Connecticut’s ‘Jeopardy!’ champ Matt Amodio is the show’s ninth highest-earning player in history — so far
As of Thursday night, here’s what we know about Matt Amodio, the 30-year-old Yale Ph.D. student who has lasted an entire week on “Jeopardy!,” winning seven games.
“I signed a confidentiality agreement,” Amodio says, “and I’m keeping it.”
The Courant caught up with the genial, fact-laden Amodio by phone Friday afternoon. As he was last week when his first episode of “Jeopardy!” aired, he was at his parents’ house in Cleveland. The family has been watching “Jeopardy!” intently, but that’s nothing new. Amodio has never known a time when he wasn’t watching the famed quiz show every evening.
Here’s a glimpse into the mind of someone playing “Jeopardy!” for real on TV: “In the game that was on yesterday, they mentioned a mountain. They gave the name of the mountain in Italian. Now, I know a little Latin, which can be close to Italian, so I knew it meant Mount Deer. But there is no Mount Deer, so my mind kept telling me ‘Don’t say Mount Deer. Don’t say Mount Deer. While I was trying to resist that, I missed other clues that made it clear that it was the Matterhorn."
“That’s why I’ve been trying to avoid reading comments about me online,” Amodio says. “They say, ‘How did you not know that? I knew that!’ But you try doing it on that stage with the buzzer in your hand.”
Whole internet articles have been penned about Amodio’s penchant for phrasing questions with the word “What” when “Who” might be more appropriate — for example, “What’s Updike?” He respectfully says “no comment” on that issue, as he doesn’t want to inadvertently offend anyone or have his feelings misconstrued. He takes exception with those who’ve suggested that his verbal tics mean he doesn’t take the game seriously.
“I am a huge ‘Jeopardy’ fan,” Amodio says. “I’ve watched it almost every day for all the decades I’ve been alive. I was watching it before I knew what it was. If you rank ‘Jeopardy!’ fans, I’d like to think I’d have a strong case for being #1.”
His “Jeopardy!” winnings have already changed his life. “As a Ph.D. student, I’ve been spending money, not making it, and my career decisions have also had to be based on money. Now I have the luxury of making those decisions based on what I want to do. Post-doc positions tend to be underpaid, but the pay doesn’t matter as much now. I can stay in academia.”
Amodio explains that he essentially studies “neural networks,” an element of artificial intelligence, admitting that “my interest is not necessarily in the practical applications. I like learning the math and the statistics. Now I can be the weird mathematician in a tweed suit.”
The “Jeopardy!” experience only took Amodio away from his Yale studies for a few days earlier this year, he says, since the shows tapes multiple episodes at a time. In fact, he sees appearing on the show as validating the immense amount of time he regularly spends learning random facts. “I generally lose entire nights to reading Wikipedia pages. What changed was I started thinking ‘I need to remember this. I may get asked about this.’ The big problem was keeping my mind calm.”
Amodio confessed to the Courant last week that he is generally risk-averse as a person, but playing “Jeopardy!” forces you to bet large amounts of money on the outcome of questions (answers, technically) that haven’t been posed yet. In his first week on the show, Amodio has been praised by some viewers for his firm, decisive bets. “That’s the statistician in me,” he says. “If I thought about the consequences, it might end up differently. It’s the best way to strategize my winning. But I hate it. I feel like Wile E. Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons, just boldly walking off the end of the cliff, into the air.”
Both the guest hosts he appeared with were “great,” Amodio says. “You don’t get to socialize with the hosts much. But they were very nice, interested in the contestants. I love Robin Roberts, and I love LeVar Burton, who’s an icon in my mind.” Asked if he knew Burton more from “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Reading Rainbow” or “Roots,” he says, “‘Reading Rainbow,’ but that’s what I mean. He’s an icon several different ways. He’s great. My brother wanted me to give him all these ‘Next Generation’ quotes. I did not.”
Amodio hasn’t been in New Haven in a while due to the pandemic. He hopes to return in the fall. Asked for some of his favorite haunts or people in the city, he’s afraid to list them for fear of “leaving anybody out,” but does want to pay tribute to the trivia nights at The Playwright Pub on Whitney Avenue in Hamden. “If I’m a trivia legend now, that’s where it happened.”
Does he plan to travel with his winnings?
“No, I’m a homebody," he said. "It would actually help me on ‘Jeopardy!’ if I traveled more. I would miss a question about some place and I’d ask another contestant ‘How do you know that?,’ and they’d say ‘I was there last year.’”
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of being a “Jeopardy!” champion is that it makes Amodio’s chosen field of academia look good.
“I hope people don’t take home the lesson that these are useless facts. This is about the power of learning, and the mindset it gives you.”
“Jeopardy!” airs locally on WTNH.
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