With us watching along, they always wanted to teach us as we were watching. Things would come up and remind them of other topics, or they would explain questions to us that we didn't understand.
When did you start trying out for the show?
It was something like maybe 14 or 15 years ago. I came close [to getting on] a couple of times; after they do the last round of interviews, they basically just tell you, "You're in the active pool now, and at some point in the next 18 months, either you'll get the call to be on or start the process again." It was frustrating having to do it so much, but I felt like it was just a matter of time before I would get on there. And I also was sort of like, "Well, the longer it takes, the more the more I'll know by the time that happens."
The first taping date that I was scheduled for was shortly before Alex Trebek passed away. I obviously didn't know that at the time, but I knew the time was limited, so I was pretty happy that it looked like I'd actually managed to get the chance to play with Alex. And then at the last minute, there was some kind of COVID thing that canceled taping. They rescheduled me, and then, before my next date to be there, Alex did pass away. And at that point, because they'd already rescheduled me a few times there, they just put me on hold until they felt like things were stable and settled down just so as to not have to keep rescheduling me.
How did you prepare for the show during all those delays?
The main thing was, in whatever downtime on commutes or whatever, pretty regularly going through old Jeopardy games and old clues on the website, J! Archive, that has every one of them ever, and then just trying to keep an eye out for areas or topics that I was consistently missing so I could go back and focus on them. And also, watching the game with a ballpoint pen in hand to do my best to practice on timing when to ring in.
What were some of those areas where you had knowledge gaps that you tried to fill in?
I definitely have consistently struggled a bit with popular music. I listened more or less to music that was popular when I was in high school and, as I put it, sad lesbians. But outside of that I don't really know what's going on. So that one was always a challenging one, because it's just such a broad topic to study. Other than that, it would tend to be little specific things, like remembering which Brontë sister was which, the orders of Greek columns, and different things like that.
You've shared a lot of your thought process and strategy during gameplay on your "Post-game thoughts" Twitter threads. What inspired you to do that?
It wasn't something I was really planning on. I originally just did it for the first game just because I felt like it. And then people really seemed to respond to that and really enjoy it. And I realized that as as a lifelong Jeopardy fan, it's the sort of thing that I always would have been interested in and would have liked to read. So I was like, there aren't many people in a position to create this sort of content, so I'll keep doing it. My audience already knew a lot of the basics but really wanted to get into the nitty-gritty. It was definitely more of a time commitment than I realized I was getting myself into, but it was a lot of fun.
Is there anything that sums up what your general strategy was like during gameplay?
The one main thing was, if there was a category on the board that looked tough, I would go to it first, so that if there was a Daily Double in it, then there wouldn't be that much money at stake. But beyond that, my general approach was to just minimize anything that would distract me and keep me from focusing on anything except the next clue. So in that sense I didn't have as much of a strategy as some other players have had, because I didn't want to be thinking about my strategy. I just wanted to be in the moment and answering questions.
You've been part of a recent run of big winning streaks on Jeopardy. Obviously we had Matt Amodio, and there was also Jonathan Fisher, who won 11 games. Of only a dozen people to get more than 10 victories on Jeopardy, three did so in less than a year. What's your take on why we've seen so many long streaks recently?
I'm not really sure. For one thing, once I started getting on the streak, it surprised me that there haven't been more over the years, just because having that familiarity with the buzzer timing seems like such an advantage once you've won a few games. So to that extent, it just seems natural that there should be some long streaks, and I'm not sure why there haven't been.
Other than that, I think James Holzhauer said, "There's not a reason. It's just statistical clustering. Sometimes this sort of thing will happen." I tend to think that's probably most of the answer. But if there's anything else, I think it's the revolution in the years since James played. People take the game a lot more seriously as a game and thinking about how to play it and maximizing their chances of winning. So I think that that may be a factor as well.
Was that your experience? Did you start thinking more seriously about gameplay and strategy after James' run?
Not exactly, but that's partly because I'd always been thinking about it. For years I'd been very frustrated with how conservatively people tended to wager, and seeing him was, to an extent, kind of a vindication of stuff I'd already believed. That said, I also want to say that once I was up on that stage I became a lot more sympathetic with those people who were conservative in their wagering. It's hard to do that in the moment.
Speaking of those winning streaks, you'll be coming back to face Amodio and Fisher in the Tournament of Champions. Are you already prepping for that?
A little bit. I've been looking at some of the old Tournaments of Champions and trying to gauge the question difficulty. I've kind of been planning out how I plan to start preparing for it. One of my plans for sure is, when I'm watching Jeopardy — now that I finally won't know how it ends — to practice writing down my answer for Final Jeopardy as I'm watching at home, because I definitely felt like that extra wrinkle was part of what threw me off. So I just want to get myself used to writing that answer down.
You've talked a lot about how meaningful it is to you to have represented the transgender community on Jeopardy. How has that part of the experience felt?
It's definitely the most meaningful, rewarding experience out of all of it. I knew that I was taking on some kind of burden, if you will, of representation by being on the show, especially once I started winning. Just being on the show has been done before, but I was the first trans person to be so successful. And I just wanted to be myself first and foremost, and beyond that, show everybody that trans people are just people. We're randomly distributed in the population, and we're just like anybody else. [I wanted to] just show people a trans person being successful in this very mainstream field.
Have you heard from other trans people who have seen you on the show about how it's impacted them?
Yeah, I've definitely heard from trans people, and just as importantly or meaningfully, from the parents and grandparents and loved ones of trans people. I wasn't expecting that in the same way, but once it started coming in, I realized it is an older demographic that watches Jeopardy, and many of them hadn't had much exposure to trans people. And even the ones that were accepting of their trans loved ones were also just afraid for them, and worried that they couldn't be successful in the world because of being trans. And showing them that that wasn't true, I think, has made a lot of lives better, and I'm really happy about that.
The upper ranks of Jeopardy champions have also been sort of a boys' club for a while. What does it mean to you to have set so many records for women as well as transgender contestants on the show?
It's definitely great. When I'm watching at home and there's a woman on, that's always who I'm rooting for. I know there's a lot of other smart women out there who love Jeopardy and wish they could see more women at the top of the charts there. I wish it wasn't something that was notable, but it is, and hopefully this is just one step in making it so that down the road, it isn't, and it's just part of how Jeopardy is.
Having now completed your run, and amassed such a such a large sum of money, do you have any sense of what you'd like to do next?
We're planning a trip to Ireland, and I'm definitely planning to go to some fancy clothing stores and overspend a little bit. For a lot of it, the plan is to set it aside to turn into a mortgage at some point. But the other thing about it is, this does give me a cushion and some security to make a career pivot out of this and try to pursue other opportunities that might be coming. I've got the ability to take a chance in that way. I haven't decided yet; it depends on what comes along and whether it seems worth it. But that's definitely something that may be happening.
Does it feel different now actually having the check in your hand?
You know, I want to get it in the bank, but yes, it does!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.