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Quiz king buzzes to $2 million

Deseret Morning News graphic

Ken Jennings has gone where only one man has gone before — past the $2 million threshold as a game-show contestant.

The mild-mannered 30-year-old software engineer from Murray accomplished the feat on the episode of "Jeopardy!" that aired Monday night. He won $30,000, which took him to $2,006,300 in total winnings after 59 consecutive victories on the syndicated quiz show.

At one point, joking with "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek, Jennings described himself as a "professional game-show contestant."

Jennings is No. 2 on the all-time money-winning chart, trailing Kevin Olmstead, who won $2.18 million on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" in 2002. Of course, Olmstead only had to answer 15 questions correctly to take home his prize; Jennings was correct 33 times on Monday's show alone, bringing his total of correct responses on "Jeopardy!" to to 2,139.

On the other hand, Olmstead couldn't make a single mistake, while Jennings has also given 210 incorrect "Jeopardy!" responses.

Jennings kicked off Monday's show with a full head of steam by running the first category, "Ships." Later in the show he ran the board on another category, "Search: Light." He also won two "Daily Doubles."

For the "Final Jeopardy" category, "Historic Firsts," the "answer" was "The brother of this leader is believed to be the first known European to have died in the Americas." Jennings was the only contestant who gave the correct "question": " Who is Leif Ericson?"

The Utahn is only the 17th person in American TV history to capture winnings in seven figures. And he's the first to do it on a "traditional" game show — one that awards thousands, not millions, of dollars at a time.

Ten of the other 16 won on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" or "Super Millionaire"; one on the "Millionaire" clone "Greed"; two on NBC's short-lived, big-bucks revival of "Twenty-One" in 2000; and three on "stunt" shows — two on "Pepsi Play for a Billion" and one on "It's Your Chance of a Lifetime."

The most money any previous contestant on traditional game shows had ever won was $264,000, which went to Teddy Nadler — on "The $64,000 Question" and "The $64,000 Challenge" — way back in 1957.

The most any previous "Jeopardy!" champion had ever won was $305,989. Bruce Seymour won $55,989 on the original show, then won $250,000 on "Super Jeopardy!" — a 13-week tournament of past champions that ABC aired in 1990.

Jennings' long reign as "Jeopardy!" champ and those millions in earnings were made possible by a change in the rules last season. From the time the show first appeared in 1964 until September 2003, champions had to retire after five consecutive wins.

The Utahn will make his 60th appearance on "Jeopardy!" tonight at 7:30 on KJZZ-Ch. 14.