“I had a feeling my time was coming to an end”: Jeopardy! champ Mattea Roach on her epic winning streak and final game

“I had a feeling my time was coming to an end”: Jeopardy! champ Mattea Roach on her epic winning streak and final game

“I had hoped to continue, but I’m okay with how I lost. The information just wasn’t in my brain”

Photograph by Sierra Nallo

Since embarking on her record-breaking, sometimes divisive and always impressive Jeopardy! run, 23-year-old Mattea Roach has gone from anonymous LSAT tutor to international sensation. Her gameplay is the subject of heated Twitter debates, her left wrist has become a celebrity and life as she knew it is no more. On Friday evening, after a 23-game, $560,973 (U.S.) winning streak that made her the fifth most successful Jeopardy! contestant of all time—and the top Canadian—Roach’s reign came to an end. Here, she talks to Toronto Life about her winning strategy, online haters and why she probably won’t be popping up at your local quiz night.

First things first: congrats on your amazing run. How does it feel to finally pass the torch?
It’s nice to not be on guard about giving away results. The taping of my final episode was back in February, so it’s all a little fuzzy. I can say that even before my final game, I had a feeling my time was coming to an end. Danielle Maurer, who beat me, played a really strong game. I was ahead going into Final Jeopardy, but it wasn’t a runaway. The final clue—about two mayors who gave their names to a facility built on the site on an old racetrack owned by a Coca-Cola tycoon—was tough. Also, Danielle is from Atlanta, which worked in her favour with that clue.

Even if you suspected you might lose, weren’t you a bit crushed?
I had hoped to continue, but I’m okay with how I lost. The information just wasn’t in my brain. It is now, though! I will never forget the names of those Atlanta mayors! But I had a great run and Danielle was a great competitor. When she won, I turned to her and said, “I think that made it easier to lose.” Then Ken asked me how I was feeling, and I said, “I get to go home.”

What is it like being home, now that everyone knows you as Canada’s Jeopardy! champ?
I can’t leave my house without getting recognized. I’m extremely grateful, but it’s also really weird to go from being a private individual to being someone people think they know. I’m in Cape Breton visiting my grandparents right now, and I went to a roadside restaurant with my mom. The entire kitchen staff came out to see me, one by one. It was like clowns exiting a car, like, How many people are back there? My mom has been telling me how excited Nova Scotians have been about my run, so it was great seeing that first-hand.

Do you get a lot of selfie requests?
Yes, I’ve taken a lot of them. I don’t mind, but—despite how I may have come across on the show—I’m not very extroverted so it’s not natural to me. The only thing I don’t like is when people yell at me out of windows. In the past when someone has yelled at me out a window, they haven’t said anything pleasant.

Anyone watching you over the past few weeks would have to agree that you are, well, smart. Have you ever taken an IQ test?
I did when I was little. Around the same time that I skipped a grade.

Do you currently play on a trivia team?
I don’t. I’ve never even been to a quiz night.

Would you like to play on my trivia team?
Ha! I have gotten an offer to be a special guest at my friend’s quiz night, but I think that would be too much pressure.

Let’s talk Jeopardy! hosts. When your run started, Mayim Bialik was hosting and then Ken Jennings took over. Who is more intimidating?
Ken, by virtue of the fact that you know he’s better than you.

Who would you rather take a road trip with?
I’ve spent a lot more time with Ken, so I have a better sense of what that conversation would be like. He also responded with great enthusiasm when I said I was going to see Kraftwerk with my dad, so I feel like there might be synergy when it came to choosing music.

Ken is the winningest winner in Jeopardy! history. Do you think he was worried you were coming for his crown? 
I don’t think I was playing well enough for him to be seriously worried about that.

There’s been a lot of debate on Twitter as to whether or not recent competitors have shown too much personality. I think chatter and joking is fun, but the purists are not having it.
I didn’t know until I went on the show just how passionate viewers can be. Let me put it this way: I don’t think it would be good if everyone played the game the same way, whether that means being really chatty or being seen and not heard. I think contestants should be themselves. It would be different if I were doing a “tight 5” on how weird airplane food is, or if a lot of clues were being left on the board, but that’s not the case.

Naysayers have also implied that the host favours the champ. Did you feel that way?
Ken would open with a monologue comparing my stats with those of other big streak-holders like Matt Amodeo and Amy Schneider. Then people on Twitter would say, “Mattea is so full of herself.” And I’m like, I didn’t write the monologue!

It can’t be easy having your every comment and gesticulation parsed online. 
It’s difficult. Let’s just say that I’m grateful I left the show feeling confident about the way I carried myself and conducted myself. Otherwise the reactions would be extremely hard to deal with. For example, a lot of people hated my teeth. I freely admit that I don’t have great teeth: I have a little snaggletooth and my teeth are yellow because I drink a lot of coffee and Diet Pepsi, and I smoke. But people were awful, saying that my teeth are disgusting. I’m glad I’m not somebody who’s embarrassed by their teeth.

Or someone who tweets cruel things about a stranger.
That too. What is hard is that even though I received far more positive comments than negative ones, the negative stuff cuts through. It’s not fun to read vitriolic commentary that maybe wasn’t outwardly misogynistic and homophobic, but—

Well, it wasn’t exactly inwardly.
Right. Just bubbling under the surface.

You found yourself in the middle of a fiasco when the NBC Twitter account referred to you as a “lesbian tutor.” It enraged people on both ends of the spectrum: half of them saw the tweet as homophobic and the other half said it was part of Jeopardy!’s gay agenda. What do you think? 
Obviously, being a lesbian isn’t the most important aspect of my run on Jeopardy!, and it doesn’t have anything to do with how I performed. They weren’t asking about the Indigo Girls! But it is relevant. For queer people who aren’t able to be out safely or just aren’t ready yet, having visible public figures can matter. We are demonstrating different ways of being queer, and we’re showing everyone that we’re whole people with rich personalities who can excel at the game.

So just to clarify: you are not a tutor of lesbians?
That’s the other thing! Grammatically, the tweet was very ambiguous. Do I tutor only lesbians? Do I tutor people on the subject of lesbianism?

Former champ James Holzhauer earned notoriety for his controversial gameplay strategy when he went for the high-value clues first. Some fans thought this showed a lack of decorum. Is that why you went a different way?
Emily Post did not write the guidelines for being on Jeopardy! It is “suggested” during the contestant briefing that you play the board top down, because some categories take time to figure out. I think James played the way that worked best for him. In my case, my strategy was to not lose money unnecessarily, and I was largely able to avoid that.

Any big plans for your winnings? 
I don’t have my winnings yet but the cheque is getting FedExed soon. My plan is to save most of the money and then hopefully buy a home in Toronto before I’m 30—which isn’t something I could have imagined before all of this.

Have you upped your tutoring rates?
I’m taking a break from tutoring. When I started my run, I didn’t think it was fair to leave people hanging, though I do still have sessions with one client. Right now I’m waiting to hear back about my law school applications. I found out a while ago that I didn’t get into U of T, but I still have three more options. We’ll see.

Um, don’t you think U of T might reconsider given everything? 
No, no. They made their decision with the information they had at the time. It’s okay.

You’ll likely be starting law school around the same time you’ll be competing in the tournament of champions. Which is the bigger challenge?
I think the tournament will be more competitive. Some of the other contestants were on the show in early 2021, so they’ll have a lot more time to prepare than I will. Still, I now have a far better sense of my strengths and weaknesses. And I have 24 episodes’ worth of performance data to go on.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity