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01.26.2022

Amy Schneider: What I Learned From My Jeopardy! Experience

Today, my Jeopardy! run enters the history books. It will appear in the archives as a 40-game win streak, running from Nov. 17, 2021 to Jan. 26, 2022, with winnings of $1,382,800 (plus $2,000 for the second-place finish in game 41). But for myself, none of those statistics are quite right: when it started, when it ended, what I gained.

When did my Jeopardy! run start? For me, it started in childhood, when my parents first began watching the “new guy,” Alex Trebek, hosting a revival of a quiz show that had gone off the air a few months before I was born. Like so many people, Jeopardy! has been in the background of my life for as long as I can remember – a calm, comforting routine: 3 contestants, 61 clues, 3 Daily Doubles. Potent Potables, Potpourri, “genre.” Every weeknight, month after month, year after year. It was a place that valued the same things I’d been taught to value: curiosity, collegiality, just a hint of pedantry, and above all, a sense that knowing things was fun! I always knew that I would find myself there someday, and while I didn’t know what would happen when I got there, I knew I wouldn’t regret finding out.

Or of course, you could say that my run started when I first auditioned for the show, some 15 years ago. Or in fall of 2020, when I got the call that I’d finally been selected to appear on the show. Certainly for me it had started by Sept. 26, 2021, when Genevieve drove me to the airport to fly down for my first day of taping. I’d had some real anxiety in the weeks leading up to it. I’d spent my whole life knowing that I was going to be on Jeopardy! someday, and now the odds were that, by the time I flew home, my time on Jeopardy! would be done forever. I’d tried my best to prepare myself for that, but deep down I was scared. When would my Jeopardy! run end? The answer might be “tomorrow.”

But, of course, it wasn’t. I defeated an impressive champion (with a bit of Final Jeopardy! luck), won two more games, and it was clear my run would last a bit longer. So when would it end? You could say that it ended on Nov. 9, 2021, the tape day when Rhone Talsma, with a bold Daily Double wager and a bit of Final Jeopardy! luck of his own, finally ended my streak. But of course, at that point, as far as the world knew, my run hadn’t even started. You could say my run is ending today, but that doesn’t seem right either. There’s still the Tournament of Champions to come of course, and given the success I’ve had, it’s possible that there may be even more Jeopardy! in my future after that. But even if you set that aside, my life as “Amy Schneider, Jeopardy! champion” is really only the beginning. Now, and for the rest of my life, I will forever be associated with the events of the last few months, and so it seems fair to say that my Jeopardy! run will never truly end. Which brings me to the most important question: what have I gained?

I don’t want to discount the monetary reward: $1.3 million is a jaw-dropping amount of money to win by answering trivia questions, and for me and Genevieve (and Meep), that alone will change the course of our lives. But it’s really only the beginning of what I’ve gained from this experience. I’ve gotten to reconnect with all sorts of people from my past: old friends, teachers, castmates from long-gone productions of “Twelfth Night” or “The Lion in Winter.” I’ve been on the big screen at a Warriors game and heard applause from an entire arena. I’ve gotten to appear on Good Morning America, talk to journalists I admire, have my picture in the Washington Post and New York Times, get my work published in Defector. I’ve gotten to spend time with the Jeopardy! crew, who were uniformly amazing people doing incredible work, and who I can’t wait to meet again when the time comes. I’ve had all sorts of people and companies sending me gifts, and been recognized by the GLAAD Media Awards – all just for being myself on TV.

And while, as I’ve said, my trans identity is only one part of myself, it has also been the source of easily the biggest rewards I’ve gotten from this experience. The first one is personal: a few months ago, deep down, I simply did not believe that I could ever really be accepted for who I was. That is, I had come to believe (not without some difficulty) that at least some people accepted me: my family, my girlfriend, my inner circle of friends. But I always believed that most people would see me as trans people have so often been seen: a freak, a pervert, a man in a dress, a liar, mentally ill. And as the days counted down to my episodes airing, I braced myself for the rejection I was sure would come. And then… it just didn’t. Sure, there have been a few isolated voices trying to bring me down, but the overwhelming reaction has been of support and acceptance. People actually believe me when I say who I am. They don’t think there’s something wrong with me. And because of that, for maybe the first time in my life, I’m starting to think there really isn’t anything wrong with me either.

But the acceptance I’ve received isn’t due to any special qualities in myself (or at least, those qualities aren’t the most important reason for it). The acceptance I’ve received is the fruit of long, violent struggles – some famous, some forgotten – in which generations of trans people have risked their lives to secure their basic right to exist. Frances Thompson and Billy Tipton, Lili Elbe and Dora Richter, Sylvia Rivera and Felicia Elizondo, Laverne Cox and Gavin Grimm, and so many more who are lost to history, have devoted themselves to creating the conditions that exist today, where a trans Jeopardy! champion can be, for most people, uncritically accepted and celebrated as the person she is. And the most rewarding thing I’ve gained from my Jeopardy! run is the ability to finally say that I, too, have helped that cause. I haven’t thrown rocks at the police, or fought for my rights in the Supreme Court; all I’ve really done is chase a lifelong dream of appearing on Jeopardy!. But I knew that I was taking on a burden of representation, and I will always and forever be proud to say that I’ve done my little part to ease the path for future generations of trans people to live free, open, and happy lives, and that feeling is worth more to me than any financial gain could ever be.

But I’ll be keeping the million dollars. As I told Ken one time, I like money!