Not many computer science students command a lot of attention, especially from the American public.
But Yale University student Matt Amodio persevered 38 consecutive times on the wildly popular and geeky game show Jeopardy! where the goal is to know more than your fellow contestants and win a lot of money. His streak ended Monday when he answered a clue incorrectly in Final Jeopardy.
Amodio is a fifth-year doctoral candidate in computer science at the Ivy League university in New Haven, Connecticut. He ranks second in number of games won on Jeopardy! to Ken Jennings, who won 74 consecutive times in 2004, and third in total winnings — $1,417,401 for Amodio, $2,462,216 for James Holzhauer and $2,520,700 for Jennings.
“It feels incredible,” Amodio wrote in an email reported last week in the Yale Daily News, the nation’s oldest daily college newspaper. “I don’t feel like I’m good enough to be considered [among] the greats, but I try to imagine what it would be like for me to read my stats as if they were somebody else’s. I know I would be impressed by someone doing what I’ve been doing, so I try to let myself feel proud of that.”
The long-running game show has a unique format, in which three contestants vie to be the first to supply the question to an answer they are given. If an answer is, “It’s where the world’s largest mall is located,” the correct response would be, “What is China?”
In a question-and-answer with the university, Amodio said reading is the key to his knowledge, specifically the online free encyclopedia Wikipedia.
“I highly recommend Wikipedia for anyone with unbridled curiosity!” Amodio told VOA. “I am constantly asking questions about the world, and the fact that answers to those questions are at our fingertips is an unbelievable gift.”
Amodio described the amount of information available on the site as “unfathomable.”
He told VOA that musical questions were his most challenging.
“The hardest questions for me are identifying songs based on their lyrics,” he wrote in an email. “Even for songs that I love and listen to thousands of times, I realize I pay more attention to the notes and the music than the lyrics. When I see the words written on a page, it's like it's a whole different world!”
And what's going on in his mind in the milliseconds to consider his answers and respond with a hand-held ringer?
“I generally go through a series of steps of reading, thinking of possibilities, ranking them in order of likelihood, and then double-checking with the question,” he explained. “The more time I take to double-check, the better the results will be, I think. So, I take as much time as I'm given, usually. I try not to rush myself.”
The Jeopardy! champ graduated with honors from Ohio State University in 2012 with his bachelor’s degree in actuarial science, then earned his master’s in applied statistics there in 2012 before gaining a second master’s degree in 2015 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in artificial intelligence. The Medina, Ohio, native is continuing his work in artificial intelligence at Yale.
He said two challenges in playing the game show, in addition to recalling information and reacting before his competitors, are adjusting to a taping schedule that starts at 7 a.m. and ends about 7 p.m., and thinking of a clever anecdote that contestants say during their on-air introduction.
“I was actually just as stressed about that part of the show as I was about the questions and answering part of the show,” he told Yale. “What am I going to say, how am I going to say it?”
What interests him
On his LinkedIn.com profile, Amodio lists his academic pursuits as machine learning and artificial intelligence.
“He is interested in data-driven decision making and always looking for challenging problems to solve,” his profile reads. “In his professional experience he has built predictive models for massive data sets in fields, such as social media networking, natural language processing, geospatial routing, cybersecurity, and computational advertising. In his free time, he does the same for baseball data."
“Jeopardy!” offers practice tests for adults and college students, who may compete in a special tournament in which contestants wear sweatshirts bearing the names of their schools.
Amodio credits his father for pushing him to take the test for the show he said he has watched his whole life.
“They have an online test that they offer a couple times a year. I took it not because I thought I'd get chosen, but because my dad was pestering me,” Amodio told Yale. “ 'You’re smart, you can do it,' ” Amodio said about his father’s urging. And I said, 'No, I'm not going to do it.' ”
With each daily win, and the cliffhanger over whether he’d beat Jennings’ record or falter along the way, Amodio became more of a household name. Recently, when his mother was at a doctor’s appointment, a nurse stopped to ask her, “Are you Matt’s mom?”