King of the know-it-alls

Like other trivia nerds and game show superfans, I regarded my oddball command of facts a useless, superfluous skill. Then we all met Ken Jennings

He was first introduced to the world as “a software engineer from Salt Lake City.” He wore a modest navy jacket, a wide maroon necktie, and a nervous, unassuming smile. His first name appeared in his own all-caps handwriting at the front of his podium: KEN. When that episode of “Jeopardy!” first aired, on June 2, 2004, nobody could have known the ride Ken Jennings was about to take America on — or the joy he would provide factoid lovers.

Jennings won that day. He had a slight lead entering the Final Jeopardy round, and he knew the name of the first female track and field athlete to win medals in five different events at a single Olympics (Marion Jones), so he ended that first episode with $37,201 in winnings. Jennings won the next day, too — knowing things like who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1987 (Rita Dove) and the name of the New Mexico governor who offered to pardon Billy the Kid (Lew Wallace) — bringing his total winning to $59,201. He also won the day after that. And the day after that. And the day after that.

It’s Ken Jennings’ last week on ‘Jeopardy!’ Who’s next?
Utah computer programmer Ken Jennings now a trivia icon

It went on for weeks. Then months. Every weekday, for half an hour, millions of people across the country tuned in to watch this mild-mannered 30-year-old married father from Utah absolutely obliterate his fellow contestants on America’s most hallowed game show. Jennings seemed to have a bottomless pit of knowledge, and could recall it all instantaneously. He also had a gently sarcastic air about him, a wry grin that hinted he knew something he couldn’t wait to say. He’d answer questions — or, more accurately, because on “Jeopardy!” contestants must answer in the form of a question, Jennings questioned the answers — with such speed and ease that it felt like watching performance art.

“What is Halifax?” “Who is Humpty Dumpty?” “What are the Arabian Nights?” 

During his streak, and in the years since, Jennings has become more than a quizmaster. Through his books, his Twitter presence, and his appearances on subsequent “Jeopardy!” tournaments (and a few other game shows), Jennings has become the rarest kind of celebrity: rich and famous for just, like, knowing stuff. Not stuff about successful investment strategies. Not stuff about how to cure a crippling disease or engineer a safer vehicle. Just random stuff. His capacity to remember and recall factoids has earned him millions of dollars and a career as the game show guy.

As I type this, he’s the guest host of “Jeopardy!” — the first person to stand at that lectern since the longtime beloved host, Alex Trebek, died in November, after a public battle with cancer. Sony, which owns “Jeopardy!” is expected to name the new permanent host sometime this year. In a field that includes former news anchor Katie Couric and actor LeVar Burton, Jennings is the odds-on favorite.

Jennings has become the rarest kind of celebrity: rich and famous for just, like, knowing stuff.

Whether or not he’s the new face of “Jeopardy!,” though, Jennings is already an icon for a certain percentage of the population. Because he’s not just the greatest game show contestant of all time. Ken Jennings is an uncommon inspiration for factoid lovers everywhere.

Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I watched “Jeopardy!” just about every day. I inherited my affinity for game shows from my mom. She’d say she likes the brain puzzles because they keep her mind sharp, but the truth is in our home, intelligence was the highest virtue. Not necessarily the solving-global-problems type of intelligence. We didn’t spend a ton of time discussing canonical literature or classical music or modern political theory. No, our family specializes in useless, obscure factoids. I may not have been able to spell the word restaurant until sometime in high school, but as far back as I can remember, I savored the chance to prove that I knew things like the name of the largest glacier in the world (the Lambert-Fischer Glacier in Antarctica) or the year the Titanic sunk (1912) or the speed of sound (some 767 miles per hour).

As you might guess, this did not make me the most popular kid in school. It didn’t take long to understand that most of society doesn’t care much for the know-it-all type. If you want to make friends and attract a love interest, obnoxiously reciting trivial knowledge is not the way to do it. But, in the privacy of a living room, a game show provides the perfect safe space for just this type of know-it-all-ism.

On sick days or school holidays, I basically marked the time by the game show on TV. No matter how bad I felt, I knew I had “The Price Is Right” to look forward to. Then “Hollywood Squares,” “Family Feud,” “Supermarket Sweep,” “$100,000 Pyramid” — you get the idea. I loved strategizing how I would approach each clue, spin, puzzle, or final round. I relished knowing the answer, especially when the contestant didn’t. I even liked seeing how fast people could buzz in — sometimes imagining my own hand hovering over one of those big red buttons so many game shows use. Sick or not, “Jeopardy!” was always appointment television. It was often what my mom and I would watch while eating dinner, sometimes paired with “Wheel of Fortune.” The Rolls Royce of game shows, “Jeopardy!” has long been a fixture in our culture. Even the theme music is iconic, one of the most recognizable tunes in television history. It didn’t happen much, but once in a while I knew an answer my mom didn’t — and I treasured the chance to impress her. One time, I remember, when I was 12 or 13, I somehow named the movie that won the 1990 Oscar for Best Picture (“Driving Miss Daisy”), and my mom tilted her head and looked at me, genuinely surprised.

Part of the appeal came down to the show’s host, Alex Trebek. Every day, viewers could count on that warm voice, the gentle way he’d banter with contestants, his perfectly placed quips. A lot of game show hosts emit a used-car salesman sleaziness. But that was never Trebek. He always displayed a sweet, respectful decency with everyone he encountered, no matter the score — something we don’t get a lot of in life.

In this Oct. 1, 2018, file photo, Alex Trebek speaks in Hershey, Pa. The longtime and beloved host died of pancreatic cancer on Nov. 8, 2020, at age 80. | Matt Rourke, Associated Press

The other appeal of “Jeopardy!” is the sheer knowledge base required to compete. Even the worst contestants on the show are among the crème de la crème of trivia geeks. The best “Jeopardy!” players can buzz in, answer, and pick the next clue faster than most of us can process the words coming out of the host’s mouth. The entire thing can be dizzying, almost hypnotic.

At home, answering even two or three questions in a row always felt like a grand accomplishment. Each clue requires not just some understanding of history or science or culture or sports, but also the ability to quickly unravel a word puzzle. And “Jeopardy!” doesn’t reward partially right answers. In the world of “Jeopardy!” something is either correct or incorrect.

For years, whether I was with my mom or alone, watching “Jeopardy!” was all about those questions, the challenge, the factoids, the mild drama of who would have the most money at the end of any given episode. But because they never stayed too long, it was never about the contestants themselves.

Then the world met Ken Jennings.

There have been some truly incredible moments in game show history. A man named Terry Kniess once memorized the prices of every item on “The Price Is Right” and bid the exact right amount in the Showcase Showdown, winning $56,437 in prizes. An Ohio man named Michael Larson memorized the light patterns on the “Press Your Luck” game board, figured out how to avoid the dreaded “Whammies” and won $110,237. In 1999, John Carpenter became the first person to win $1 million on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” coolly using his “phone a friend” to call his dad on the final question — just to say he was about to take home the big prize. In 1980, a Navy officer named Thom McKee appeared on 46 straight episodes of “Tic-Tac-Dough,” winning $312,700 worth of prizes, including eight cars, three sailboats and 16 vacations.

But the “Jeopardy!” winning streak that Jennings started in the summer of 2004 is easily the single-greatest achievement in the history of game shows. Because Ken Jennings transcended the world of traditional game show fans. He made arcane knowledge a daily topic of conversation. 

In all my years watching game shows, I’d never seen anyone like Ken Jennings. He was polite but confident. He was funny, too, in smart, subtle ways. He once buzzed in on a clue about the Oscar-winning Tom Cruise- Dustin Hoffman movie, for example, and answered in the style of the titular character: “What is ‘Rain Man’? Definitely. Definitely.”

And day after day he dominated his opponents in a way that had never been done. He’d sweep through entire categories of questions like he was playing alone, leaving his fellow contestants — and all of us at home — absolutely stunned. 

Within a week, he won more than $100,000. After 16-straight games, he was over $500,000. The streak became something people talked about at work, at school, over dinner. Jennings was a regular topic on sports-talk shows: How long can he go? Can anyone beat him? In his 30th game, he broke the $1 million mark. In game 59, he went over $2 million.

Day after day he dominated his opponents in a way that had never been done. He’d sweep through entire categories of questions like he was playing alone, leaving his fellow contestants — and all of us at home — absolutely stunned. 

During his streak, the show’s ratings went up a reported 22%. Jennings has said the streak made him a “TV folk hero.” Slate magazine dubbed him “the Michael Jordan of trivia.” He was a guest on “The Tonight Show” and “The Late Show with David Letterman” and “Live with Regis and Kelly.” Tom Hanks sent him a vintage typewriter. Barbara Walters named him one of the 10 most fascinating people of the year. He was getting recognized on the street, in grocery stores. Excited old ladies would grip his arm so tight they’d leave bruises.

The more we learned about Jennings, the more delightfully geeky he seemed. He was born outside Seattle but grew up in South Korea and Singapore, watching “Jeopardy!” on the Armed Forces Network every day. He’d driven with a friend from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles to try out for the show. He made flash cards to brush up on world capitals and U.S. presidents. A devout Latter-day Saint, Jennings didn’t drink alcohol but we learned that he prepared for the regular “Jeopardy!” category “Potent Potables” by studying cocktail recipes.

See, you didn’t have to be a serious “Jeopardy!” fan to recognize how special Ken Jennings was. And it wasn’t just his insane trivia knowledge. He was lightning fast on the buzzer, ringing in before either of his two opponents more than 60% of the time.

He also played with a clear, distinct strategy. When Jennings uncovered a Daily Double — rare opportunities when a contestant can wager up to all the money he or she has made to that point — he eschewed the traditional, conservative approach, often betting enough to put his score out of reach of his opponents long before the final question.

“Jeopardy!” contestant Ken Jennings, who won a record 74 consecutive games, cracks his knuckles before starting a practice match against another “Jeopardy!” champion and an IBM computer called “Watson” in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011. | Seth Wenig, Associated Press

Jennings wasn’t always right, but he was right more than 80% of the time. Watching him was almost like watching a superhero show. You knew he’d win in the end, it was just a matter of seeing how.

As Ken Jennings was captivating America with his knowledge, I had just graduated from college with an English degree. I got a soulless job doing research for a law firm — and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Every day felt like a small existential crisis. But every afternoon, from summer through fall and into that winter, I could watch a man who seemed to have all the answers.

His 75th game started like most of his other games. Jennings jumped out to a fast, large lead. By the end of the first round, he had more than double the scores of his two opponents combined. He knew the George W. Bush Cabinet member who lost his 2000 Senate race to a man who died a month before the election (John Ashcroft) and the only state Walter Mondale won in the 1984 presidential election (Minnesota) and the monarch who, in 1936, said, “A few hours ago I discharged my last duty as king” (Edward VIII).

In the second round, Jennings started to pile on, correctly answering seven of the first 14 questions before hitting a Daily Double — which he got wrong. He didn’t know the town in Belgium that Patton’s forces relieved on Dec. 26, 1944 (Bastogne). Then a few questions later Jennings found another Daily Double — and got that one wrong, too, something that almost never happened. This time he didn’t know the name of the brimless hat popular in the 1920s (a cloche).

Jennings still had a $4,000 lead going into Final Jeopardy. The clue was: “Most of this firm’s 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year.” His opponent, Nancy Zerg, wrote down the correct response: “H&R Block.”

In video of that episode, you can tell that Jennings knows it’s over before anyone else in the room. He’d written down “FedEx.” As his answer was revealed, the audience gasped. Nancy Zerg looked shocked, confused. Jennings turned to shake her hand. In true Ken Jennings form, he’d answered 29 questions correctly to Zerg’s 10, but “Jeopardy!” is “Jeopardy!”

In the 74 games he won, Jennings took home $2.52 million, smashing the record for total game show winnings. At the end of that episode, Trebek took a moment to honor Jennings. The audience gave a standing ovation. Jennings smiled politely.

I still feel a twist in my chest when I see clips from that day. 

Jennings didn’t go away. He returned for the show’s Tournament of Champions. Then he came back to battle the IBM supercomputer Watson — which did to Ken Jennings what Ken Jennings had done to so many other people. This, of course, is the future of factoids. You might save time by knowing the first King of Iceland (Haakon IV), but that knowledge is available to anyone, thanks to the supercomputers we hold in our hands. Unless you’re a game show contestant or avid crossword enthusiast, these facts have always been useless, the skill always superfluous. Now though, they’re even more so.

Since Jennings, the show has had a few other memorable champions, many of whom followed and expanded on the strategies Jennings employed during his run. His single-day earnings record was broken, as was his overall earnings record, but nobody has even come close to his 74-straight wins. The next best is 32.

Jennings started writing books. “Brainiac” is part memoir, recounting his journey from anonymous computer programmer to know-it-all icon, and part exploration of trivia itself: the inane factoid’s history and place in our society. Life is full of complicated decisions, he reasons, all of which require the mastery of a lot of facts. Even if anyone can look those facts up, the people with a broad foundation of knowledge have a head start.

How did Ken Jennings do in his first ‘Jeopardy!’ game as host?
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In addition to his books and lectures, he’s built a large, dedicated following on Twitter, delivering wry observations and geeky jokes. As Jennings became the temporary replacement for Trebek, his social media history started getting more scrutiny. Before his first show as host aired, Jennings apologized for offensive tweets from his past, including one that disparaged people with disabilities.

“Sometimes I said dumb things in a dumb way and I want to apologize to people who were (rightfully!) offended,” he tweeted. “I screwed up, and I’m truly sorry.”

The first time he took the stage as guest host, he started the show with a tribute to Trebek. 

“Sharing this stage with Alex Trebek was one of the greatest honors in my life,” he said. “Like all ‘Jeopardy!’ fans, I miss Alex, very much. And I thank him for everything he did for all of us. Let’s be totally clear, nobody will ever replace the great Alex Trebek, but we can honor him by playing the game he loved.”

Jennings, the man who grew up obsessed with “Jeopardy!” and later became the game’s greatest player, turned out to be a good host of the show, too. He mostly mimics the style and mannerisms of Trebek, someone he had studied up close, from the same stage, for longer than anyone else. Judging by the comments on social media, other fans of “Jeopardy!” like Jennings, too.

I’ve been a full-time journalist for more than a decade now, still trying to impress my mother by attempting to answer questions and recite facts. I don’t get to watch “Jeopardy!” as much as I’d like, but I still tune in whenever I get a chance. I noticed that at the end of every episode, Jennings turns to the camera and says solemnly: “Thank you, Alex.”

Jennings has become more than a trivia king, more than a game show celebrity. Over the last two decades, he’s become an advocate for facts, the face of a part of the universe where something is either right or wrong, correct or incorrect — at a time when that’s not always such a simple thing. As someone who deals with facts for a living, I truly appreciate it.

And one day, Ken Jennings himself will be the answer to a trivia question. Or maybe he’ll be the question: This former software engineer turned his love of trivia into a career and became a hero to factoid lovers everywhere.

Michael J. Mooney is a New York Times bestselling author. He writes for ESPN, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, GQ, and Popular Mechanics. His stories have appeared in multiple editions of The Best American Sports Writing and The Best American Crime Reporting.

This story appears in the March issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.