Two weeks ago, “Jeopardy!” guest host Ken Jennings kicked off the show by telling the audience that contestant Andrew He had just guaranteed a spot in the next Tournament of Champions by winning five games in a row. “We already know he’ll be facing our other qualifiers this season,” Jennings said, and looked toward He’s two competitors. “Might Max or Amy be adding their names to that list?”
That mundane intro line turned into reality. After a close game, Amy Schneider was the only contestant to answer Final Jeopardy correctly, triumphing over He — and she has been on a wildly impressive streak ever since, winning 11 games so far and racking up $421,200, the seventh-highest winnings ever for a contestant during the regular season.
“I believed that I was pretty good, and I thought I could win three or four games if things went well,” Schneider, 42, said in a phone interview. “I was like, ‘I could win a few, or run into bad luck on the first game and not win and it would be what it is.’ To win 10 and counting — that’s definitely higher than the high end of my internal expectations.”
Schneider, an engineering manager who lives in Oakland, Calif., is also the first transgender contestant in “Jeopardy!” history to make the Tournament of Champions, where the top players from each season compete. During an episode last week, she wore a transgender flag pin and explained on Twitter that she specifically wore it around Thanksgiving because she wanted to show support for the “disproportionately high number of trans people” who are estranged or cut off from their families.
“The fact is, I don’t actually think about being trans all that often, and so when appearing on national television, I wanted to represent that part of my identity accurately: as important, but also relatively minor,” she wrote. “But I also didn’t want it to seem as if it was some kind of shameful secret.”
Schneider was initially a bit hesitant to publish the thread. She has seen prominent trans people speak out on Twitter, and the reaction is not always pleasant. But as she realized she was going to be on national television for a decent stretch of time, she started thinking about how she wanted to talk about that part of her identity. As a once-closeted trans person, she knew others in similar situations would be watching her closely.
“I just want them to know that I see them and I support them and they’re great, and they can do great things,” she said, adding that she wanted to show people in the closeted phase that it’s possible to “be living your true self and having success and doing everything you ever wanted to do.” The online reaction from “Jeopardy!” viewers, with a few rare exceptions, has been overwhelmingly positive, she said, and she’s enjoyed chatting with fans on Twitter and sharing behind-the-scenes details.
Her history-making “Jeopardy!” accomplishment has not been discussed on the show, though it has made plenty of headlines; she’s not the show’s first trans contestant, but many have noted she is the first to make it this far. (She’s also the fourth consecutive player to make it to the Tournament of Champions since Matt Amodio’s 38-game run ended in October.) Schneider chalks up her winning streak to partly luck and timing — “If it wasn’t going to be me it would be somebody else, and it will be somebody else” — though said she’s still very proud.
“Until somebody does it, it can feel unattainable,” she said. “It’s one minor area of human achievement, but it still means something, and it means something to see trans people succeed everywhere.”
Schneider’s run has brought another element to “Jeopardy!”: A sense of calm after the show’s most chaotic year ever, with the hiring and near-immediate firing of former executive producer Mike Richards as host, along with a rotating cast of guest hosts. But 2004 “Jeopardy!” record-breaker Jennings, who is filling in after Mayim Bialik’s stint, has found his footing and has an easy rapport with all the competitors. Schneider said that relaxed feeling — or as relaxed as one can be when you know you’re going to be seen by millions of viewers — was evident on set, as well.
“He’s very relaxed and sets contestants at ease. He knows what we’re going through,” Schneider said. “He wants to get everybody there to be relaxed and have fun: ‘It’s a game, it’s cool, let’s just have a good time out here.'”
Andy Saunders, who has run the Jeopardy! Fan website since 2015, said things on the show seem “closer to normal” at the moment, and is probably how it would have been all along without a carousel of guest hosts.
“I thought Ken did a reasonably good job when he hosted last year, and I think he’s just continued that,” Saunders said. “He just seems like he can relate to the contestants because he’s been there so much, so he knows what it’s like.”
“Jeopardy!” has been a part of Schneider’s life since she was a child growing up in Dayton, Ohio. Her parents watched since the beginning of Alex Trebek’s tenure, and Schneider soon realized that she was a bit of a trivia wizard.
“I’ve always had things stick in my mind … so ‘Jeopardy!’ always seemed like something I might be good at,” she said. She credits her parents — her mother is a college professor — who encouraged not just learning facts, but the stories about them: Where does this word come from? What’s the etymology of that phrase? She remembers not being allowed to leave the dinner table during the meal unless something came up in the middle of a discussion that she didn’t recognize, and she had to look it up in the dictionary or encyclopedia.
She started applying to be on the show about a decade ago, when she moved to Oakland; last year, she finally got the call. She was supposed to compete in late 2020, but her appearance was canceled around the same time Trebek died, and she was ultimately rescheduled this year in early October. As she went to the filming, she texted about “Jeopardy!” advice with her ex-wife’s brother, who was a contestant a few years ago and won three games. Schneider joked on the show she just wanted to win four games to beat him.
“He has been very gracious about being surpassed,” Schneider confirmed.
Many “Jeopardy!” fans seem quite pleased by Schneider’s streak, a far cry from those frustrated by Amodio’s use of “What’s” instead of “Who is” or James Holzhauer’s aggressive playing tactics. Schneider performed in plays for years and is very comfortable on-screen, and her strategy is essentially to not have a strategy so she can stay 100 percent focused on the game. Plus, as a longtime viewer, she tried to be conscious about not behaving in a way that viewers find irritating.
“But ultimately, if there’s something that will annoy viewers that I have to do to win, I’ll do it,” she said.
Schneider, who majored in civil engineering and computer science in college and became a software engineer, feels most comfortable in the geography and history categories, and knew she would have a tough time with popular music. Her girlfriend, whom she describes as “younger and cooler,” has helped her brush up on current pop culture.
“I get the impression that people are feeling that this has been good for ‘Jeopardy!'” she said. “I hope that’s the case, and it’s extremely gratifying. The show has meant a lot to me … and if my run is good for the show, that’s all the better.”