Courtesy of the Jeopardy! YouTube Channel

As quiz game show “Jeopardy!” gets set to begin its 38th season on the airwaves this week, a Yale Ph.D. student will return to the left-most podium on viewers’ television screens looking to extend his 18-game winning streak.

Matt Amodio GRD ’23, a fifth-year computer science Ph.D. candidate at Yale, currently has the third-highest total winnings from regular-season play in Jeopardy! history, with a total of $574,801. He trails James Holzhauer, whose regular-season winnings on the show totaled $2,462,216, and Ken Jennings, who won $2,520,700 over the course of a record 74 games. As Amodio continues to win games, the attention around his streak has grown — even as he continues his Ph.D. work.

“It’s been remarkably normal in some ways, as my work itself has gone on as normal,” Amodio said of how the “Jeopardy!” run has affected his Yale experience.  “I think the most surreal part is that I’ve entered [Zoom] meetings about serious work, and had the conversations drift towards me and Jeopardy prior to getting back into the work discussion. It’s wild to be the person people want to talk about; that’s totally novel to me.”

Although his total winnings rank third-highest in the regular season, Amodio’s 18-game win streak is the fifth-longest streak. He is known for his constant use of “what’s…” when initiating responses to the show’s clues in order to eliminate unnecessary decision-making as the timer runs. The practice generated controversy within the “Jeopardy!” community, but producers defended it as within the rules despite not always being grammatically correct.

At Yale, Amodio works in the lab of Smita Krishnaswamy, assistant professor of genetics in the Yale School of Medicine and computer science in the Yale School of Applied Science and Engineering. In an interview with Yale SEAS, Amodio described his focus as artificial networks and deep learning. In a 2019 News article, he and Krishnaswamy detailed their work developing a neural network to analyze a dataset of 11 million dengue fever cells.

Fast forward to 2021, and in addition to collaborating with him on work projects, Amodio’s lab mates are cheering him on via Slack. Others outside his lab are also interested in getting to know Amodio. On Aug. 30, the Department of Computer Science hosted a meet and greet event featuring Amodio. The event, titled “What is Matt Amodio?” took place over Zoom and was open to the Yale community.

In an email to faculty, staff, graduate students, and undergraduate majors in the department reminding them of the event in late August, Holly Rushmeier, John C. Malone professor of computer science, called Amodio’s 18-game run “one of the bright spots for many of us this summer.”

Amodio told the News that he reads “voraciously,” but for many of the topics he showed prowess in on the show, even the Medina, Ohio native does not know where he originally learned the material.

While his reading has helped him form a more academic knowledge base, he told the News he has “spent a lot of time” shoring up his knowledge of pop culture in between the last season of the show and the new one that debuts Monday night. To do this, Amodio has “studied” modern movies, television shows and music, he said.

“It was a unique opportunity to be sitting there watching TV and saying to myself ‘yeah, you’re being productive right now, good for you.’” Amodio quipped.

During the transition between seasons, Amodio has also appeared on events outside the Yale community. Gov. Ned Lamont hosted a three-and-a-half-minute trivia video with Amodio, who communicated with the governor via video call.

“Matt, I can tell you, I think there’s about 3.6 million folks from Connecticut, you’re doing us really proud,” Lamont said on the call. “Showing how smart we are in Connecticut, and we’re cheering you on.”

Matt Amodio: 18-Day Jeopardy! Champion | JEOPARDY!

Amodio recalls his first game — the game that put his name into the history books as a “Jeopardy!” champion — as one of his favorite moments on the show thus far. Going into the “Final Jeopardy” round of the game televised on July 21, Amodio had $20,200 — a slim $400 lead over then-three-day champion Josh Saak. While Saak wagered a modest $5,005, Amodio wagered his full $20,200.

“Since I was in the lead and bet it all, I knew that if I got it right, I win,” Amodio explained. “And I knew I knew [the answer] right away, and so that was the first time I thought of myself as a “Jeopardy champion. And that’s really an unforgettable experience.”

Even with 18 consecutive wins under his belt, he remains cautious and admits that he has not gotten more comfortable with the buzzer over time. On the contrary, he feels more nervous as his streak goes on and expectations rise.

Amodio’s run on “Jeopardy!” comes amid a transition period within the show, after the legendary Alex Trebek — host of the show since its revival in 1984 — died in November 2020. Since Trebek’s passing, the duties of hosting the show have been rotated around an array of guest hosts from a variety of backgrounds. Amodio himself has played the game under four different guest hosts so far: television broadcaster Robin Roberts, actor and director LeVar Burton, journalist David Faber and sportscaster Joe Buck.

When asked about the upcoming season, Amodio revealed little about his own performance, as per show policy, only commenting that he “look[s] forward to a whole new season of clever clues and fun challenges [for] viewer[s].” 

Amodio attended Ohio State University for his undergraduate degree.

James Richardson is a former staff reporter. He previously covered athletic administration, men's basketball and squash.