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Interview

The first Jeopardy superstar

When Ken Jennings checked into his hotel to play in the Ultimate Tournament of Champions, he was asked to use an assumed name. So he registered as Burns Cameron, so that the number-one player of the Art Fleming era would be at the tournament, in spirit if not in person. (Fleming era players were ineligible for UToC.)

Cameron, a navy submarine sonar technician and college sophomore, appeared on the show in 1964 and won $11,110. That may not seem like much, but this was back when the lowest value clue was worth just $10. In today's terms, his winnings would be $222,200. And this is before you adjust for inflation. His record held for the duration of the show.

The game was also different back then, in a pre-electronic era. The dollar values were written on cards, which were pulled out by stagehands to reveal the clue. Players could then ring in and wait as Fleming finished reading the question. "That was the key for me," says Cameron. "I had two skills that came in very handy. I could read the clues instantly and I had instant recall."

Some people would try ringing in as soon as possible, hoping to nail the question. "A lot of people went deep into the hole that way," says Cameron. "For me, I'd know if I could get it just by glancing at it."

The game was also different in that the security was looser. He recalls that at lunch, people were on their own. Most left the eighth floor of New York's Rockefeller Center to sample what New York City had to offer.

�I had two slices of pizza and a Coke, but it turns out the women I played against had gone out for a couple of martinis. When we played, they couldn�t find the buzzer, figuratively speaking. After I had a lock game, I winked at Art Fleming and put the buzzer down for about five minutes so that they could win some money, because back then you kept what you won.�

Yet despite being the Ken Jennings of his day, he got nowhere near the attention Jennings got. "This was when the show was on at noon on NBC, so it was a housewife audience. I was never recognized in the street or anything like that."

Burns Cameron gets a second shot

Cameron got a second shot at Jeopardy when the show was revived in syndication with Alex Trebek as host. Curious to find out whether Art Fleming era players qualified to be on (they don't), he called the show and, soon, was invited to a special tournament running on ABC called Super Jeopardy, in which some of the greatest players to that point faced off, four at a time. Cameron was the only Fleming-era player on.

�It was half a lifetime after I was first on,� recalls Cameron. �My reflexes at age 52 weren�t the same as they were at 26.�

Nevertheless, he gave that tournament's eventual champion, Bruce Seymour, his toughest fight.

Still part of the Jeopardy community

Today, he is still involved in Jeopardy, but online. Jeopardy players congregate on the Sony message board, on which Cameron is one of the leading posters. Known as "Third Degree" (a pun based on his first name), he trolls the board for about an hour a night. This is one of the big differences from his era, where people left the studio and never saw each other.

He also got a chance to meet other Jeopardy legends at Game Show Congress 2005, one of the rare occasions when a room full of people remembered who he was. "It was a great opportunity to put so many faces to names."

First posted: September 2005