How Canadian ‘Jeopardy!’ champ Mattea Roach buzzed herself into our consciousness

If there was a crucial factor to Mattea Roach’s incredible “Jeopardy!” run—aside from the requisite intelligence—it was buzzer dominance.

Past champions like James Holzhauer, a professional sports gambler, sought out the biggest-money clues and bet large on the Daily Doubles to create an unbreachable chasm and maximize his winnings.

But Roach didn’t have that brash style. She steadily accumulated, playing the board top to bottom. She was prudent with her Daily Double wagers. And she was fast on the buzzer. On Friday, Roach’s 23-game winning streak came to an end with a Final Jeopardy question about the name of Atlanta’s airport. She guessed incorrectly and came within $1 of new champion Danielle Maurer from Georgia.

Andy Saunders has watched “Jeopardy!” since he was a child in Guelph and now runs the website The Jeopardy! Fan. Roach’s style, he says, is reminiscent of current host and all-time champion Ken Jennings, “and that is one way to go on a really long run on ‘Jeopardy!’ ” he says.

According to his stats, the average Jeopardy player buzzes in 30 per cent of the time. Elite champions usually average around 40 per cent. Mattea Roach buzzes in 46 per cent. (His calculations by him include all of the questions asked in a game. The official “Jeopardy!” Statistics count how many times a contestant attempts to buzz in, and how many times they succeed, so their percentages are higher than Saunders’s numbers.)

The show introduced daily box scores and statistics in January 2022: “So now for the first time, you will actually get proof of what, anecdotally, non-winning ‘Jeopardy!’ contestants have shared for years: they couldn’t get in on the buzzer! It is such a vital element of the game, and our champions dominate in that aspect,” the show’s executive producer wrote.

Buzzer play has evolved over the years. When longtime host Alex Trebek first took the job in 1984, players could buzz at the moment they saw the clue. Because of camera angles, it was confusing for viewers at home. Trebek tweaked the rule: Nobody can buzz in until the host finishes the question.

While some players buzz in automatically, confident that they can come up with the answer, Roach has a different approach. “I thought that the pressure of having to come up with the response in those five seconds would be too much and I would just be losing money,” she told the Star’s Alex McKeen. So she tries to read the clue faster than the host speaks, so she can have a response in mind by the time she is allowed to buzz.

“I didn’t want to make unforced errors,” she told McKeen.

Saunders says that “Jeopardy!” questions tend to lean toward a liberal arts education. Roach was well served by a bachelor’s degree in sexual diversity studies, political science, and women and gender studies from the University of Toronto. She also has a history in competitive debate.

With her 23-game run, she was the most successful Canadian to ever compete on the show, winning $560,983 (US).

The streak was only possible thanks to a rule change in 2003. Before that, champions had to tap out after five games. In his memoir, Alex Trebek explained that the limit existed in part because of a historic distrust of game shows, dating back to the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, when certain games were fixed to boost ratings. When the original “Jeopardy!” premiered in the 1960s, it was a straightforward question-and-answer format, with no funny business. As such, no contestant played longer than five games, lest you think something suspicious was afoot. That rule held when the daily syndicated version of “Jeopardy!” came back in 1984 with Trebek as host.

There was unease about changing the rule: “What if you got a contestant on a hot streak who was unlikable, who the audiences couldn’t stand to watch?” the late Trebek wrote in his memoir of him. But that didn’t happen. It was “probably the best thing that happened to the show,” he wrote.

Ken Jennings began his historic run at the end of that season. Fans were so invested that ratings increased by 22 per cent, Trebek wrote. Saunders sees a noticeable spike in his web traffic anytime someone goes on a tear. And this year he has been historic for streaks with champions like Amy Schneider, Matt Amodio and Roach.

Saunders has found a strong correlation between a contestant’s score going into Final Jeopardy! and their win percentage of it. Based on a contestant’s past data, he created a formula to predict the player’s chances of winning their next game, as well as the predicted length of their streak. Running his model for Roach after Thursday’s game, his prediction of him was 26.12 games.

Roach has been a galvanizing force for many Canadians. “I’ve watched Jeopardy for years but never looked forward to each segment as much as I do now. You are fantastic, Mattea!” one fan tweeted her. “I haven’t been this excited to watch a fresh airing of anything since Northern Exposure was freshly filmed!” said another.

Roach told McKeen that representing Canada has been “really, really special.”

“People (on the “Jeopardy!” crew) made a point of telling me, Alex (Trebek) would have been so proud of you.

“So that was really special because they obviously know how proud Alex was to be Canadian and how much Canadians love him,” she said. “And I’m very proud that I can be a part of the legacy of Canadians on Jeopardy.”

With files from Alex McKeen Katie Daubs is a Star reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @kdaubs


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