“Anything that’s new or different is going to take some getting used to.”
Photo: Tyler Golden / Sony Pictures Television
You’ve perhaps seen the tweet: a short clip of current Jeopardy! megachampion Mattea Roach, a 23-year-old tutor from Toronto, landing on a Daily Double and monologuing her inner thoughts while her wrist vogues back and forth for the camera. It’s an aura of nonchalant confidence viewers rarely witness behind the stiff lecterns, especially from a septum-pierced, tousle-haired contestant more aligned with Gen Z than Gen X. And it’s wonderful. Bring in the era of youngsters! (By Jeopardy! standards, anyway.) “It’s funny. I never think of myself as being a particularly young person, ”Roach told us with a laugh. “Everybody I hang out with is also in their 20s.”
As of publishing time, Roach has solidified her status in the show’s Hall of Fame by winning 22 consecutive games, the fifth best in history, as well as racking up $ 534,984 in prize money, which will be going straight to her student-loan payments. If she keeps chugging along with her victories, she’ll soon be making Matt Amodio and James Holzhauer’s records sweat. Or, who knows, maybe even Amy Schneider’s. Calling from a café in Toronto, Roach spoke to Vulture about her remarkable Jeopardy! tenure thus far as well as the “critical conversations” surrounding her demeanor.
How much fan mail has your wrist received?
My wrist has received fan mail. If anything, my wrist received a lot of hate mail. A lot of people really didn’t like it. I saw a couple fan cams of my wrist, which is funny. There’s a lot of queer people specifically who have been fans of the way I move my hands and body. It’s not something I thought about at the time I was taping, but it’s fun to see the support from that community, which I’m a part of.
What wrist fan cams have you seen?
Mostly a series of two-second clips of me making a gesture. I don’t remember what songs were playing with the visual effects. They show my wrist, and my score increased by like $ 8,000. It was dedication, for sure. I’m a poor excuse for a young person; I’m not that great at video editing.
You’re the first Jeopardy! megachampion on that Gen-Z – millennial cusp. How does it feel to be a representative of this younger guard of players?
It feels weird. I’m not sure if I consider myself more Gen Z or millennial. I’m in that weird five-year period between 1995 and 2000 where people are not clearly one or the other. I noticed, at least, a clear gulf between my growing up experiences and what I found formative as a young person and, say, what they were to my younger brothers. I’ll accept that there’s a lot of similarities between me and people who are more clearly Gen Z. I certainly played the game in a way that’s quite different than what’s been seen before. Norms of what’s considered to be “professional behavior” in general have shifted a lot over the past five years and during the pandemic. People haven’t been in office environments much; they’re working from home and developing a more casual way of interacting with one another. Anytime you have a generational shift of new people coming of age, conversations happen about how they’re shifting professional norms. It’s not entirely negative. But a critical conversation about how I present myself on the show alludes to the fact that the way I behave is somehow unprofessional or not respecting the institution.
I’m assuming with your mannerisms?
I don’t behave on Jeopardy! the way I behave in the office. If I was going to work, I’d behave more professionally and be more subdued. Even the notion that Jeopardy!, which is a game show, is an environment where you should be expected to behave in a professional manner is odd to me. I remember saying to a friend, “I’m not going to court. I’m not going to a job interview. I’m going to a game show. “ Yes, it’s intellectual, and that’s one of the most special things about it. But I respected the institution by playing the game really well. I’m enjoying myself a lot, and that’s why I played the game that way. People have commented, “She’s playing the same way she’d play along while at home on the couch.” If anything, I’m less animated at home. Sure, I play it in a relatively casual way. I don’t think that’s reflective of me not having respect for what the show is and what it represents for people.
How did you play the game in a way that was “quite different,” as you put it?
It’s not that I took it less seriously. I did take the game very seriously. I wasn’t, perhaps, demonstrating a level of seriousness you would associate with somebody taking the game very seriously. Especially with long-running champions, the only other person I can think of who made side comments and demonstrative gestures was Austin Rogers. He’s not ancient history by any stretch, but since we had so many long-running champions who hadn’t played the game that way, it perhaps clashed for people seeing something so different from Amy Schneider or Matt Amodio. They showed personality and weren’t boring to watch, but I was much more animated.
Has it surprised you that viewers are so divisive about how you talk through your decision-making?
The craziest takes I saw were people speculating if I was doing it to distract the competition. I looked at the other contestants if they got a Daily Double or if they were telling their anecdotes. During the game, I was only looking at the board. Didn’t pay attention to what anyone else was saying other than if someone else responded to a clue incorrectly. The notion of my comments being distracting either to the viewers or the players, I was like, Huh? You don’t have time to think about weird mind games. If I say this, will it throw somebody else off? I would never want to be deliberately distracting to another player, because it’s so unsportsmanlike. I like to think it didn’t have that impact. If production sensed it did, I certainly think I would’ve been told to tone it down.
Anything that’s new or different is going to take some getting used to. If you’ve been watching the show for decades, when somebody does something different than the norm, it’s going to seem a little weird and perhaps distracting. It’s not good or bad. One of the things that makes the game interesting is the people who are playing aren’t professional game-show contestants. We’re regular people who have real jobs. Me talking through things wasn’t so much nervous chatter than stream of consciousness. That was helping me make decisions.
I think you made a great point earlier about Jeopardy! not being on the same level as a court appearance or a job interview. Why don’t you have a little fun if you’re comfortable with it?
Exactly. It’s fun! My experience taping the show is some of the most fun I’ve had in my entire life. I know it’s not how everybody feels. A lot of people tape Jeopardy! and they’re super-stressed out. It’s a high-pressure environment. You can stand to win a lot of money. I found the waiting was by far the worst part of being in the studio. But when I was actually onstage, I was having the time of my life. I didn’t play differently as my run went along. I was already making side comments and being animated in my first game. These shows tape five a day. You’re going to continue behaving in the same way with each game.
It’s hard to tell what contestants thought of me, though. Obviously, none of these people had met me before. I tried to make a conversation with as many people as I could. I think I was taken aback by myself, to be honest. I don’t consider myself to be a particularly extroverted person in my day-to-day life. I’m not in the center of the room at a party. I’m always in the corner talking to a few people and sneaking out to go stand with the smokers to get a break from the crowd. I haven’t historically been that great at meeting new people and connecting with them fast. It takes a while for me to develop relationships. I was surprised how extroverted I was on the show.
Fellow mega-champion James Holzhauer defined his strategy as “strategically aggressive. ” Matt Amodio went by “cautious. ” How would you define yours?
Looking back at it, my strategy was bad. I think I probably should’ve played a lot more strategically. If Matt was cautious, then I was overly, overly cautious. I would describe my strategy as loss minimization rather than gain maximization. I was never somebody who would buzz in on clues and then think of the answer. Every time I buzzed in, with only one exception that comes to mind, I always had a primed response. My Daily Double wagers were really small. My Final Jeopardy wagers were generally not that large. Risk aversion was the way I played it. It’s funny, a friend gave me a long lecture before I started my run about the reason Tom Brady is so good at football: He’s able to make very few mistakes. I was like, Great, I don’t care about Tom Brady. But the idea of making as few mistakes as possible and keeping the value you make, even if you’re not super-aggressive, was how I approached things.
I also appreciate that your strategy wasn’t rooted in bouncing around the board looking for Daily Doubles, which has become too popular. There’s nothing wrong with descending each category clue by clue!
Oh my God, yeah. The reason I didn’t bounce around is I thought it would be too confusing. Especially when there are categories that have specific running themes or sequences. If you’re going back and forth and jumping in and out, it’s hard to remember what each category is looking for. There are so many different things you have to pay attention to while playing. That was me trying to minimize errors. There’s that Tom Brady mind-set again.
What was your relationship to the show prior to playing? Was it always your dream to be a contestant?
It was a lifelong idea. I thought it would be really cool; I never thought it would actually happen. I wasn’t vision-boarding. There was a period of time when I started university where Canadians couldn’t go on the show because of legal stuff with international contestants. At that point I was like, Ah, damn, I missed my window; it’s never going to reopen. I’ve been a lifelong viewer of the show in a casual capacity. I never had cable, so I couldn’t watch all the time. I didn’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of Jeopardy! I’ve learned more about great players in the history of the show while preparing for my games. I wasn’t somebody who had been trying for years to get on. I took the test one time on a whim, and it worked out extremely well. Please, everyone, take the test. You have nothing to lose. The worst thing that happens is nothing, which is the same as before.
After the student-loan payments hit, how are you spending your $ 500,000 and counting?
I’m going to continue being really boring with money. I have no idea what’s going to amount to real dollars between the taxes and having to convert it to Canadian dollars. Most of it I’m going to sit on for a couple of years, and hopefully when I’m more settled in the longer term, I imagine it’ll help me buy a house.
As someone who taped with both Ken and Mayim, who do you see as the best choice for a permanent host?
I would say Ken because of his history with the show. As a contestant, there’s something really special about being onstage with the greatest player of all time. Someone who understands in a very visceral way what it’s like to be in your position. Mayim is fantastic, but she doesn’t have that same experience.