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Backstage with Ken Jennings

I've written down the wrong time for my phone interview with Ken Jennings, and I don't realize it until several hours later, when I read a polite e-mail from Ken, wondering if perhaps something had gone awry.

Much has been said about the tremendous stroke of luck the show had when its inevitable mega-champion turned out to also be mega-nice. Moreover, Jennings has also made a point of being friendly, especially back-stage. "I tried very hard to be nice, even exaggeratedly nice, because I didn't want the room boiling over. I didn't want to try to psych anyone out. There is a very collegial atmosphere on Jeopardy among the contestants. People joked about poisoning my cookie. I think they were joking, anyway!"

Likewise, in his many media appearances, whereas many people would have swelled with arrogance, Jennings has come across as somebody who is humbled by their experience. "I'm still easily cowed and impressed by celebrities. And I never thought it would get as big as it did. I would tell a Jeopardy story and people would say, 'Save it for Letterman.' I'd say, 'I'm never going on Letterman!'"

Fame comes to a game show contestant

But appear on Letterman he did, reading a Top 10 list and even meeting Julia Stiles. But, to paraphrase Spider-Man, with great fame has come great responsibility. He once received a letter from a girl who had considered dropping out of school, but changed her mind when she saw Jennings prove the value of knowledge. He speaks to local elementary schools and videotaped a question, "Clue Crew" style, for World Trivia Night (see screen capture, left)

There are also other, more profitable, projects on the go: a board game, an audio game produced by a Canadian company, a book deal, an endorsement from Microsoft Encarta and an ad for H&R Block, whose senior VP, David Byers, has estimated that he owes about $1.04 million in taxes on his winnings. (Jennings' last question involved H&R Block.)

It was a remarkable run. According to Jeopardy archivist Andy Saunders, including the 51 Final Jeopardy questions Jennings got right, he answered an astounding 2693 questions, winning a record $2,522,700 in 74 games. His streak also helped the show, which finally edged past Wheel of Fortune in the ratings.

Not bad for somebody who, aside from working off flash cards with his wife, did no studying at all before his appearances. (Rather famously, the tee-totaller had his wife drill him on cocktail recipes and other "potent potables.")

Yet, for Jennings there was a strange calm before the storm, when he had taped 48 games but none had aired. "I was sitting on this huge secret and couldn't tell anybody. The only people who knew were my wife and some family who had been in audience, and my boss, because I had to keep sneaking out of town. It was like I had a secret Jeopardy identity."

(In fact, when we got wind of him here at, we reported the rumour on our mailing list that a "Mormon from Utah" was cleaning up, unaware that said "Mormon from Utah" was on the list until he wrote us, politely noting that said expression was akin to "Jew from New York." Point taken …)

As for all that money, Jeopardy pays you six months after your last show airs, so at this writing (January 2005), he has yet to see his Season 21 earnings. "But for the first season, they presented me with a cheque on stage at a taping. It completely threw me off my game!"

The Ultimate Tournament of Champions

At this writing he is also waiting for his turn on the Ultimate Tournament of Champions, at which he is a heavy favourite. He's often spoken of hoping to play such legends as Leszek Pawlowicz and Chuck Forrest, although with more than 150 people playing, his ultimate competitors could be anyone.

“There are people who are quick to say that this will ‘kill Jeopardy’ but I don’t think so. I think it’ll be quite exciting to see 20 years of the best players competing. You won’t get people making the wrong bets. It’ll settle those ‘Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds’ debates that Jeopardy fans have.”

Update: After his shocking three-game, he provided the following comments ...

"Oddly, I'm pretty satisfied with the way the finals came out. I got a nice check for second place, and I felt like I showed that I could definitely play at Brad and Jerome's weight class. That's the best of the best, so second place is an honor right there.

"Even better for a fan like me, the best player won definitively. Not only was Brad out-buzzing me at every opportunity (it took him just one round to adjust to my timing and start cleaning my clock) but he got two sort of tricky FJs that I missed. He won on speed AND knowledge, and couldn't have been nicer about it, so way to go Brad.

"It's true that I was pretty terrible in the third game: things were pretty much over at 'What is DeMille?' I thought Brad didn't have that answer either, and I was floored when he came up with it for the huge lead. Nothing I did to my buzzer timing worked after that point. Maybe given some different FJs and more time to study the Zen miracle that is Brad's buzzer thumb, I could hang with him, but on that day, it wasn't going to happen. Actually, in hindsight, my best chance to win was probably Lucretia Garfield, and I wasn't even there at the time!

And who cares? I got to ... play Jeopardy again for big money and come up with three new ways to write 'Ken' on the podium, and I got to hang out with the best players ever. I feel like there were dozens of players in the tournament who could beat me on the right day, so second place was pretty cool. I was expecting to go 0-1 in my Jeopardy lifetime career, and very nearly did, so I can't really see the huge difference between 74-1 and 74-2.

Yet the change in format has upset more traditionalist fans, many of whom were just as upset that Jennings was allowed to win so many games in the first place. The official Jeopardy message board, for example, is full of "Ken fans," but a substantial minority took a dislike, not to Jennings personally, but to the very fact of him. "I have some sympathy with liking things how they've always been," he says. "If I weren't the one who had won 74 games, maybe I'd have felt the same way."

For Jennings, reading some of the negative, and often abrasive, commentary was difficult, even though it was drowned out in support. "The boards are where you find the die-hard Jeopardy fans and it means a lot to me to feel like one of them."

Speaking of which, don't be looking for him to offer a tie. There is a theory on the Jeopardy boards that it is advantageous for a leading player to bet to tie if the second-place player bets everything, but Jennings doesn't buy it. "I've heard Tom Walsh argue for betting to tie, but it
only seems to have strategic advantages under an extremely unlikely set of circumstances. None of that would outweigh the disadvantage of having to re-play an opponent who was good enough to tie you and is now starting to get the hang of the game."

(In fact, when Walsh did allow a tie, on his seventh game, he lost the eighth, as he fought off two very tough players.)

The fix was definitely not in

Jennings' breadth of knowledge, combined with modern cynicism, even led some people to suspect the worst. "There are people who thought my wins were fixes and people who though my loss was a fix, so I guess you can't win."

Indeed. At Game Show Congress 2004, Steve Beverley, a game show expert from Union University in Tennessee, said, "Anybody who knows anything about game shows knows that nobody is going to risk jail by fixing these games."

Nevertheless, one of the peculiarities of the situation was that the shows were being prepared with a known quantity as the likely champion. "They weren't doing anything different. It was just business as usual. If anything, they were trying to level the playing field."

To this end, it seemed that the show was trying to neutralize many of Jennings' advantages as a long-term player. Jennings agrees, for example, that the questions seemed somewhat harder in Season 21 than in Season 20, although that may well be the natural ebb and flow of the game over time. He, however, could detect no shift in the pattern of the questions, either toward his strengths or toward his weaknesses.

“The contestant coordinators were also encouraging every one to be the one who could beat me,” he says. “They wanted everyone to be optimistic.”

Backstage at Jeopardy

Other changes were more concrete. Before his run, players got a cursory run at the buzzers beforehand, simply to get the feeling of them. As Jennings won more games, however, much more rehearsal time was added to ensure that everyone was comfortable with the buzzers, and another rehearsal session was added after lunch so that everyone could stay sharp.

They even changed the person whose job it is to "arm" the system that lets players buzz in. (Jeopardy players cannot answer until the question is read and lights appear off camera. Buzzing in too early incurs a penalty. Jennings' skill with the buzzer is widely seen as abetting his breadth of knowledge.)

“At first, I was going off the voice,” says Jennings, in reference to a buzzer technique that involves reading the question yourself and waiting for the host to read the last word. “But if I noticed the other players were consistently ringing in too early, I’d wait for the lights. It’s all very intuitive. The more I thought about it, the worse I did.”

Interestingly, once he'd crossed the five-game threshold, players didn't seem to be any more intimidated by him. "It didn't make any difference whether you'd won 9 games or 49 games. Either way, you were something people hadn't seen before. Before me, the only people to win more than five games were Sean Ryan and Tom Walsh. The extra games didn't make much of a difference to how they saw me."

Despite this, many players clearly had given up all hope of winning and that as much as anything did them in. "Before the show, we tape 'hometown howdies' and some people would record things like, 'Watch me lose to Ken Jennings!' This was before we'd even played. And I'd think, 'How do you know?'"

How the streak nearly ended ... very early

In fact, Jennings first game was a close-run thing. Midway through Double Jeopardy, Julia Lazarus staged an amazing comeback, scoring an incredible string of consecutive correct answers. "She nearly tied it up and I got rattled. I lost my timing. One question made all the difference between winning that first game and going home with parting gifts."

A number of people he played along the way also gave him a good fight. Matt Ottinger, for example, nearly ended his run after a dozen or so games. Jeff Suchard was a holdover from Season 20 who played in the first week of Season 21. "He came out of quiz bowl, too, and he had all summer to study and get ready, whereas I was rusty and a bit shaken by the changes in the routine."

This being said, the secret to game show success is coolness under pressure, a skill Jennings picked up playing quiz bowl, which he believes to be the source of about a third of the facts he recalled on the show. "You're used to a buzzer in your hand and being under pressure. You also learn how to anticipate when you will be able to retrieve a fact. There is a spark of recognition that tells you to buzz in and re-read the clue, because you can remember the answer."

As time went on, the game experience changed for Jennings, as well. "It wasn't that I was panicky or anything for the first few games, but later it got to be a job. I was going to LA to see if I could win more money. I was used to the lights and everything else. It was like a daily routine."

His run on Jeopardy was anything but routine, however. It produced a ratings spike that vanished as soon as he left and made a national celebrity out of, of all things, a game show contestant.

January 2005

Updated May 2005