As Amy Schneider settled in for lunch with her fellow “Jeopardy!” contestants at the show’s studio last November, she had an especially fun conversation with Rhone Talsma, a librarian from Chicago. That wouldn’t have been unusual (“Jeopardy!” players are generally a nice crowd), but she remembered that guest host Ken Jennings once mentioned that during his 74-game winning streak, most people were intimidated by him — except the contestant who finally beat him, who was super-friendly, relaxed and just wanted to hang out.
“That was all definitely true of Rhone,” Schneider said in an interview. “I did have a little bit of a feeling about him.”
When they got back from lunch, producers drew Talsma’s name to compete against Schneider — and indeed, during the episode that aired Wednesday night, he was the one to finally snap her 40-game winning streak, which landed her a spot in “Jeopardy!” lore with the second-most consecutive wins of all time on the long-running quiz show. Schneider walked away with $1,382,800, the fourth-highest regular season winnings ever behind Jennings ($2.5 million), James Holzhauer ($2.4 million in 32 games) and Matt Amodio ($1.5 million in 38 games).
Schneider, a 42-year-old engineering manager from Oakland, Calif., has rocketed to TV fame over the past two months, becoming a household name for viewers as she steamrolled dozens of contestants since her first appearance last fall. Her streak led to a bump in ratings; earlier this month, “Jeopardy!” was the most-watched non-football program on TV, according to Nielsen.
Her pleasant demeanor and seemingly effortless knowledge of an incredible amount of trivia delighted viewers, and she earned tens of thousands of new Twitter followers as she shared behind-the-scenes details. She made “Jeopardy!” history as the show’s most successful transgender contestant; after she wore a transgender flag pin near the Thanksgiving episode, she wrote in a Twitter thread that she “wanted to represent that part of my identity accurately: as important, but also relatively minor.”
Schneider has received countless comments from viewers who were moved at seeing a trans person succeed at such a high level on TV every night. “The things that have meant the most have been trans people talking about how this has helped their parents or grandparents or loved one finally kind of understand what transgender is, and who they are,” she said. “I know that journey with your parents — I’ve been through it with my parents — and to know I’ve made that easier for people is just a really good thing.”
Schneider said she knew things might be going awry during Wednesday’s game when Talsma beat her to the buzzer on one crucial clue that led him to the Daily Double. He bet it all and was correct, and heading into Final Jeopardy, Schneider led $27,600 to Talsma’s $17,600.
The final category was “Countries of the World” with the clue: “The only nation in the world whose name in English ends in a ‘h,’ it’s also one of the 10 most populous.”
“I just blanked. I couldn’t come up with anything, and it was so frustrating,” Schneider said. The nature of the clue made it confounding: The country ended in an “h” so you couldn’t even venture a wild guess. Schneider didn’t guess anything, but Talsma answered correctly with “Bangladesh.” He won with $29,600 while Schneider finished in second with $19,600. Janice Hawthorne Timm, a music educator from Ukiah, Calif., missed the answer as well and came in third place.
Inevitably, there are those who will say Schneider lost on purpose (as they did when Holzhauer and Amodio were defeated), but she says that is definitely not the case.
Once she lost, Schneider had a brief “really great” talk with Jennings. She stayed on the set for a couple reshoots, remaining as cheerful as possible, and when she left the stage, she went into the bathroom and cried.
“Playing ‘Jeopardy!’ is the most fun I’ve ever had, and I really didn’t want it to stop,” she said. “'Devastating’ is too strong a word, but it was pretty disappointing.”
A couple minutes later, Schneider composed herself, and was grateful to the contestant coordinator who reassured her that it was normal to feel such intense emotions. “It’s just like the last day of a show,” the coordinator said, appealing to Schneider’s theater roots. “You and this group of people have been busting your ass to create this thing together, and then all of a sudden, it’s just done, and it’s gone.” Schneider was comforted as she reminded herself that when she thinks about her shows, she never dwells on the end, but on all the great memories that were created.
Plus, there was a tiny sense of relief that the pressure was now off. For starters, she no longer has to come up with interesting stories to share about herself during the show. “One of the first thoughts I had after it happened was, ‘I don’t have to come up with any more anecdotes,’” she said.
Transgender rights activists won’t soon forget what Schneider has meant to them, particularly at a time when the community is increasingly facing threats.
“It has been so thrilling to see a transgender person succeed in such a visible but also really mainstream way,” said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality/NCTE Action Fund. “There’s still this stereotype that transgender Americans live only in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, but the reality is we’re part of the fabric of society. … So to see someone like Amy pop up on TV in people’s living rooms and engage in this really American activity is really fantastic.”
“A lot of us grow up thinking that we must be the only one … so when you’re struggling with that and see someone like you on TV, like on a quiz show — and having fun with it, too — it makes you feel like you belong,” he said. “I know ‘visibility matters’ sounds cliche … but it really makes you feel less alone.”
Last week, GLAAD announced that Schneider would receive a special recognition award at the GLAAD Media Awards this spring, which she called “a complete surprise.” “I knew going in — and once I started winning — that was I bearing a certain burden of transgender representation,” Schneider said. “And to have this acknowledgment or validating that I did it well just really means a lot to me.”
After the news of Schneider’s streak coming to an end, Nick Adams, GLAAD’s director of transgender representation, released a statement: “Amy Schneider has given ‘Jeopardy!’s’ 9 million-plus nightly viewers a historic 40-game run full of masterful gameplay, while her media interviews and Twitter recaps of each game have given fans a glimpse into her life as a smart, charming transgender woman with a girlfriend and a rescue cat named Meep.”
He added: “Her visibility has been a bright spot, allowing millions of people to root for her success and start conversations about being transgender at a time when proposed bills in states like Arizona, Iowa, Indiana, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Amy’s home state Ohio, are targeting transgender Americans for discrimination. Amy’s achievement will be celebrated for years to come by ‘Jeopardy!’ fans and LGBTQ people everywhere.”