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Culture

First “Jeopardy!” Gen Z super Champ’s Streak Hits 19 Games

LOS ANGELES — Reigning “Jeopardy!” champion Mattea Roach represents a new generation of the quiz show’s all-star players.

As of Friday, the 23-year-old Canadian has won 19 games and amassed $469,184 in prize money, putting her among the top 10 contestants for both consecutive victories and regular-season winnings in “Jeopardy!” history.

Roach, who begins her fifth week of competition Monday, is in the company of veteran standout players including Ken Jennings, who’s currently hosting the show, and this season’s champs Amy Schneider and Matt Amodio.

“The fact that I’m now one of the best players of all time hasn’t fully sunk in yet. It doesn’t really feel real,” said Roach, the first Gen Zer to be dubbed a “super champion” by the show for achieving a double-digit string of wins. (Generation Z generally refers to those born from 1997 to 2012.)

A tutor for aspiring law school students, and perhaps one herself, she plays with a breezy confidence. Roach is relaxed enough to casually think out loud about her approach, as she did when she hit a crucial Double Jeopardy last Wednesday.

“You know what, if I wager a lot and lose today, like whatever, I had such a good run,” Roach mused, then successfully wagered a hefty $8,000 and ended up taking the game from formidable challenger Ben Hsia of Fremont, California.

The category was anatomy, the clue was “To gently tease another person,” and Roach’s slightly exasperated response: “I should have wagered more. What is ‘rib’?”

Besides conservative bets, her play has been distinguished by the broad range of knowledge and buzzer command that “Jeopardy!” champs have. Athletic skill doesn’t contribute to the latter, said Roach, who admits that sports isn’t a favored category.

Among her trademarks are an engaging smile and demure wave to the camera at the start of a game; tattoos including Talking Heads song lyrics, and attire that’s on the serious side but with a touch of personal flair. For a recent interview, however, she paired a T-shirt with denim.

“There’s no denim on ‘Jeopardy!'” Roach said, helpfully. As for her on-camera wardrobe, it’s all clothes she already owned — “I hate shopping,” she said — and which she figured would send the right message.

“I wanted to be comfortable, I wanted to look professional and I wanted to express my personality, and I think I accomplished that,” she said.

A native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, who lives in Toronto, Roach credits her love of learning to her mother, Patti MacKinnon, an auditor, and her father, Phil Roach, who works in human resources. Mattea Roach began reading at age 3, skipped a grade in elementary school and enrolled at the University of Toronto when she was 16.

After mom and dad helped pay for the first two years of college, Roach put herself through the rest.

“I have three younger siblings at home, and even with them (her parents) both working there’s only so much money to go around,” she said. “I figured I can work, so why would I not be?”

She majored in sexual diversity studies and earned minors in political science and women and gender studies. The school’s debate program helped her gain poise and tackle unfamiliar subjects, presumably helpful training for “Jeopardy!” — and maybe politics.

As a youngster, Roach said, she had a vague interest in the “workings of government” and, while she’s retained an interest in it, she realized it wouldn’t be a good fit. Despite the flurry of media and online attention that “Jeopardy!” has brought, “I’m actually a very private person, and I prefer to have a relatively more normal job,” she said.

She was applying to law school when “Jeopardy!” summoned her to be a contestant. Her success and that of Amodio (38 wins, $1.52 million) and Schneider (40 wins, $1.38 million) has made the show’s 2021-22 season a memorable one.

Roach mentioned on air that she would be able to pay off her student loans after her first win. What is she planning to do as the sum has grown?

“I’m so boring. I don’t want to splurge on anything,” she said.

Roach intends to invest the windfall for her future, although some of it will go toward realizing travel plans derailed by the pandemic. Another possible indulgence occurred to her.

“I hopefully will not be afraid of buying concert tickets anymore,” she said.

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