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Utah man is the king of 'Jeopardy!' winners

Ken Jennings on 'Jeopardy!' set, where he has won $341,158 so far.
Ken Jennings on 'Jeopardy!' set, where he has won $341,158 so far.

Ken Jennings has been addicted to game shows pretty much his entire life. When he was 3, he'd call up family members with the latest results of "Wheel of Fortune" or "Family Feud."

Jennings started watching "Jeopardy!" at age 10, and he says he's been watching it religiously ever since.

Still, he never imagined he would become the show's record-breaking champion, winning $341,158 over 10 days. That's more money won and more days on the show than any "Jeopardy!" contestant has ever achieved in the program's 20-year history.

In Tuesday's show Jennings won $50,000, and host Alex Trebek said the most won on a single show was $52,000, which gives Jennings something to shoot for.

He continues his championship run tonight (the show airs at 7:30 p.m. on KJZZ-Ch. 14), making his 11th appearance.

For the first 19 years, "Jeopardy!" contestants had a five-day win limit. Jennings, a Salt Lake software engineer, was able to take advantage of a 2003 rule change that allows contestants to amass winnings as long as they remain victorious.

And victorious Jennings has been. It's as much about timing as knowledge. Each night he has faced trivia in 12 categories, hit the button quicker than his opponents and supplied the correct responses on a myriad of topics, from random history or geography facts to movie titles to breeds of cats.

"You never know where you're going to learn stuff," Jennings said about his process of absorbing trivia. "I guess, innately, I have a pretty good memory — where I tend to remember things I hear. Also, like everybody else, I tend to remember the things I am interested in."

Besides years of watching game shows and participating in academic trivia tournaments in college, Jennings said he learns things from everywhere — reading, watching movies and TV, reading comic books as a kid. For some reason, he said, he just keeps up on things.

Jennings did more than keep up when "Jeopardy!" called him at work in January to notify him that he had a month to prepare for his taping in February. He had gone to Los Angeles in May 2003 to audition for the show, and now, eight months later, he had a month to get ready.

"You pretty much know what you know, and you're not going to turn yourself into Albert Einstein overnight," Jennings said. "But I figured that there's some small list of things I can probably learn."

So, he and his wife, Mindy, sat down and created flash cards for his list of "things to study" — the 43 presidents, all the world capitals, the 27 constitutional amendments, etc. On car trips, Mindy would quiz him using the flash cards. 1901? Answer: William McKinley. 1798? Answer: George Washington.

"I'm not much of a drinker, so I studied up on cocktails, just in case that showed up. So now I know how to mix cocktails," Jennings said. Harvey Wallbanger? Answer: vodka, orange juice and Galliano.

Did it work?

Jennings said the cards did help his game, especially when a few Rutherford B. Hayes questions surfaced. The only time he felt a bit nervous was also during the first game, when the Final Jeopardy question was on the 2000 Olympics. Normally he is a big Olympics fan, Jennings said, but he and his wife were on their honeymoon then and didn't watch a single event. But he still got the answer right.

As for the money, Jennings has plans for it. After setting some aside for his children's college education and his retirement, he wants to splurge on a trip to Europe.

"My wife used to live in Germany, and I'm sure she'd love to show me the places she grew up. She went on (an LDS) mission to France, and I've never seen Paris. I went on a mission to Spain, and she's never seen Madrid, so it'd be a pretty fun chance to show each other some stuff."

As for the notoriety, Jennings said he has only been recognized in public twice so far, but at work and church many people line up to ask him the same questions, things like: How did you learn all that stuff? and What are you going to do with all of that money?

To help him stay productive at work, one of Jennings' friends posted a list of "Ken Jennings Frequently Asked Questions," so people could get their questions answered and he could still get work done.


E-mail: ltaylor@desnews.com