What Happened To 'Jeopardy' Champ Ken Jennings?

by Lulu Chang

10 years ago, Jeopardy! was monopolized by one man, and one man only — that man was not silver fox, Alex Trebek. Rather, it was Washington-born Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings, a then 30-year-old computer scientist living in Utah, who captured the hearts and minds of viewers everywhere. His 74 consecutive game-winning streak resulted in a grand total of $2,520,700, which was later increased by further appearances on the show. But Jennings is much more than an expert asker of "What is x?"

Now, everyone knows about Jennings' phenomenal trivia abilities, but there are a few lesser-known tidbits about his time on the show, his time before the show, and his time since the show. Though he was born in Edmonds, Washington, Jennings spent most of his formative years in Seoul, South Korea and then Singapore. Jennings later attended the University of Washington and Brigham Young University, where he was a member of the school's quizbowl team, heralding his later fame and success as a quizbowl champion. Let's answer the questions you've always had about the man, the mystery, the Jeopardy! machine. Prepare to be amazed.

So Jennings' big claim to fame is winning Jeopardy! like a billion times, right?

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Well, not quite a billion, but many, many times. He won 74 consecutive games in 2004, and then returned for J eopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions, in which he won second place, Jeopardy Battle of the Decades, in which he won first place, and the IBM challenge, in which he competed against Watson the Computer. Unfortunately, not even Ken Jennings can outsmart a machine.

Was it easy for him?

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Well, we don't know how easy it was (probably not very — we definitely couldn't do it), but Jennings had a little-known difficulty in his first episode ever. Jennings' first appearance on Jeopardy! aired on June 2, 2004, and it might have been his last had it not been for the kindness of Mr. Trebek. The "Final Jeopardy" clue was, "She’s the first female track & field athlete to win medals in 5 different events at a single Olympics."

Jennings responded, "Who is Jones?" meaning Marion Jones. Trebek accepted the answer, saying "In terms of female athletes, there aren't that many." Had Jennings answer been deemed insufficiently specific, however, his competitor would have won, and the world would have been deprived of one of the most exciting game show runs in history.

How did he lose??

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Ah yes, a question we have asked many times. Jennings' unlucky 75th appearance ended his incredible winning streak, and it was all FedEx's fault. Well, only in the sense that Jennings answered "What is FedEx?" when the question should have been "What is H&R Block?" The clue that did him in was in the Business & Industry category, and read, "Most of this firm's 70,000 seasonal white collar employees work only four months a year."

His competitor, Nancy Zerg, answered correctly, and gained a $1 edge over Jennings, who then answered incorrectly, losing to Zerg. In his 75 episodes on the show, Jennings had more than double the next closest competitor's sum 65 times. That's right, in only 10 episodes ever was Jennings beatable going into Final Jeopardy. That must've been disheartening.

Did Nancy Zerg go on to have a super streak like Jennings?

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Unfortunately not. Zerg came in third place the very next episode, but still holds the distinct title of being the woman who displaced Ken Jennings from his throne.

Did Jennings ever compete on any other show?

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Why yes he did! And it was these other appearances that landed him the title of highest earning American gameshow competitor. He twice appeared on 1 vs. 100, appeared once on Grand Slam, winning the show and taking home $100,000, and finally, competed in Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? As it turns out, Jennings is, indeed, smarter than a fifth grader, but he chose not to answer the final million dollar question, as it would have cost him $475,000 of his $500,000 winnings.

As is customary on the show, Jennings was still shown the question, which he answered correctly. Had he gone for broke, Jennings would have been the second millionaire on the show. But despite all these winnings, Jennings says his proudest victory resulted not in a cash payout, but rather in a voicemail recording. In 2008, Jennings answered all three questions on the classic NPR program, Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me correctly, which won him Carl Kassell's voice on his answering machine. Said Jennings, "This is the proudest moment of my gameshow life."

Shouldn't Jennings be like a lifeline or something?

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Funny you should ask! That's exactly what Jennings was on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Jennings is more than a gameshow competitor — he's also a gameshow helper. The "Ask The Expert" lifeline on Millionaire often featured Jennings, and he was also part of such shows as GSN's Stump the Master and Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!

So what's Jennings done outside of the gameshow world?

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Oh, you know, this and that, written several books, had another kid (he has one boy and one girl!), got a boardgame named after him, the usual. Besides publishing four more "adult" books, concerning topics like geography, trivia, and the things parents tell their kids, Jennings has also authored a children's series entitled the Junior Genius Guides. To date, there have been three published, and we anticipate many more.

Jennings also writes an almost-weekly trivia puzzle entitled "Kennections" in Parade , a popular Sunday magazine. Jennings is also a regular contributor to Slate, writing a quiz on past week's events consisting of 12 multiple-choice questions. But don't think you can guess your way into a right answer — after all, this is Ken Jennings we're talking about.