Matt Amodio: My Ultimate Goal Is To Win $1 More Than Ken Jennings

Some of my earliest memories of Jeopardy! are seeing the stage back the way they used to have it in the 90s, with all the colors. I was always in the room when my parents were watching the show, so it's mostly a visual memory; just lights, colors, buzzers and beeps.

I'm the youngest of four boys and I grew up in Medina, Ohio, which is a suburb of Cleveland. We had a fairly normal life; I went through public school and I was a big baseball fan. I always did well in school, I just liked learning. That's always been there.

The first solid memories I have of Jeopardy! are of Ken Jennings' run. I was rooting for him like a sports fan. I knew his stats and how he compared to the record books. I remember it so well. But you never really picture how it must look in person.

So I remember getting on the Jeopardy! stage for the first time myself and just looking around. It looks a little different in person than on TV. On TV they don't pan up to see where all the lights are hanging in the studio, and, of course, you don't see backstage. I remember I used to see someone look to the left of the screen and wonder what they were looking at. Now I know. That's where the judge's table is. Getting to see the whole panorama in a way that you never can at home is a great feeling. You step onto the stage, get to your podium and you hear the wonderful Johnny Gilbert announce your name. It's an amazing feeling of: That's me! I got here.

I had seen famous people on stage before, but this was the closest brush to fame I'd ever had, and I didn't know what to expect. It turns out, famous people are just people as well. It has been really great to have normal conversations with hosts like Robin Roberts. She and I talked about sports because she's a big sports fan, and she talked about how the experience of guest hosting was fun but also stressful for her, which is a different side of things I'd never thought about. It was very human. Before that, I had just been nervous about myself and answering questions.

I also got to meet LeVar Burton, who is a childhood icon for me. It's been awesome meeting all the hosts. I think Joe Buck had the most fun on stage, he was just loving every minute, and when the host is living it up, that's contagious!

But I don't think it was disruptive having six different hosts. I'm not really focused on the host when I'm playing. I'm just staring at the question, trying to remember, so it didn't really impact me at all. There are also 20 people on set working for Jeopardy!, all doing their jobs and making you feel comfortable, the fact that one of them is changing isn't so huge. I did have a chance to meet Mike Richards, he was the executive producer on the show before he was the host and he was always extremely nice to me. He treated me very well. I'm just a contestant, I'm not in the backstage area, but still, he always made me feel comfortable. There was a lot of turmoil happening, but he and everyone on the staff did a great job of keeping the contestants feeling as normal as possible.

It's been nice to see my statistics accumulate, but I feel I'm always going to know less than James Holzhauer and Ken Jennings. Getting my name into the record books as having the second longest winning streak, 33 games won to date, is something to hold on to, but even having my name considered in the same running as them doesn't sound right to me.

I don't have a whole lot of self confidence, so I don't really think of myself as overly good and then I keep winning! Every time I miss a question, the first reaction in my head is: "I bet Ken knew that!"

I came into Jeopardy! really analyzing it from a probability perspective; what is the right move to maximize your winnings? My field is math and statistics so I think about probability a lot. I also took cues from James Holzhauer. But the difference is, when I study, it's always hypothetical, it's just words on a page. James is used to putting lots of real money on the line.

So I went in trying to supress all the emotions that say: "Don't do that! That's too risky!!!" I think you can see it on my face on the show, when I look a little pained at wagering $10,000. I can hear my parents in the back of my head saying: "It's too much money. That's a car you just wagered on one question!" I consider myself a cautious person, but I know the best way to win is to not always be cautious. So I try not to worry about how I feel, and just do it. You have to think about it as monopoly money, I don't even consider the dollars because it would be too real to view it as actual money.

But it is a good feeling to have won more than $1.2million. I won the annual rent for my apartment in my first game, and that was an optimistic best case scenario I had in mind going in: being able to pay a whole year in rent. Then I got to the point where I thought I could consider winning $100,000. Then $250,000 happened, then $500,000 and then $1,000,000. I guess the ultimate goal is to win one dollar more than Ken and to have the record for the show!

Matt Amodio has won 33 Jeopardy! games
Matt Amodio now has the second longest winning streak in Jeopardy! history. On October 1, he won his 33rd game. Courtesy of Jeopardy!

But I don't think of myself as rich. It just feels like I have a net underneath the tightrope walking that is life in general. I guess eventually it will start to sink in, but as of now, I still feel like a PhD student with a small stipend. I've always tried to live on as little as possible and pocket away what I could for a rainy day. Now, my rainy day fund is overflowing. I'm suddenly doing a crash course in investing! This is the kind of financial security I've never had before. But I have zero plans to spend the money. The air conditioning in my car has been broken for 6 or 7 years and I'm finally going to use this money to fix it. That's probably it.

All of this external validation is good but it's really not much of a driver for me. One nice thing about being Jeopardy! famous is that it's not quite the same as being Taylor Swift famous. I went to a baseball game and the people next to me asked if I was Matt Amodio, and then the usher came over. It's fun getting recognized for a good thing. I don't mind at all and people have been very nice. I imagine if someone finds me annoying, I would want them to keep that to themselves! But to have someone come over and say they're a big fan and congratulate me, is very nice.

It's easy to stay grounded because there is so much randomness and luck involved. In my first game I was just one question away from losing. I've had so many close calls where I feel like Neo in The Matrix, dodging the bullets in slow motion. People have asked how I stay humble and grounded? The game keeps you grounded.

My least favourite questions are lyrics of popular songs. There are songs I know so well and have heard 100 times, but when Mayim Bialik says a lyric out of rhythm, I get a bad feeling, because I know I will have a hard time naming the song. Then everybody watches the show and thinks I don't know the song, which is a worse feeling! I know it's going to be embarrassing. I just missed one for "We Are The World." How could someone claim to be aware of culture and not know "We Are The World"?! That was not so good. But on the other hand, I got almost all the songs correct in a Beatles lyrics category. My mom was proud.

Matt Amodio has won 33 Jeopardy! games
Matt Amodio with Jeopardy! guest host Mayim Bialik. Courtesy of Jeopardy!

So competing on Jeopardy! is stressful for me. I want to do well and I'm constantly worried that I'm not. But I try to internalise that and express comfort and ease, because that makes it easier for everyone else around. To hear that Mayim felt I came across as easy-going makes me feel so good. I know her situation was not an easy one. She knew the attention was going to be on her with the hosting situation, and she had to jump in there unexpectedly. She does a really good job. I have been amazed by her.

The biggest takeaway for me is how many nice people I have run into. There have been more than 60 other contestants that I've been in the fortunate position to meet. I have seen people come into this experience with a perspective where they are intimidated or afraid of me, so I tell them honestly: "I'm afraid too! You might think that by game 30 the nerves are gone, but they're not!" I've seen the importance of being honest with people.

I've also met people backstage who play big roles in the show and don't necessarily get a lot of acknowledgement, so I have done everything I can to tell them what a great job they are doing, whether that is calming me down, or calling me "champ" after my first win.

As an introverted person, my inclination is to not say anything, so one of the ways I have grown is to try to tell people honestly how I'm feeling. When people make me feel good, I tell them that. I hope they go home and realize how important they are. It's honest and it's the kind of thing I wouldn't have done before, so I thank Jeopardy! for drawing that out of me.

I'm trying to ride the surf for as long as I can. I know that my run will end at some point. I'll become a memory as opposed to a tangible, current thing, and I'll go back to a regular, normal, life. I'm enjoying things being different at the moment, but eventually, I'll go and be the Matt I was always going to be anyway.

Matt Amodio is PhD student at Yale University and current Jeopardy! contestant. On October 1, Amodio became the contestant with the second longest winning streak in the show's history after winning his 33rd game. You can follow him on Twitter @AmodioMatt.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.

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