Jeopardy champion Matt Amodio on LeVar Burton, pop culture, and why he didn't want to try out for the show
Matt Amodio stamped his name in the Jeopardy history books after just seven games, racking up a total of $268,800 that made him one of the top 10 highest-winning Jeopardy champions ever. (His winnings now stand at $291,200 after another victory on Friday's episode.) It's more than a little ironic, considering he didn't even want to try out for the beloved quiz show in the first place.
"I was only reluctantly trying out because I didn't think I would make it, and even if I did make it I wouldn't be very good," Amodio tells EW. "I only tried out at the behest of my dad, who insisted, as any parent would, 'My son is awesome. He would do so well.' And so I said 'Fine, I'll do it for you.'"
That's not to say Amodio isn't a Jeopardy fan — very much the opposite, in fact. "I've been a Jeopardy watcher my whole life, even before I could really make out the words, because my parents would have it on," he says. "To see me on the stage is just surreal. It's a wonderful, wonderful feeling."
And it's a feeling he's been able to share with the people who introduced him to Jeopardy, as Amodio has been watching his run on the show at his parents' home in Ohio. "I told them how it goes, so they weren't totally floored by by the outcome," he admits. "But they weren't allowed to come with me to tape [the show] because of COVID, so this is their first time actually seeing it. I love getting to share that time with them."
A Ph.D. student from New Haven, Conn., as he's introduced each night on Jeopardy (Amodio is currently working towards a doctorate in computer science at Yale), Amodio has deployed a combination of clever gameplay, big Daily Double wagers, and, of course, voluminous knowledge to run away with most of his games. EW called up the champ to discuss his Jeopardy strategy, why he hates pop-culture categories, and what it was like working with guest host LeVar Burton.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you prepare for Jeopardy once you found out you were going to be a contestant?
MATT AMODIO: I generally feel like a lot of the stuff that's in my interest area, I have well covered by the nature of things. The problem is, how do you learn about the stuff that you don't necessarily find all that interesting? I'm a historian at heart; I love learning about pretty much anything once it develops a little bit of a buffer between now and then. So I don't mind culture, as long as it's from, like, my parents' time growing up, and it's had some time to stew and cultivate a little bit. And so I had a huge black hole in pop culture knowledge, and I knew I was going to have to learn [about] that. I went to basically every site online that I could find to learn about Grammys, because I don't know very much current music; Emmys, because I don't watch very much current television; Oscars, because I haven't seen very many movies that were released in color. [Laughs] It's a little bit of an exaggeration. I have passing acquaintances with things, but I knew compared to the trivia monsters that go on Jeopardy, I was, gonna be having a major deficit compared to them in that knowledge.
Did you have any other techniques for brushing up on knowledge? I know James Holzhauer talked about reading children's books to prepare; did you do anything like that?
I'm not sure what children's books he found that have all of this awesome information. But my main source is Wikipedia. I don't know how people got knowledge prior to the age of the internet. I usually just start the evening on a particular single question, but then fall into 15 links from that page, and each of those links gives me 15 other links. I just read as much as I can and hope to remember some of it. [Laughs] That's how I would spend the evening in general [before Jeopardy]; it just would tend to be on stuff I'm more interested in, rather than intentionally shoring up gaps.
Can you tell us about your strategy for actual Jeopardy gameplay?
I think that my strategy going in was watch Ken [Jennings], and try to do whatever Ken does. He's done TED talks, he does podcasts, and he drops a little bit of knowledge here and there, like, "When I was trying to get in on the buzzer I would just listen to the cadence of the voice and try and view it like a musical meter and get the rhythm and stuff." So I would just take any notes I could from him. And then also, James brought in a lot of probability-based analysis in terms of which clue selection to do. I just remembered how they did it, and I'm hoping that I'm imitating it as best as I can.
The way you select the high-value clues first and bet big on the Daily Doubles is definitely a Holzhauer-esque strategy.
Yeah. But the problem is, he's a gambler, professionally, and I am a "minimize the risk at all costs" type of personality. There are times when I know a big wager is mathematically the right thing to do, and I just hate it. I really hate it. I think [James] reveled in that adrenaline, and I just really, really wish it wasn't the right thing to do. I try to suck it up and do it anyway, but it does not come naturally to me.
What was the experience of taping the show like? I know Jeopardy films a lot of games in one day.
I go in on the first day, and I say, "I hope it goes well, but if I win a single game, I'm going to be as delighted as can be." And I won, but my attitude is to tend to be hungry. And so once I won one, I wasn't sitting on my laurels or anything. I said, "You know, that was good. Let's do it again." I went into a full day of taping saying, "This is just the dream. I can't believe I have the opportunity to do this." And to get the opportunity to come back as a returning champion was just astounding to me. Each step of the way, I was just kind of amazed that it kept going.
Also, one thing I did not know going in is the camaraderie that the contestants get, because we actually spend relatively little time with anybody from the show. Most of our time, we're just amongst ourselves. And so it's kind of like that classroom atmosphere where you just put a bunch of kids who don't know each other together, and eventually they form friendships. I see these other people on TV, and even though I just met them that one day, they feel like old friends now.
I don't know how much of the fan reaction you've seen online, but a lot of people seem to have noticed that you say "what is" for every response. I was curious if there was any thinking or strategy behind that?
I don't necessarily want to say too much about that. I guess I just want to say that I hope nobody's offended by it. I do hear some people say that it's disrespectful to the game, and I would counter that if there was a Jeopardy fan club ranking, I think I would have a strong case to be number one Jeopardy fan. I live and breathe the show, I love every aspect of it, and so I'm definitely not doing it out of any disrespect or undermining of the show.
You were on set for LeVar Burton's highly-anticipated run as guest host of Jeopardy. What was it like working with him?
That was amazing. He is an awesome guy. He just exudes a calmness and a coolness to him that I envy as a person. And he was incredibly gracious. He clearly wanted to do well, and I think the fact that he wants to be selected as the permanent host is incredibly obvious, because of how much care he put into it. I was honored to meet him. He's been an icon for me personally ever since I was a kid; Reading Rainbow was a staple for me. I'm not a Star Trek person, but my brother is, and he really wanted to send me with every meme quote that I could possibly get to say in front of him. I held my tongue; I'm sure he gets enough of that. But I was floored by the experience. I had high expectations going in just because of the legend he is, and he met them. I'll never forget it.
And I don't want to give short shrift to Robin Roberts either, who was the host at the beginning [of my run]. She doesn't necessarily have the crazy Twitter momentum that got LeVar onto the show, but she was awesome and very fun. I'm not sure I saw her lose her smile from the moment of the show beginning all the way to leaving at the end of the day.
Now that you've won more than five games, you'll be returning to Jeopardy next season for the Tournament of Champions. Are you looking forward to that?
I am, with a combination of anticipation and dread. Because my competitors have been extremely smart, but on the other hand, in the Tournament of Champions, you've filtered it so that you only get people who have won at least five games of Jeopardy. That's going to be a more competitive stage than I'm prepared for mentally. So I'm quite worried about that. Hopefully I'll do well, but I'll be shaking in my boots a little bit.
Coming off of your run, how has it felt to have done so well, and also to have amassed this much prize money?
It's helpful. [Laughs] I will admit that I had some financial considerations in my immediate future — when am I going to graduate, what am I going to do immediately after — and some of the factors there were, how much is rent again? This has been a blessing in terms of liberating me from that. So on a very practical level, that's helpful. But more importantly, the idea of just saying "Jeopardy champion" — once I won once, they call you a Jeopardy champion, and that moniker stays with me forever. I'll try not to correct people too often when they address me as "Matt Amodio" and say, "That's Jeopardy champion Matt Amodio to you." But I'll know that that always applies, and that's just a tremendous source of pride for me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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