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‘Jeopardy!’ champion Matt Amodio on his epic winning streak and staying focused in a season of drama

Matt Amodio, a PhD student from Yale University, competes on “Jeopardy!” when it returns for its 38th season on Sept. 13. (Carol Kaelson/Jeopardy Productions Inc.)
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Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, “Jeopardy!” champion Matt Amodio is obviously aware that his epic winning streak is occurring at possibly the most chaotic time in the show’s long history — the search for a new host followed by the swift downfall of former executive producer Mike Richards. But, really, he doesn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on it.

“Frankly, the last thing I’m thinking about when I’m in the middle of a game is who’s hosting,” Amodio said in a phone interview. “I’ve had people say, ‘Oh man, you’ve moved on to your fourth host, that has to be difficult.’ And I would say, ‘Well, you’re right, but I didn’t even realize that, necessarily.’ ‘Cause I’m trying to pull these really obscure facts out of my brain, and that takes all the mental energy I can afford at the moment.”

Amodio, a 30-year-old PhD student studying computer science at Yale University, ended last season with 18 consecutive wins and $574,801 in prize money, landing him in third place on the “Jeopardy!” all-time highest winnings list. (He’s behind only Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer; he insists that he would never want to compete against them in another “Greatest of All Time” tournament.) On Monday, the show returns for its 38th season in syndication, and millions of viewers will tune in to see whether Amodio can continue his streak.

In addition, they may be tuning in for the weirdness of seeing the first of five shows with Richards at the helm, who was initially named as Alex Trebek’s replacement — but then stepped down after his first day of filming, in the wake of a story published by the Ringer that described offensive comments Richards made on his former podcast. (The show films five episodes per day.) “Jeopardy!” permanently severed ties with him as executive producer about two weeks later, and producers enlisted new prime-time host Mayim Bialik to temporarily fill in while the search continues.

Like many fans used to “Jeopardy!” simply existing as a cultural staple in the background of their lives, Amodio has been overwhelmed by the amount of coverage the quiz show has received in recent months, if not totally surprised. But instead of feeling like the host search has overshadowed his number of victories, he said, it has turned into the opposite.

“I think I’ve probably been the beneficiary of even more attention, because it’s such a unique moment for the show,” Amodio said. “I’m an introverted person; I’ve never experienced even moderate amounts of attention, much less this much attention. I’m actually kind of surprised I’ve enjoyed it.”

He is, however, still adjusting to being at the center of social media conversations, and he experienced his first “controversy” shortly after his run started. Fans immediately noticed — and started complaining — that he started every answer with “what is,” no matter the subject. (“What is John Goodman?”) Amodio figured it would be a solid strategy, so he wouldn’t have to waste even a second deciding what word would precede his answer. He had no idea fans would care so deeply.

“I didn’t think it would be overly noticeable to viewers. Maybe some super die-hards, it would raise their eyebrows, but I left wondering if anybody would ever comment on it at all,” he said. “Then, not only did somebody comment on it, it was kind of the main focus of the discourse. . . . I actually found it kind of amusing, that people could be so irritated by it. But the only problem I had was when people interpreted it as a sign of disrespect. That was obviously not at all what I intended.”

A lifelong fan “Jeopardy!” fan and avid reader, Amodio generally racks up large sums of money in the beginning of the game before his fellow contestants have a chance to catch up. Even when he loses a great deal in “Final Jeopardy!,” he’s generally too far ahead for it to matter. There have been a couple of close calls, but the show moves so quickly that he doesn’t have time to brood or be frustrated about missing an answer, and instead, he tries to stay focused and move on.

One thing he has never quite been able to figure out is the famous “Jeopardy!” buzzer strategy, even though it’s working out for him so far. Some viewers have worried that contestants might be thrown off by the number of guest hosts who all have different rhythms; Jennings used to prepare by studying Trebek’s vocal patterns, because contestants can buzz the second the clue is read. But Amodio, who played games hosted by Robin Roberts, LeVar Burton, David Faber and Joe Buck, says the buzzer is the great equalizer.

“I go for long stretches without having won a buzzer, and then I feel like I’m doing like the exact same thing, and it goes well for me for a long streak. It’s kind of a mystery to me,” he said.

Amodio also strategizes beyond the mechanics of the game, even in choosing the introductory anecdote he shared in his first episode: He revealed that he has a phobia of escalators, and particularly the one in the Wheaton Metro station, just outside of Washington, which is the longest escalator in the Western Hemisphere. Amodio started laughing when told that a Washington Post editor made fun of this on Twitter, only to tweet a follow-up when the show ended: “Well he won with an insane $40,000 so joke’s on the Wheaton escalator.”

“As an average audience viewer, you just think so highly of these [contestants]. I know that’s how I feel when I’m watching them on TV. So I wanted something that shows a weakness, to show a little humanity there,” said Amodio, who briefly worked in Washington at a consulting firm. “And it’s totally true. I’m absolutely terrified of even moderately sized escalators, much less that monster.”

Season 37 wrapped in May, so Amodio had to keep his wins a secret until they started airing this summer. (“Oh yeah, I did ‘Jeopardy!,’ it’ll be on TV later, don’t worry about it.”) He returned to Los Angeles to film the new season in mid-August, but during the hiatus, he spent plenty of time watching movies, binge-watching TV shows and listening to Billboard top hits to brush up on pop culture, possibly his weakest subject.

The continued intense scrutiny over the new host makes sense to him, particularly given Trebek’s status as a cultural icon.

“He was a symbol to our society, and there’s no way that transition can happen without it being a big shock to people,” Amodio said. “And that, I will say, is my one real regret. Things are working so well for me on ‘Jeopardy!’ and I’m so tremendously grateful for the opportunity the show has given me, but it just didn’t work out, timing wise, to meet Alex.”

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