Two years ago, one “Jeopardy!” contestant, James Holzhauer, captured the imaginations of game-show fans who watched nightly to see his lightning-fast buzzer reflexes and risky bets.
Holzhauer’s 32-game run put his face (with his trademark strained smile) all over the “Jeopardy!” hall of fame. But on Friday, another contestant, Matt Amodio, a Ph.D. student at Yale, won his 33rd game, smashing through Holzhauer’s streak and taking his place as No. 2 in the record book for most games won in a row. The first spot is held by Ken Jennings, who won 74 games and ultimately became a consulting producer on the show.
Amodio’s victory brought him to $1.27 million in total winnings, and he has a long way to go to beat Holzhauer’s $2.46 million. With such an extraordinary total, Holzhauer was poised during his 33rd episode to possibly surpass Jennings’s record of $2.52 million won during the regular season, but he was bested by Emma Boettcher, a librarian who wrote her master’s paper on “Jeopardy!”
The fanfare around Amodio — some on social media are calling it the “Amodio Rodeo”— is perhaps a relief to the people behind the game show, who have been struggling to find a replacement for Alex Trebek, the beloved host who died last year. The show’s former executive producer, Mike Richards, was announced as the new host, then swiftly stepped down after The Ringer reported on offensive comments he had made on a podcast he created several years ago. The actress Mayim Bialik and Jennings are hosting episodes until the end of the year.
“Jeopardy!” superfans are also rejoicing at the shift in focus from behind-the-scenes drama to what’s actually playing out onstage.
Andy Saunders, who runs the website The Jeopardy! Fan, said Amodio and Holzhauer have similar approaches to the game: In the first round, they both start by tackling all of the $1,000 clues, then try to find the Daily Double, to double their winnings and gain a significant lead over the other competitors. Where the two diverge, Saunders said, is in the next round, where Holzhauer tended to inflate his score by betting large sums on the Daily Double clues.
“Where James might bet $13,000 or $14,000, Matt is betting $5,000 or $6,000,” he said in an interview. “And that’s pretty much the difference in their scores.”
Saunders thinks that Holzhauer’s aggressive strategy comes from a higher level of confidence that he is going to give the correct response. Based on Saunders’s statistics, Holzhauer tended to get three or four more correct answers than Amodio does each episode, providing more of a foundation for that confidence. The willingness to bet big could also have come from Holzhauer’s background as a sports bettor, where he grew comfortable putting down large sums of money on games.
That difference in strategy makes it unlikely that Amodio, who is studying computer science, will start to best Holzhauer in the category of single-game winnings, which Holzhauer completely dominates.
However, if Amodio keeps up his dominance, he has a chance at beating Jennings’s 74-game streak from 2004 and setting a record for all-time winnings in regular-season play.
Amodio tends to be humble about comparisons to the “Jeopardy!” all-stars, saying in a news release that it was “surreal” to be beside Jennings in the hall of fame and, on Twitter, writing that Holzhauer is better than him “in literally every way.”
Amodio’s star turn, only two years after Holzhauer rose to fame, has raised the question: Is “Jeopardy!” getting easier, or are players just getting better?
Saunders, who tracks the results of every game, thinks it’s that players are getting better. He said he doesn’t see substantial changes in the content of the clues but, instead, thinks that contestants have taken note of Holzhauer’s winning strategy and are taking advantage of a vast internet archive of past “Jeopardy!” clues to prepare.
As for Jennings’s record, Amodio still has to double his streak, then win nine more games, to beat it.
“Let’s look at that in another month,” Saunders said. “Then maybe Ken should start to get worried.”