Before 'Jeopardy!,' Matt Amodio played trivia at this Hamden bar

Reigning “Jeopardy!” champion Matt Amodio is quickly closing in on 40 wins and has topped $1.4 million in earnings. In the process of the Yale University Ph.D. student’s winning streak, he’s landed on several of the show’s Hall of Fame records lists and only sits behind Ken Jennings on its list of longest winning streaks. 

It’s a long way from his July 21 debut on the show, where he ousted the three-day returning champion by nearly $16,000. It’s even longer from his days of playing for bar trivia bragging rights at The Playwright in Hamden, but for Anthony Apuzzo, host of team trivia at the Whitney Avenue pub, Amodio’s shadow looms large.

When Amodio first started his victory spree, Apuzzo said regulars of his Wednesday night trivia started to take note.

“They asked me if I knew him, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, he played here for quite a while, and he was on a team that was called 'The Rogue Scholars,’” he said. “It was a solid team. They pretty much placed in the top three almost every week. It was kind of annoying to some of the other regulars, but hey, they were a good team, they know their stuff and you can’t fault them for that.”

Apuzzo recalled that Amodio was “quite a regular player until COVID” arrived and shut down businesses in Connecticut and beyond. Once Apuzzo started hosting trivia again on The Playwright’s patio in July 2020, he said he didn’t see Amodio again and heard that the Ohio native was “spending some time with his parents.” While Apuzzo said he hasn’t seen Amodio since pre-pandemic days, the returning “Jeopardy!” champion talked about his love of trivia. 

For starters, Amodio called himself a “trivia enthusiast” in a September op-ed, in which he explained how reading (and reading Wikipedia, at that) helps him acquire knowledge on a range of topics. Witnessing Amodio in action playing trivia at The Playwright, Apuzzo said he noticed the computer science student performs better in some trivia categories over others. 

“I would definitely say that Matt’s strong points were the science, history and geography categories,” he said. “Maybe not so much of the pop culture, music and some of the newer stuff, but everybody’s got their strong points.”

Amodio said that following current events is now something he tries to quiz himself on to boost his knowledge in key areas. 

“The biggest thing I did in prep is to start looking for the ‘trivia question’ aspect of things in my regular life,” he told Hearst Connecticut via email. “So I follow the news and politics closely, and I started saying to myself, ‘What could they ask about this event?’ Asking these and keeping them in mind has been very helpful to me.”

Apuzzo has a similar approach to developing the strategy behind his Digital Tracks Entertainment team trivia.

“Sometimes, I'll just be sitting watching TV or I'll be out somewhere and something will strike me,” he said. “I’m like, ‘That's a trivia question,’ and I just take a note of it, and I put it into one of the next week's rounds.”

This method of identifying and creating trivia questions is something Apuzzo said differentiates his trivia from other bar trivia— and might make for good “Jeopardy!” preparation.

“My trivia nights encompass questions that appeal to all age groups, all education levels, all interests,” he said. “Some the other trivia nights…are geared toward the 20-something crowd or the college students. Older folks who go to those trivia nights tend to get a little aggravated because they don’t know about TikTok or what’s hot on Youtube right now. I would say my questions are very similar to the ones you’d see on ‘Jeopardy!’ because they cast a wide net, which is why I think I’ve had strong showings for the last nine years.”

In these trivia nights, Apuzzo said Amodio already showed signs of being a standout player, even in a team setting. 

“The Rogue Scholars had about four or five on their team,” he said. “It’s sometimes tough to tell who the strong person or people are on each team because you’re just getting back the answer sheet. But I will say, on the nights he did not play on his team, they maybe didn’t score so well. He was definitely the anchor of the team.”

With trivia experience in tow to help launch Amodio into quiz show fame, Apuzzo said the experience of watching his former trivia player make headlines has been satisfying, especially since Amodio isn’t the first of his “regulars” to make the show.

“He’s actually the third or fourth player of mine to be on ‘Jeopardy!’” he said. “But, he’s the only one that kind of took it to the next level…One of them was an on again, off again team member of The Rogue Scholars and one of the first ones to appear on ‘Jeopardy!’”

Although Apuzzo noted that this particular contestant “didn’t do that great,” Amodio’s success is something that he said makes his nine years in trivia at The Playwright (and nearly seven years at The Cellar on Treadwell) worth it. 

“Once the ‘Jeopardy!’ thing started and he gave a shoutout to The Playwright in one of the other newspapers…I kind of felt vindicated,” he said. “People for years have been telling me that my trivia nights are too difficult or too challenging, and him doing as well as he does, I kind of feel vindicated that my trivia nights are very solid….I’m not changing the world, but it’s nice to know that somebody thought of me and that I might have had an effect on somebody.”