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‘The Jeopardy! story no one is following,’ according to Ken Jennings

For the better part of 10 months, ‘Jeopardy!’ has focused on one big storyline: Who will be the next host? Here’s a different story

Matt Amodio has won 18 games of “Jeopardy!” He goes for his 19th win when the new season premieres on Monday.
Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

For the better part of 10 months, “Jeopardy!” has focused on one big storyline: Who will be the next host?

Since Alex Trebek’s death, the beloved quiz show that has seen very little change in format over the years, has cycled through 16 guest hosts. Every single host has sparked discussion and debate among “Jeopardy!” fans. Some people even claimed they would stop watching the show altogether if “Jeopardy!” went with certain hosts.

That turmoil only intensified when Sony named Mike Richards as Trebek’s successor. Backlash immediately ensued, past controversies rose to the surface and after a whirlwind nine days, Richards — who has since been fired as executive producer of “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” — stepped down as host.

Now, the search is back on, and the big “Jeopardy!” question remains unanswered: Who will be the next host?

It’s an important matter that shouldn’t be taken lightly — Trebek was an icon, and left behind giant shoes to fill.

But the great irony in all of this is that for Trebek, “Jeopardy!” was never about the host.

“You could replace me as the host of the show with anybody and it would likely be just as popular,” he wrote in a memoir published shortly before his death last year. “After 36 years with me, it might even be more popular.

“I try to be intelligent enough with regard to my profession to know what the most important elements of the show are,” he continued.

In Trebek’s mind, those elements included the show’s writers and the contestants. He believed they were the real stars of “Jeopardy!”

Which brings us to Matt Amodio.

Heading into the new season of “Jeopardy!” that premieres Monday, Amodio, a computer science Ph.D. student at Yale University, already has 18 wins under his belt. So far, he’s won $574,801. When it comes to all-time highest winnings during regular season “Jeopardy!” play, Amodio is third, behind “Jeopardy!” greats Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer.

For all of his success, though, Amodio hasn’t generated as much attention as one might expect. Perhaps it’s gotten lost amid the “Jeopardy!” host controversy. But the relative quietness surrounding Amodio’s winning streak led to the following tweet from Jennings last month:

“This guy is the Jeopardy! story no one is following.”

On Monday, Amodio will attempt to get his 19th “Jeopardy!” victory. In the spirit of Trebek, who believed the focus should always be on the contestants, here’s a look at the “Jeopardy!” champion inching his way closer to Holzhauer and Jennings in the show’s Hall of Fame.


He’s a lifelong ‘Jeopardy!’ fan

Amodio is a diehard “Jeopardy!” fan who started watching the show even before he could read.

  • “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 told Entertainment Weekly. “To see me on the stage is just surreal. It’s a wonderful, wonderful feeling.”

But he didn’t want to audition for ‘Jeopardy!’

Despite his love for the game, Amodio didn’t want to audition for “Jeopardy!” — at least initially.

  • “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 told Entertainment Weekly. “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.’”

He’s a big fan of Ken Jennings

As a lifelong “Jeopardy!” fan, Amodio watched Jennings’ legendary 74-game winning streak in 2004.

  • “I was a huge Ken Jennings fan,” he told Vulture. “It was like a sporting event. If there was gear, I would’ve bought gear and a big foam finger to root him on from my living room. I’m a huge Ken fan. Need to say that again.”

So when Jennings tweeted about Amodio last month, the Yale student was understandably excited. He even told Vulture that it was a top moment in his life.

  • “Ken, you’ve been a hero and an inspiration to me for almost two decades,” Amodio responded on Twitter. “I just want to thank you for everything you’ve given to the world.”

A few days ago, on Sept. 6, Amodio shared even more of his Jennings fandom, noting on Twitter that the day marked 17 years since Jennings kicked off Season 21 as a 38-day “Jeopardy!” champion.

  • “He would go on to win another game or 36,” Amodio wrote. “We would have to wait until 2020 to see him crowned, but we all knew he was the #Jeopardy GOAT in 2004.”

He draws inspiration from Jennings, James Holzhauer

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Amodio said he prepared for “Jeopardy!” in part by watching Jennings, studying how he played the game and controlled the buzzer. He also worked to embrace Holzhauer’s probability-based approach to the game, going for the harder, more valuable clues and betting big on Daily Doubles.

  • “I’m hoping that I’m imitating it as best as I can,” he told Entertainment Weekly, adding that the approach is a bit out of his comfort zone.
  • “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,” he continued. “I think (Holzhauer) 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.”

He really likes Wikipedia

Succeeding at “Jeopardy!” requires having a wide range of knowledge, and Amodio attributes his large arsenal of trivia to reading — more specifically, browsing through Wikipedia.

  • “On a regular basis, I just fall into a rabbit hole of Wikipedia links,” he told USA Today. “Every article opens up 20 more things that I have questions about it. This is just how I spend my day, or my nights when I’m done working.”

The reason behind his unusual ‘Jeopardy!’ strategy

Throughout his 18-game run, Amodio has received attention — and even frustration from some fans — for his unusual way of responding to “Jeopardy!” clues. “Jeopardy!” requires contestants to respond in the form of a question, beginning with “What is?” or “Who is?” or “Where is?”

Regardless of the clue, Amodio responds with “what’s?” — every single time. That approach, he said, allows him to spend less time worrying about how to begin a response and gives him more time to focus on coming up with the correct response.

  • “Then, I can focus on the rest of the clue,” he said during an interview with the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Other people have been very upset about me being robotic instead of forming a question differently each time. I was glad that ‘Jeopardy!’ said this was perfectly within the rules. I’ve watched ‘Jeopardy!’ every day of my life, so I knew it was OK.”

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Amodio said he hoped fans weren’t “offended” by his approach.

  • “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 No. 1 ‘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.”

Being a ‘Jeopardy!’ champion

Considering Amodio’s dominant success on “Jeopardy!,” there’s a good chance his winning streak will continue well into the show’s 38th season. But his goal going onto the show was significantly smaller.

  • “I wanted to win one game,” he told Vulture. “Once you win, you’re a ‘Jeopardy!’ champion. ... That’s something nobody can take away from you. You might lose the next game, or you might lose 71 games later if you’re Ken Jennings. You’re going to lose eventually. But that never takes away from the descriptor. I wanted to have that under my belt.
  • “I don’t think anything has surpassed that moment winning the first game.”