Q&A with Amy Schneider, 40-Game Jeopardy! Champ | PLA 2022

If attendees of PLA 2022 needed a good reason to wake up early on the final day of the conference, Amy Schneider’s Big Ideas talk was it. Schneider, a former software engineer, made history from November 2021 through this past January with her 40-game winning streak on Jeopardy!—the most successful woman to compete on the show, with the second-longest run (Ken Jennings, who won 74 games, was the show’s host during her appearance), and the first openly transgender contestant to qualify for the Tournament of Champions.

Amy Schneider sitting in white chair on PLA stage, smiling
Amy Schneider onstage at PLA
Photo credit: PLA 2022, Kinser Studios.

If attendees of the Public Library Association (PLA) 2022 Conference, held March 23–25 in Portland, OR, needed a good reason to wake up early on the final day, Amy Schneider’s Big Ideas talk was it. Schneider, a former software engineer, made history from November 2021 through this past January with her 40-game winning streak on Jeopardy!—the most successful woman to compete on the show, with the second-longest run (Ken Jennings, who won 74 games, was the show’s host during her appearance), and the first openly transgender contestant to qualify for the Tournament of Champions.

Schneider was laid-back and engaging, discussing her pregame strategy (with a playlist that included Eminem, Lizzo, and Outkast’s “Bombs Over Baghdad”) and anxiety-battling techniques, adjusting to newfound fame, and her happiness at being highly visible to viewers who may have been less likely to know an out trans person—“my demographic is mothers of adult children…. Whenever someone takes a selfie, they say, ‘My mom is gonna love this!’” Schneider took some time out to talk with journalists at PLA before checking out the show floor, talking about stress management, trans advocacy, Alex Trebek, and more.

What’s it like to be suddenly famous?

AS: I like everybody telling me how great I am all the time, but there are definitely downsides. Having to be really aware of what I’m sharing with the public and what I’m not has been an adjustment. When people started to recognize me, I was like, “This is a lot of fun.” And then I thought, if ever stops being fun, I can’t stop it. So that was a bit sobering.

Another lesson that I had to learn was to get out of the mindset that all of these people are doing me favors, and it would be impolite to say no to anything. I was getting really overcommitted. I actually had to [say] no, these people want something out of me—not in an exploitative way, necessarily, but there is something that they want to gain, and I can say no. It doesn’t come naturally to me, but I’ve been working on it. But overall, I’ve been enjoying it.

You left your day job?

Yeah, and I’m working a lot harder than I was before. I’ve hired a part-time assistant, which just feels unbelievable. That was never something that I had envisioned in my life. But I can’t manage my own calendar.

You’ve spoken about how you handled the stress of being on Jeopardy!, and it seems like you had a good handle on it.

I’ve had a great therapist for 10 years. Since college, I started thinking of things this way—always trying to step back into the moment. What you’re worried about is almost always the future, which doesn’t exist, or all the other things you can’t control. If you stop and be in this moment, right now: Is everything okay?—usually it is, so let the future moments take care of themselves. That’s been a practice of decades, to get as far as I’ve gotten with it. And it’s still not like it works every time.

What was it like prepping for the show under COVID restrictions?

That was interesting. The taping experience, not having an audience, not being able to hang out with the other contestants, which is something I’d been looking forward to, that was kind of a bummer. Although I think, in retrospect, not having a studio audience made it easier to ignore the fact that it was about to be on millions of televisions. But it’s the same as everything—it just cast this little shadow over everything in life.

I was supposed to be on in one of the last weeks that Alex [Trebek] was hosting, and there was some issue with COVID protocols. They had to cancel and reschedule me, and it wound up getting pushed back a year. I loved the show my whole life and I hated seeing all these negative headlines about it being chaotic and that sort of thing. So I’m so happy that I was able to come in when that had settled down, and give them a great storyline and some good headlines, which are what their image should be—just celebrating achievement.

The role that [Trebek] had, as an icon, is really impressive. And he handled it so well. I never heard anybody say a bad thing about him. I’ve known people that have been on the show and everybody loved talking to him. One of the days that I was taping was the one-year anniversary of his death, and it was really tough for the crew that day. You could see how much they all had loved and cared for him—the people that worked on that show for 20, 30 years.

He would always say, “I’m not the star, the contestants are the stars.” And I think the other people that are the stars who are unsung are the writers. I’ve tried to write trivia questions—it’s a lot harder than you might think, because I know what I know the answer to, so it’s so hard to tell, is this hard for other people or not? And to do so many questions, all of them with a such a tight character limit to fit on the screen, day in and day out, and to just keep it at a consistent level of difficulty over decades. I really think that that’s so impressive.

Would you host if they asked you?

I would certainly take the call. I really was impressed by Ken Jennings. I think he’s doing great. If they would ask me for advice, I’d say just give [the show] to him. But I’m not a producer, I don’t know what their motivations are. I think it is a tough skill, having seen it up close. There’s pressure on you, because how well you do that day more or less determines how late everybody has to stay, because most of the holdups are having to retape things that the host says. And just having to be present and engaged for a long day, and look fresh as a daisy for each one, and be equally interested in every contestant, whoever they are. It’s tough, but I’d certainly give it a shot.

Are you thinking about writing a book?

I’m going to. We’re finalizing things with the publisher. The idea is sometime next year—we’ll see how fast I actually end up being able to write it. I’ve always dabbled a little bit, but I’ve never tried to write something of this scale and keep at it for the months that it’s going to take. So we’ll find out, but so far, so good. I’ve started to learn how to how to push through, how to have a draft that I hate and keep with it until I get it somewhere. It’s a new challenge, and it’s really been fun so far.

Aside from writing, what are your plans?

My long-range plan is to not have to go back to my day job. Right now I’ve got all this stuff coming. I don’t know necessarily how long any of it’s going to last. But if it gets to the point where I’m comfortable with [the new lifestyle], that’s when I could focus on advocacy and seeing where I can start to really make a difference. Once I feel like my career is established, then I can focus on that more.

During your talk at PLA, you heard from a lot of people with trans kids. Do people share their personal experiences with you often?

One of the things that’s weird about it at this point is that I’ve heard it so much that it starts to feel routine, and I hate that because I know how important it is in each of these individuals’ lives. So I’m trying to stay present, stay conscious of how important it really is for people. Also, the thing about representation is, it brings with it this fear—like, am I going to let people down? If I do something wrong, will it be bad for the whole community now, instead of just me? And you know that that pressure is in my mind, but I’m working on it. It’s not that bad, but yeah, it’s there.

You did a great job talking about trans advocacy on the show, and were very relatable for a lot of people. Do you plan to do more formal advocacy work in the future?

It’s a question that I’ve been thinking about a lot. I say I don’t want to be an activist, as if activism is a bad thing, but I want to be advocating. I don’t want my Twitter feed to be a place where people yell at each other. I want to try to avoid that sort of thing. But still, there’s stuff that’s really important to me, and I want to want to help how I can. For the time being, I’m just sticking with being out in public doing some good by itself. And as I explore other things, I’ll find what’s right for me.

I mean, it was something that I needed [when I was younger]. I didn’t know anything about trans people. And then I met Natasha Muse, who’s this comedian in San Francisco who’s really smart, really funny, down to earth, and has a wife and kids and all that sort of thing. And I remember that realization—I was like, oh, that’s all it is to be trans. So yeah, I know that feeling.

Have you gotten any backlash because your audience, as you pointed out, skews older?

I was concerned that there was going to be a lot more backlash and negativity. Not that that didn’t happen at all, because it did, but it was it was a lot less than I thought. So coming out of this process I’ve been so much more optimistic, even with all the legislation that’s happening right now. I think you just keep making the points. There’s a vocal and angry minority. And I think that one of the things to fight against that is to be less angry. [My] message is about openness and welcoming and giving everybody access to books, to resources, to everything else.

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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