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 triviahalloffame.com, 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.
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
(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.
Updated May 2005