LOS ANGELES — Before taping a recent episode of “Jeopardy!,” current host and all-time greatest player Ken Jennings had a piece of advice for contestants facing reigning champion Amy Schneider.
“People were potentially a bit intimidated when they heard how well I’d been doing,” Schneider tells the Los Angeles Times, “and so one of the things [Jennings] would say is ... ‘When I was playing, people would be real nervous. They wouldn’t want to hang around me. But the person that eventually beat me was the one that was super friendly and wanted to hang out with me.’"
“And immediately, with perfect deadpan timing, [contestant Clark Dawson] turns to me and says, ‘Amy, I want to hang out with you.’”
It’s easy to understand why “Jeopardy!” hopefuls would want to increase their chances of unseating Schneider. On Friday, the 42-year-old software engineering manager from Oakland won her 33rd straight game, besting James Holzhauer’s 32-day total to secure the third-longest winning streak in “Jeopardy!” history.
That puts her just five victories shy of runner-up Matt Amodio. (No one has come close to touching Jennings’ colossal 74-day run.) Schneider is also the first woman to amass more than $1 million on the program, making her the most successful female contestant and the most successful transgender contestant of all time.
On TV last week, Schneider credited her mother — a mathematician who “spent a lot of her academic career as only or one of the only women in whatever environment she was in” — with instilling in her the value of education and “proving your belonging.”
“‘Jeopardy!’ has been a boys’ club ... and a lot of it is about all the messages that you get from society that this isn’t what women do. That women don’t know things,” Schneider says.
“I got those messages as well. But I had my mom right there the whole time as a living counter-example to all of them. ... I always had that counteracting the messages that might have discouraged me not just from learning, but wanting to show off that learning.”
Schneider has certainly shown off her learning, as well as her lightning buzzer reflexes, often heading into the Final Jeopardy! round with a runaway lead. As of Friday, her rate of accuracy when responding to clues is 95%.
So, how did she get so smart?
The simple answer, as outlined by Schneider in an essay pondering that frequently asked question, is by wanting to know stuff. A lot of stuff. And by having a razor-sharp memory, which Schneider admits is “luck of the genetic draw to a certain extent.”
That sticky brain and unquenchable thirst for knowledge even earned her the prescient title of “Most Likely to Appear on ‘Jeopardy!’” in eighth grade.
“Once we had been taught something, once I’d read it once, once it had come up once in a lecture or whatever, I would just remember it without really working that hard to do so,” Schneider says.
“Things that were challenging for my fellow students seemed easy to me. ... They weren’t always as easy as it seemed, but nonetheless, it was a real advantage. And people were like, ‘Well, she just seems to know everything.”
Though she doesn’t quite know it all (even she misses the occasional Final Jeopardy! clue), Schneider is generous with what she does know — not just on “Jeopardy!” but on Twitter. There, she recaps every game in detailed threads, offering insight into her invincible strategy and demystifying aspects of the “Jeopardy!” production process for some 79,000 followers and counting.
Ever wondered what happens behind the scenes when the judges change their ruling on a response? Or how much time the contestants really get to calculate their wagers for Final Jeopardy? Or how the champion of the day came up with the title of that obscure Shakespeare play? Schneider’s got you covered.
“I did it for my first game, and then ... I just sort of realized, this is something that I would always have liked to see,” Schneider says.
“I find ‘Jeopardy!’ so fascinating, and this is the sort of content that I would like to read. There’s only a few people in a position to produce it, and I’m one of them. So I’ll go ahead and put it out there.”
In order to jog her memory of each game before it airs, Schneider visits an online archive of “Jeopardy!” clues. In the hours leading up to the episode, she jots down anecdotes about her competitors and pivotal moments before settling in with her girlfriend, Genevieve, to watch the show and polish her recap with any last-minute thoughts.
By sharing her own experience in vivid detail, Schneider hopes to make “Jeopardy!” seem “attainable to other people.” And in doing so, she’s gained a slew of loyal fans who sing her praises and read her post-game remarks religiously on social media.
Some of the most meaningful messages she’s received are from people whose relatives have come to understand and respect trans people and their pronouns by seeing and rooting for Schneider on TV every day.
“While I had, overall, a good experience with transition, my family and everything, there was still some ... difficulties around learning my pronouns and respecting them. And I know how much it meant to me to finally get past that and to hear my mom call me her daughter and things like that,” Schneider says.
“To know that I’ve been able to provide that experience to people in the trans community is just the best thing I can hope for.”
For Schneider, it’s important to show people that “being trans isn’t a limitation” and shouldn’t prevent anyone from “pursuing anything.” In addition to inspiring other women and trans people, Schneider’s “Jeopardy!” journey has had an affirming effect on how she views herself.
“It’s actually been great, the opportunity to get used to seeing myself on screen and see people responding so favorably to it,” Schneider says.
“I can now look at myself and see someone that people like and agree with them and understand why.... I honestly wasn’t sure I’d ever have that feeling.”
“Like” is a bit of an understatement. Not only has Schneider emerged as a revered figure on TV and Twitter, she’s also beloved by her Bay Area community. While attending a basketball game last week at San Francisco’s Chase Center, home of the Golden State Warriors, Schneider received an exuberant ovation from the crowd — cementing her status as a hometown hero.
The feeling is mutual for Schneider, an avid Warriors fan who moved from Ohio to Oakland in 2009 and never wants to leave. A true Midwestern transplant, Schneider raves about the “beautiful” Northern California climate, which gets more gloom than the average sunny California locale without being too seasonal.
“People told me when I was moving out here, ‘You’ll miss the seasons,’ and it turns out, no. I like it where it’s just nice all the time,” Schneider says.
“I live near Lake Merritt. ... and it’s just such a lovely little urban feature. To go hang out by the lake with people is something that I’ll never get tired of.”
As much as she enjoys living there, Oakland has been the site of some painful experiences for Schneider as well. On the second day of the new year, Schneider was robbed at gunpoint on Lenox Avenue — a “not fun” ordeal she wishes hadn’t happened. But ultimately, she says, “It’s nothing I can’t replace.”
Schneider was also home in Oakland when she heard the news that longtime “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek had died of pancreatic cancer, and her dream of sharing the stage with the Canadian American TV legend came to an end. Originally, Schneider was slated to film “Jeopardy!” before Trebek died, but COVID-19 got in the way, and her taping was eventually pushed to 2021.
“He’s been, like for so many people, a part of my life since childhood,” Schneider says. “I knew that there was a very limited number of times left that I would have the chance to be on the show with him.”
“It was really tough to know that I’d come so close to getting to meet somebody who was, in a way, a hero of mine and came up just short. But I guess things happen for a reason. In retrospect, while I’m certainly sorry not to have gotten the chance to meet Alex, I also am glad that ... it happened now instead of when it was supposed to, because I had not yet started dating my girlfriend, Genevieve, and just in general, I didn’t have sort of the support system I have.”
More than a year after Trebek’s death, the search is still on for a permanent “Jeopardy!” host, and Jennings is one of multiple former champions to emcee the program in the interim. Could Schneider be next to step behind the famed studio lectern?
Though she fully supports Jennings as a “fantastic” host of the show, Schneider says she’d be open to any potential offers from Sony.
“It would certainly be a cool experience,” she says. “It’s a lot harder than it looks. Whether I’d actually even be good at it, I don’t know ... But yeah, I‘d certainly consider it if somebody asked.”
For now, she’ll continue blazing a trail as the most decorated female and trans contestant the show has ever seen, proudly taking her rightful place among Jennings and other trivia powerhouses in the “Jeopardy!” hall of fame.
“Specifically around the previous trans contestants that have been on — that meant a lot to me to see them and be able to envision myself where they were,” Schneider says.
“I hope it makes it seem possible. ... A place that women belong is on that champion’s podium.”