Matt Amodio never thought he’d end up on Jeopardy!
At first glance, the Medina native, now a 31-year-old Yale University research assistant working on a Ph.D. in computer science with a focus on artificial intelligence, appeared to be the perfect contestant. He’d been watching the long-running game show since he was a kid. He loved participating in bar trivia nights. And he unwound at night by reading Wikipedia pages.
But he was also an introvert.
“When I imagine the kind of people that they want on TV, I picture somebody like my older brother, who is super outgoing, very charismatic, enters a room and immediately starts talking with strangers,” Amodio explains. “I’ve known my whole life that that’s not me.”
His self-image began to change in 2016, after Amodio’s lawyer father, Jim, suggested they each take an online test the show periodically offers to screen potential contestants. A month later, he received an email inviting him to an audition in New York City. When he didn’t hear from producers, he took another online test, this time in late 2019.
“Once I got an audition call the first time, I said, ‘Oh, my goodness! Maybe I am at least close to good enough to be on the show,’” he says.
The persistence paid off. Amodio’s second audition in February 2020 landed him on a July 2021 episode of Jeopardy! He parlayed that appearance into 38 consecutive wins, a streak second only to the 74 consecutive game wins legendary Jeopardy! contestant Ken Jennings racked up in 2004. His winnings total $1,518,601, making him the third millionaire contestant in regular-season play.
The self-described introvert has become a celebrity.
“I’ve done a lot of pictures for people who want to take a selfie with me,” he says. “I’ve noticed that it takes me a lot longer to get through my workout at the gym because I’m getting regaled so often.”
Although Amodio got the call inviting him to be a contestant on Jeopardy! in March 2020, he didn’t begin taping in Los Angeles until April 2021 because of the pandemic. “It started taping sooner, but they were only using local people because air travel, hotels and everything was too risky,” he recalls. He used Wikipedia to brush up on less familiar subjects such as pop culture and settled on a strategy of bouncing between clue categories instead of choosing one clue after another on a given topic like so many contestants do.
“I felt like if I could do that effectively, I would have an advantage over other people who weren’t that good at context-switching,” he says. Amodio also developed a habit of providing answers to clues in the mandated form of a question by always starting them with “What’s” — technically acceptable verbiage that irked grammar-conscious viewers who expected him to modify his answers with a “Who’s,” “Where’s,” etc., appropriate to each specific answer.
“The one other thing I wanted to do going in was eliminate any chance of messing something up where I could,” he explains. “And one thing that you can mess up is forget to answer in the form of a question — you see people do that all the time.”
Much to his surprise, Amodio did not experience crippling stage fright, just a little initial shaking in his shoes. “I remember thinking to myself, I’m glad that my foot is shaking a little bit and not my hand,” he says. “We have to operate these buzzers, the signaling devices, to ring in.” The absence of a studio audience for COVID-19 reasons made tapings more like playing along at home.
“I was very worried about showing personality — like, actively trying to show personality — in the audition,” Amodio remembers. “Then, when I got on the show, I … felt more comfortable being myself. They already got me on the show. What are they going to do? Kick me out?”
Amodio hasn’t decided how to spend his winnings. He is a frugal man who still drives a 2011 Honda Fit with broken air conditioning. “I walk around campus,” he says. “So I barely have any miles on it. And other than the air conditioning, it’s in great shape.”
But he’s enjoying the perks of his fame. “I have quite a few female fans on Twitter who are not shy about their emotions,” he divulges modestly. And the metal band Five Finger Death Punch issued a Twitter invitation to meet them backstage after he correctly provided the group’s name in response to a clue and mentioned that he liked their music.
“I did very well in the Beatles category, and I have not yet heard from Mr. McCartney,” he jokingly laments.
Perhaps McCartney will reach out when Amodio returns to Jeopardy! for the next “Tournament of Champions” to be taped later this year. Although thrilling, rubbing shoulders with celebrities is not Amodio’s goal for this next challenge.
“A lot of people win Jeopardy! games throughout the year. But only one person gets to win the Tournament of Champions. It really is extra competitive. I just want to show that I can hold my own on that level.”
But regardless of what happens next, Amodio will always cherish his experience. “This is a show that is all about knowledge and learning. Succeeding so famously at something that is right in line with my core values has been a tremendously rewarding experience.”