A: It feels great. It happened a few months ago and to have seen it on TV seems a little bit unreal. This is something I’ve sort of dreamed of all my life. And this tournament in particular had so much build-up. So much tough competition. All year, I had strangers approaching me on the street saying, ‘You’re going to win!” But I didn’t know that would happen because there was going to be really tough players. My intent was to win, I knew I was going to do my best, but I really didn’t know how it was going to be until I got on stage.
Q: In the special exhibition game you competed against your fellow Seeded Champions Matt Amodio, who won 38 games, and Mattea Roach, who won 23 games. You were the only Seeded Champion to make it into the finals. Did you enjoy the chance to compete with them as a warm-up to the semifinals?
A: It was really interesting. It was something the (producers) didn’t let us know about until the last minute. I got a text from a producer as I was boarding the plane to L.A. I appreciated the warm-up aspect of it. ‘Jeopardy!’ is always fun, I always had a great time on stage, but the chance to do it without zero pressure associated with it was really cool. To be able to enjoy it and not worry about the outcome was nice. I was really excited to get the chance to play them. I was hoping to get to play them in any case, but who knew if any or all of us would make it to the finals? It was nice to be guaranteed I would get to share the stage with them. I (originally) went to L.A. to tape with Matt’s episodes still airing and Mattea went to L.A. to tape while my episodes were airing. So, there’s a symmetry to each of us thinking we might have had to play each other the first time around. So, we were able to put our theories into action a little bit even in an exhibition game.
Q: The Tournament of Champions was absolutely remarkable. How did the tournament compare to your original 40-show streak?
A: There was more pressure this time around. The first time I didn’t know how I would do and there was a lot of anxiety. But this time there was a burden of expectations. People were expecting me to do well, expecting me to win. The other thing that was different yet really great was getting to hang out with a bunch of other people who had the same strange experience of winning on ‘Jeopardy!’ Anybody that has qualified for the Tournament of Champions likely has similar personalities so it was super fun to be with people who understood each other.
Q: You mentioned anxiety crept into your original run. Anxiety seemed to creep up within the early portion of the tournament finals as well when Andrew came on strong, proving to be a huge threat.
A: Imposter syndrome is incredibly difficult to get past. Despite all I did the first time, there was still a nagging part of me that made me doubt how well I would do. I also sort of staked the next part of my life on the idea that I’m going to be a professional ‘Jeopardy!’ champion and wondering what would happen if I lost my first game – would that make that idea harder? So, my whole focus was not to lose the first game and whatever happens after that happens, and I would feel like it was a success. I did win my first game, but that afternoon I had to go into the finals. I didn’t really mentally prepare for the finals because I couldn’t think ahead like that, so that was definitely a challenge. And as for Andrew, he and Matt Amodio were the two players I was most anxious about going up against. I played against Andrew originally (in November 2021) and quite frankly he probably should’ve won that game – he just drew a blank during Final Jeopardy! I knew anybody could beat me, but I had the experience of almost losing to him before and I knew he would be really tough.
Q: Take me through your thought process in Game 5 when you didn’t wager enough during Final Jeopardy!, which opened the door for Sam to win his first game. If you had wagered more, you would’ve won the tournament right then and there.
A: It was probably the wager I spent the longest thinking about throughout my time on ‘Jeopardy!’ On one hand, the category was English Cities, which was my kind of thing. Going into my first run, my philosophy was to bet on myself to get it right if there’s any doubt. But in this situation, it wasn’t as simple as win or lose this game. If Andrew won, it was over. Whereas if I lost but Sam won, I would live to fight another day. I knew if I made the wager I made, I would guarantee Andrew wouldn’t win and the game would continue. I definitely agonized about it but that’s what I ultimately decided. I told myself there was a possibility the wager could cost me the tournament but I made a promise to myself I wouldn’t make the decision haunt me. Because of his quality of play and because he is such a delightful person, Sam deserved to get a win. I was hoping I would win and finish the tournament, but the silver lining was Sam got rewarded for his game play. All three of us in the finals felt a pressure to live up to the hype, to make it the great finals the show deserved and our fellow contestants deserved. I’m glad we were able to deliver on that.
Q: On Nov. 16 you testified before the Ohio legislature in opposition to a proposed bill that would ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth. Are you becoming more comfortable as an activist?
A: Giving my testimony actually went a long way to making me feel like I’m finding my voice on topics such as this. Even though the Tournament of Champions was airing at the same time, and I wanted the focus to be on that which was something I was so proud of, gender-affirming care is a matter of life and death. It really saves lives. I felt I had to stand up and fight for trans kids in Ohio, some of whom I know that would really be endangered by this. Although I live in California and I’m not on the ground doing the work in Ohio like (legislative) staffers or non-profits, I have a voice. I feel I have power to help those doing the work on the ground, to draw more attention to the bill that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Testifying made me realize I have a part to play in this in my own way. I’ve also been thinking much of my adult life about how to actually change minds, to take people who are on the other side and bring them over. I don’t want to be angry and yell at people. I know a lot of people who are conservative, who are Republican, who are on the other side of the issue. Most of them are not motivated by hate – they genuinely think they are doing what’s best for children. It was really good to be in Ohio and put my theories into action about how best to do that.
Q: A few days after your visit to Ohio, five people were killed at a LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs. Are you growing more concerned with the rise of anti-gay, anti-trans sentiment across the country?
A: All of the things that are happening are a sign of the progress we’ve made. The people that want trans people to be afraid, hidden or disappear are lashing out. We’re not disappearing. We’re not going away. It’s awful, sad and frustrating but it’s only happening because of how successful we’ve been and all the momentum we have, which is not going to change. I’m not going back into the closet or living in fear. I’m not going to be silenced by these types of things.
Q: How would you describe your 2022?
A: It was amazing. The best year of my life in ways I could never have imagined. Both in terms of “Jeopardy!” and marrying Genevieve. When I transitioned, there was a feeling that my romantic life was never going to be the same. There was a fear about that but it wasn’t true. An amazing woman completely understood me. I feel so blessed.
Q: What are you anticipating in 2023?
A: I’m hopefully going to get my book finished and published. I’m very excited about it. I’m also looking forward to being involved with things (associated) with ‘Jeopardy!’ I also plan to do a comedy/trivia podcast, which is in development. I’m also going to become more involved in advocacy. I want to help protect kids who are in Ohio, Texas, Arkansas and elsewhere. Being on TV has changed minds and I want to keep being visible.