Daily Double Dynasty
April 29, 2005
Salt Lake Magazine
by Chad Nielsen
Ken Jennings owns the podium. He glances sideways at his opponents and cocks his eggish head before writing his answer. Really leaning into it. Driving the pen home like the sword of truth that it is. It's just a publicity gig at Westminster College, but his casual air can't hold back the will to win. Imagine the headlines: Jeopardy! champion loses trivia contest to giddy college senior. His answer is on the overhead: Who is Frederick the Great? That is correct. The audience glows with approval, and relief warms Jennings' face, at least until the next question.
Call it a warm-up. The Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions is coming up, with a chance for Jennings to pad the $2.5 million he already bagged in 75 consecutive appearances on the show last year. In a three-day points match to be aired May 23-25, Jennings will face the two finalists, with $2 million on the line. If you've only got 15 minutes of fame, what a way to beat the buzzer.
Since his reign came to an end on November 30, 2004-he still can't say "H&R Block," the answer to the question he missed, without grimacing-Jennings' life has been a flurry of media appearances. Late Night with David Letterman, Barbara Walters, Nightline. In high gloss in Esquire and Vanity Fair. Hawking call plans on Cingular commercials. One morning over breakfast he caught himself on Good Morning America. "I'm at home eating cereal in my shorts and Diane Sawyer knows my name," he says, incredulous. "I sort of disassociate it. I separate myself from the public person-the one they're talking about."
But Ken Jennings is exactly who they're talking about on this wintry night at Westminster. The crowd descends onto campus like acolytes looking for a prophet: celebrity idolaters, game show groupies, grandparents of gifted children, and more than one aspiring trivia genius. They scoot across the quad like ants, looking for a crack to file into, and filling two auditoriums.
Jennings is "an unusual television star," says the presenter-not just because he looks the part of his day job as a software engineer, but "because Ken Jennings has actually become famous for being smart." Yes, even professors at this liberal arts college-an institution devoted to reason, judgment, and critical thinking-are gaga over a guy who remembers lots of stuff. The oracle of the Information Age imparts neither wisdom nor prophecy, but funny little random facts. Buzz Aldrin's mother's maiden name was Moon. Utah is the only state with an official cooking pot. Opossums have 13 nipples.
Sporting a lime-green shirt and pleated khakis, the 30-year-old Murray resident defends his new profession. "I think there is value in trivia," Jennings says. "I know what you're thinking: That's easy for me to say." The crowd titters at his jokes like a gaggle of teenage girls on a group date with Ryan Seacrest. He basks in their approval, waxing expansive on stories of his life as a bookworm, indulging in self-deprecating one-liners about how he was "too dumb"-wink, wink-to know the difference.
Random facts, he says, can get you interested in a new subject. And they're a great way to break the ice at cocktail parties. But for Jennings, a confessed information junkie, they mean so much more: "If I find out about a subject or something about which I realize I know nothing, it sort of taunts me, you know?"
"I have the idea that the great renaissance men of the past-you know, Benjamin Franklin or Leonardo da Vinci or whoever-they knew everything," he says. Of course, that's an unfair comparison. "Because there was less to know. Sure, Ben Franklin mastered every subject available, but in the late 18th century, how much did he have to know about computer science or movies of the 1970s or disco music?"
Later, Jennings faces off against Westminster senior Pepper Hayes and Professor David Goldsmith-himself a former College Jeopardy! contestant-in a friendly match. What is transcendentalism? What are the Carpathians? Who is Sir Walter Raleigh?
Of course, the champ wins, proving again his phenomenal powers of recall. After the show, out of the spotlight, a deflated Goldsmith throws a gentle jab at his celebrity opponent: Read about Bloom's Taxonomy, he says. In that breakdown of the hierarchy of cognitive capacities, the categories include comprehension, analysis, synthesis, application, and evaluation. Recalling random facts is ranked dead last. What is intellectual envy?