When Amy Schneider became the fourth contestant in the history of “Jeopardy!” to surpass $1 million in winnings in regular-season play on Friday, she extended her winning streak to 28 games.
It was a remarkable milestone for Schneider, who last month became the woman with the most consecutive wins on the program.
Her victory came as long winning streaks have grown more common on “Jeopardy!” — there even seem to be streaks of streaks. Earlier this season Matt Amodio won 38 consecutive games, the second-longest run in the show’s history. The player who beat him, Jonathan Fisher, ended up winning 11 games in a row, a rare feat in itself.
Since “Jeopardy!” got rid of a rule in 2003 that had limited contestants to no more than five wins in a row, only a dozen contestants have managed to win 10 or more games in a row. Half of the dozen, or six streaks, have occurred in the past five years, while half of those six have been this season.
The winning streaks have provided some welcome excitement, and ratings boosts, for a show that has struggled to choose a permanent replacement for Alex Trebek, its beloved longtime host, who died in November 2020. But they have also raised new questions.
Is this trend simply a result of chance? Are contestants getting better at prepping — have they learned to game the game? Is this a case of improvement over time, much in the same way that top runners and swimmers are able to best the records set by their predecessors? Could the clues possibly be getting easier?
“Behind the scenes we’ve spent a lot of time discussing whether this is some kind of ‘new normal’ or whether we’ve just had an unusual windfall of brilliant ‘Jeopardy!’ players,” Michael Davies, the show’s executive producer, wrote in an email.
He discounted the notion that the clues could be getting easier.
“I actually think the show may be getting harder,” Davies wrote, noting that the subject matter covers an ever-wider range of material. “Let’s face it, so few people read the same books anymore or watch the same TV shows. And we have massively diversified the history, cultural and pop cultural material we expect our players to compete over.”
Theories abound about the show’s recent run of big winners. In interviews and emails, several recent champions and people who write about “Jeopardy!” and study it obsessively offered their thoughts.
The writers and producers behind the show have talked about several possible explanations, Davies wrote, including that contestants now have access to a wealth of online resources (including a fan-generated website called J! Archive, which Schneider relied on to prepare, that includes clues dating back to the 1980s).
Andy Saunders, who runs the website The Jeopardy! Fan, has started to run the numbers and believes the trend may be significant beyond this particular moment. In a blog post on Friday, Saunders wrote that the average streak length started increasing in the season spanning 2010 and 2011, which he suggested could be the result of more intensive preparation on the part of contestants.
Some point to the influence of one star player: James Holzhauer, a professional sports bettor who won 32 games in 2019 and continues to hold the record for the most money won in a single game.
Holzhauer’s strategy — to start with the high-value clues, hunt for the Daily Doubles and make risky wagers — proved to be a winning one for him, and some contestants took note. Amodio, for example, said he copied Holzhauer’s approach of starting with the large money clues at the bottom of the board. But Schneider has done the opposite, taking a more traditional approach that she called a “reaction against James Holzhauer.”
Holzhauer’s take on the current trend? A product of chance.
“People always assume everything is a paradigm shift,” Holzhauer wrote in an email, “when it’s actually fairly normal for results to occasionally cluster.”
One theory holds that the pandemic may have played a role, causing delays that increased the lead time — and potentially the study time — contestants had after they had been invited to compete on the show.
“You had a whole bunch of people who knew they were going to be on the show and could spend a whole bunch of extra time preparing,” Saunders noted.
Amodio and Schneider were two of those people. Amodio, a Ph.D. student in computer science at Yale, was initially scheduled to compete in April 2020 but because of pandemic cancellations, started taping a year later than originally planned.
In that time, Amodio said in an interview, he focused on boning up on pop culture, a weak area of knowledge for him. He listened to pop music he had not heard before (discovering Dua Lipa in the process) and watched samples of a broad swath of current television (including “The Good Place,” which earned him the correct response to a $1000 clue in his 13th game).
Schneider was invited onto the show in fall 2020, but the taping was delayed and she didn’t compete until about a year later, giving her more time to practice with the clues from previous games and correct gaps in her knowledge, (“like forgetting which Brontë sister was which,” she said).
But she said in an interview that she was skeptical that the extra study time was a significant factor. She views a well-prepared contestant as someone who has long been an intellectually curious person — not someone who crams before the test. “You just have to live a life where you’re learning stuff all the time,” she said.
Fisher, who beat Amodio, had little time to prepare: There was only about a week between his getting the call inviting him to appear on the show and his arrival at the studio.
Still another explanation being considered is the recent increase in applicants. Shortly before the pandemic hit, the show introduced a new entrance test that would-be contestants can take at any time, rather than limiting it to particular times. In a recent article for The Ringer exploring the trend in streaks, Claire McNear reported that before the new exam was introduced, “Jeopardy!” had about 70,000 applicants each year; with the new exam, it gets an average of about 125,000 a year.
The show has also replaced regional in-person follow-up rounds with virtual rounds, a change that Cory Anotado, a game-show journalist who will appear on the show as a contestant this week, views as an important factor.
“When you lower the barrier of entry, a lot of times you get better results,” he said.
The string of successes comes at a time of upheaval for “Jeopardy!” The search for someone to succeed Trebek devolved into controversy after McNear reported that the chosen successor, Mike Richards, had made offensive comments about women on his podcast several years earlier (Richards stepped down from the hosting role then left the show entirely). Ken Jennings — who holds the record for the longest streak since winning 74 games in 2004 — and the sitcom actress Mayim Bialik have shared hosting duties since, but the show has put off officially naming a permanent host for the regular season.
McNear, the author of a 2020 history of the show called “Answers in the Form of Questions,” wrote in the article that the elimination of the five-day cap in 2003 had been “an explicit ploy by then-executive producer Harry Friedman to drum up interest in the show,” and noted that the show’s ratings have been up this season compared to last season.
Asked if it was possible for the show to try to engineer streaks by, say, pitting champions against weaker opponents, Davies said, “I can assure you that that isn’t the case.”
He said that a diverse pool of contestants is selected for every taping and that an outside compliance agency randomly selects which games they will play in and in which order.
It is also hard to predict how well a contestant might do based on what’s on paper. One element that is critical to a “Jeopardy!” streak is not related to knowledge or information recall but skill at using the buzzer in the specific environment of the studio.
As a defending champion, Schneider said she quickly learned that she had a significant advantage over newcomers because she was already comfortable and quick with the device.
“Now that I’ve been on a streak of my own,” she said “I’m almost surprised that it hasn’t happened more often.”