So I had a great time at the 30th anniversary Jeopardy! tournament that just wrapped up. Such a pleasure just to spend the day with Jeopardy! elite like Brad, Roger, Chuck, Pam, Colby, et al, not to mention getting to play some of them as well. It only happens once in a great many years, so I try to enjoy when I can.
The brain-hiccup on the final question that lost me the million wasn’t my favorite moment, obviously, but there was something even worse to come: filling out the questionnaire for the Jeopardy! press release! But my loss is your gain, because here are my answers, roughly zero percent of which probably made the actual press release.
Please confirm your full name, age, occupation and hometown (originally from and current location if you have moved to a different city, town, state, etc)
Kenneth Wayne Jennings III, 39, writer, Seattle (“Salt Lake City” when I was first on)
Ken, how did it feel to step back onto the Jeopardy! stage and to hear Johnny Gilbert announce your name again?
It’s funny–I was really nervous that morning and even when Johnny Gilbert was doing the intros, but then during the game it was just like riding a bike, I picked it right up. “Oh yeah, this thing. I remember this, this is fun!”
Since we last spoke from our telephone interview – did you end up studying or doing anything special to prepare for this main competition?
I brushed up on a few things I was rusty on, like presidential dates and classical composers. Mostly I just started watching the show at home VERY seriously, trying to really get inside Alex’s timing and rhythm.
Regarding strategy: did you have one coming into this competition or did your strategy change as you started to advance in the tournament, especially during the finals with Brad and Roger?
Strategy has to change in different rounds of a tournament like this one. Early on I wanted to get out of the gate so strong that opponents would never get on their games. Big Daily Doubles wagers, that kind of thing. But in a final against players like Brad and Roger, all bets are off. The buzzer timing that beats everyone else won’t beat them, so you have to tighten up. You can’t count on being the only one in on the hardest clues. You’re really just scrambling and hoping you survive.
Two things I noticed about both you and Brad is how quick you two are with the signaling device and when it comes to the Daily Doubles, you both bet huge $$ amounts. Can you explain a little bit about both – for example, do you practice buzzing in? Do you get nervous betting such a huge $$ amount during the Daily Doubles?
It’s nerve-wracking to bet big on Daily Doubles, so you rarely see it on the show unless someone is trying to catch up from second or third. But even if it’s stressful, going big is usually the right play. Daily Doubles are typically much easier than Final Jeopardy, so you’re choosing: do I want the game to be decided by this clue, or the hard one at the end? I do practice buzzing when I watch the show at home, just trying to get Alex’s timing into my system so that it’s almost unconscious. When I’m on set and I have to stop and think about the buzzer, things go badly. It’s a Zen thing, I can only do it when I’m not thinking about it.
How did it feel to win your first Jeopardy! quarter-final match against Rachael Schwartz and Tom Cubbage?
I felt like I dodged a bullet by getting some breaks. I found a Daily Double that I didn’t know, but it came so early that I didn’t lose much. Rachael, and not Tom (who could have caught me) found the second one–which I also might have missed, I think. Then I had to bet big on the third one and the answer came to me at the last minute. Once the Daily Doubles were gone I remember feeling so relaxed, like “Okay, now we can just play Jeopardy.” Technically that game was a runaway but it felt pretty close to me. Tom and Rachael are the real deal.
Ken, what impressed me the most about you throughout this tournament was in the category “INITIALS TO ROMAN NUMERALS TO NUMBERS.” I mean mere mortals like me – I didn’t even understand the category to let alone guess the correct response! I believe even other Decades contestants who were watching your match were equally impressed. I mean you swept that whole category! This category came so easily to you…please explain.
I always liked word games and stuff like that as a kid. My dad and I used to do the “Jumble” in the evening paper when he got home from work, I remember that. To this day I do an occasional crossword and sometimes design puzzles for magazines. So I’ve always liked Jeopardy! categories where you have to figure out a set of rules. It’s just a puzzle and the puzzle is the category. Solve the puzzle and the clues are almost automatic. Also I like these categories because I know Watson sucks at them.
How did it feel to win your semi-final match against Chuck Forrest and Russ Schumacher? Because, after you missed on a Daily Double question, it ended up to be a very close game between you and Chuck. I believe I was on the edge of my seat to see what would happen next in the Final Jeopardy! round.
After that early lead at the second commercial, I remember being really relieved. Good, I don’t have to worry about losing on a hard Final! Then there was that Daily Double where I had a 50/50 choice and guessed the wrong Antarctic explorer, and then Chuck found his buzzer timing in Double Jeopardy. That guy is amazing, unstoppable in 1985 (!) and he can still turn it on. That would be like Jimmy Connors coming back to tennis today and making a run at the US Open. Chuck is ageless.
What were you feeling/thinking when you realized that you will be competing against Brad (which I believe for the 3rd time in a tournament setting – besides UTOC and Watson) and Roger during the 2-day finals?
In my head, that was the nightmare match-up, the hardest possible final. Roger’s very dangerous because he’ll bet so big that he can blow out anybody, no matter how good, if he gets some breaks. Brad is Brad: a Jedi on the buzzer, and the best Final Jeopardy player I’ve ever seen. Never loses his cool in Final. I couldn’t believe nobody had knocked off one of those guys for me. I’m sure they were thinking the same thing about me.
I know viewers are going to be very excited to see you and Brad compete against each other, however what viewers don’t see is how well you two get along off camera. Can you describe your relationship? I believe you guys follow each other on Twitter and possibly Facebook? And how did you get along with the rest of the Decades contestants?
I had so much fun at the Decades tournament because, believe it or not, it was my first time getting the whole Jeopardy tourney ride and hanging out with the other players all day. They are just exceptional people. There’s a million bucks on the line and you keep expecting SOMEONE to be a jerk, but then everyone is so nice. It almost restores your faith in humankind. Brad and I in particular have been through the Jeopardy! wringer together before and have bonded. It’s weird because we’re sort of different (I’m a boring suburban dad in Seattle who hates L.A., Brad enjoys the debauched single L.A. lifestyle made popular by TV’s Entourage) but on a Jeopardy! set we are the same guy: we love playing the game more than anything else, win or lose. He’s a class act.
What were you feeling or thinking during your 2-day finals? I know during the Final Jeopardy! portion of day-two of the finals – there was a lot of strategy & calculation involved, especially between you and Brad. What went into your betting strategy? And will the Final Jeopardy! clue regarding “Secretaries of State” haunt you?
By the end of the second game, it was a mad scramble. I didn’t even know until I started crunching numbers during the break that I had the math advantage going into Final. That final will haunt me, because it’s the first time I’ve ever lost a tight game like that on a question I feel I should have known, which is a tough way to lose. It took me a few seconds too long to come up with James Buchanan, and then I rushed the math on the second part…knew it must be one of the women, picked the wrong one. Brad’s so good that you don’t get too many chances like that…I had him where I wanted him and I let him slip away! The guy’s got nine lives.
With your $100,000 cash prize – you have now accumulated approximately $3,270,700! And your 74-game record will most likely never be defeated. How does that feel? And what are you going to do with the $100,000?
It’s easy to say when you’ve already won the money, but I can honestly say I have never once thought about the money while I was playing Jeopardy! It’s all about the game, seeing what you can do out there, and I’d play for car-wash coupons, honestly.
What did you do to celebrate after your Decades win – besides attending the J! after party?
Feel free to send this one to Brad. Actually, I know where he was: sitting in the hotel lobby shooting the Jeopardy! bull with me and the rest of the runners-up and putting their drinks on his tab. Like I say, class act.
Did any particular category give you a hard time or vice versa? And, how much more difficult was the game material during this competition?
These were very difficult boards, especially the two-day final. I remember just being exhausted at the end of the day, when back in 2004 I would get done with game 5 and still be so amped, like “Let’s do five more!” But maybe that’s just me getting old. The hardest category was probably one about popes where I think I legitimately knew, like, one of five. Yikes. When I was growing up, we didn’t have a COOL pope like you kids have today.
What was the highlight or your favorite moment during the Decades tournament?
Weirdly, it was probably about midway through my very first game, when I knew I had it locked up. It was my first time playing real (non-Watson) Jeopardy! in almost a decade, and I’m older now. Also I was the only person there never to play in a Tournament of Champions, so I always sort of wondered if I could play my game against really elite players. This isn’t false modesty, I genuinely didn’t know, because I’d never tried. But ten minutes into that game, I remember thinking, “Win or lose, I know I can play at this level now.”
How did it feel to face Alex Trebek face-to-face all over again?
Back in 2004, Alex was an enigma to me. I often wondered if he liked me or if he was sick of me not getting off his set. (He was always perfectly polite, this was just me projecting.) But when I come back now, I feel like it’s a warm welcome from Alex, which is a real honor. He always seems genuinely glad to have me back, like it’s a real highlight for him. I guess what I’m saying is I have a little crush on Alex. Did you ask him this same question? Wait, what did he say? Tell me exactly what he said.
How do you think your family members, friends and your hometown of Seattle will react to your success on the show?
I had a lot of family in-studio that day and they were so excited. Despite the tough loss in the final, they really had a great time. I imagine they were fondly reliving their own memories of the first time I was on the show. I know I was. Then when the games aired, people on social media seemed so excited to have me back, like it was real event television for them, even ten years later. Twitter blew up. It might sound weird, but I was really touched by that.
How did it feel to have your son in the studio audience watching you play in the Decades tournament? I’m assuming your son will want to tryout one day as an adult? I remember you mentioning it to Alex that he wants to tryout as an adult – not during Kids Week or etc.
My 11-year-old was in the studio audience and he was so excited. It was bigger than Disneyland for him. He was too little to remember my first go-around on the show and I’m glad he got a second chance to make some Jeopardy! memories. Will he ever go on the show? He talks very seriously about it. I hope he knows that it’s not like being King of England, he doesn’t get to do it just because his dad did. He better study up.
Any advice to future J! contestants on how to be a successful J! player?
The main thing, which no one ever talks about, it to have fun with it. I’ve won on Jeopardy! and I’ve lost on Jeopardy! and winning is better, but any time you’re on that show, it’s a blast. So if you’ve been thinking about trying out for Jeopardy! (a) you should totally do it, and (b) don’t get all caught up in winning or losing, but just enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime experience of it. It’s a great ride. If you’re loose and having fun, you will also play so much better.
Please confirm your major(s)/minor(s), degree(s) and where you went to school once more.
University of Washington and Brigham Young, double major, BS in Computer Science, BA in English
A fun question for you – if you ever end up competing against Brad Rutter again in another tournament – what should it be called?
“In the Gutter with Rutter.” Brad and I play a vicious two-man game of street Jeopardy! around the clock until one of us collapses. Anything goes. The loser must retire from game shows forever. Terry Crews hosts. (TV-MA)
Why do you think Jeopardy! matters?
Jeopardy! matters because it’s such a ritual for millions of people. I mean, it’s nice that there’s still such a smart show on the air and kids get to see people succeed for knowing things, blah blah blah. But the REAL value of Jeopardy! is the families that watch it together every day, the people who plan their evening around it. It’s their little tradition. You can’t put a price on having some little thing like that in your day, when everything else is so unpredictable. It’s a constant in their lives, they know it so well. How many other things from 30 or 50 years ago are still around unchanged in our culture? Almost nothing.
Any fun facts or hobbies you can tell me about that would be interesting to include in the release? A hidden talent? Etc.
A secret about me: I make my living as a writer but you can get me to knock out almost 2,000 words for free if you call them “press release questions.”