Ken Jennings


December 8, 2014

Here’s an actual photo of me taking care of today’s most important business: preparing holiday gifts for friends and loved ones!


I always wear my favorite sweater for this, as you can see.

Quick reminder that signed and personalized copies of all my books are available from Seattle’s Third Place Books. What a delightful surprise under the tree! If an autographed BOOK BY ME would help with your holiday shopping list, shoot Third Place an email at with the details. But act quickly! Only 16 more shopping days until Christmas.

Posted by Ken at 12:58 pm     

December 1, 2014

Over on the message boards, a reader called ore read last week’s post about estimating the number of people you know using one of America’s most disgustingly ubiquitous resources: people named Mike. He or she has a concern:

One weakness of this method is that the people you know are not a random sample of the US population. For example, the people you know may (or may not) be disproportionately Utahn, college-educated, within about 10 years of your age, etc. If Michaels are more common in those groups, then a higher proportion of people you know are likely to be named Michael.

Yes! I was going to get into this in the post and didn’t for time/laziness reasons.

I’ve lived all over the U.S. and grew up overseas, so in my case the most problematic variables are probably not geographic: they are generational and racial. The 11.6/1000 “Michael ratio” is an American average, so I should expect my number to be higher if I’m not in a group that knows an unusually low number of Michaels. I imagine these people are in two groups:

1. Old folks (who mostly know or knew other old folks). Michael was not a popular name for non-Irish-Americans until the post-World War II “baby boom.”
2. Latino Americans (who mostly know or knew other Latinos). Michael is not a Hispanic name, so you’d expect many Latinos to know more Robertos (for example) than I do and fewer Michaels.

But are there cohorts with an unusually high Mike rate that might balance these out? White Catholics? African-Americans? I’m skeptical that there’s a meaningfully high-Michael-acquainted generation, since so many of the Mikes on my own list are either a generation older or younger than me. Our peer group tends to be a bell curve surrounding our own age, of course, but a pretty gradual one for must of us.

Suggestions welcome if you know a good way to estimate the result these intervening effects would have on my non-Latino, Gen-X numbers.

Update: my phone list is up to 33 Michaels I have known socially or professionally. Maybe this should be a contest.

Posted by Ken at 12:24 pm     

November 23, 2014

This article I saw last week on estimated that 11.6 out of every 1,000 Americans are named Michael. That’s considerably more than any other first name, the runners-up being James (10.2 per 1,000) and John (9.7 per 1,000).

The first thing I thought of when I saw this article: if I can calculate how many Michaels I know personally, I can figure out how many total people I know! (I have no idea how meaningful this metric actually is. Feel free to chime in here, statisticians.) I’ve been keeping a list on my phone for the last week, and have managed to remember 23 different Michaels. So far. Third-grade classmates, old bosses, uncles, in-laws, neighbors.

If that number holds, I know about 2,000 people. Counting Michaels was much easier than counting everyone. It’s the Michael Method.

Posted by Ken at 7:32 pm     

November 13, 2014

WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE, REGIS PHILBINHere we go, at the last minute, and mostly because I’m feeling very guilty about deserting this blog for Twitter most of the time: I’m going to be on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire tomorrow, Friday! It’s a special Guinness record-holder week and they invited me on their show on the basis of some game show-related record I notched on Jeopardy! back in the day. I have dreamed of being on Millionaire since back in 1999 when I used to call the phone line every evening after work. It took fifteen years but it’s all happening!

I know what you want to ask, and I probably shouldn’t spill in advance, but okay, here goes. Terry Crews smells so nice.

BuzzerBlog just put up an interview with me (and a very pained-looking picture of me). Seriously, Millionaire, that was the best photo? We took so many photos.

Other belated news: my fourth Junior Genius Guide is in bookstores now and it’s my favorite of all of them: Outer Space. I’m such a space nerd that all this stuff came spewing out of me like ice from the cryo-volcanoes of Enceladus. If you know a junior genius, or a space case of any age, please pass one along with my compliments. (I mean compliment them on their good taste and scientific acumen. You still have to pay for the book. (But it’s so cheap! (And beautifully illustrated.)))

Posted by Ken at 8:31 pm     

October 8, 2014

We used to do more picture puzzles on this blog. BRINGING IT BACK.

Here are nine people you may or may not recognize.

one two three

four five six

seven eight nine

The question is: based on what they all have in common, you might not be surprised to learn that all these people in fact live together in the same house. What kind of house would that be?

Edited to add: You can see the answers over on the message boards. Hats off to jbenz for spotting the theme first and Lalock for figuring out the answer.

Posted by Ken at 12:03 pm     

September 17, 2014

This poor neglected blog! We moved houses over the summer and everything’s been chaos. I just got the blog unpacked. It was in the last box.

On the other hand, you didn’t really miss much. Trebek grew the mustache back.

I fulfilled my greatest lifelong dream (sorry Jeopardy!) by appearing on the cover of The Costco Connection magazine.


You can read the whole interview here. Study tips!


I learned that I can’t think and have things thrown at me at the same time! My friend Nephi Thompson and I teamed up for Kno’dgeball at the Trivia Championships of North America last month in Vegas. Kno’dgeball is, as the name sort of but a little infelicitously implies, a combination of trivia and dodgeball played (in this case) in a very tightly restricted hotel conference room. As the father of Kno’dgeball, Bob Harris, has pointed out, it’s amazing how you can get so dumb so fast when things are flying at your head. Unless I go into some serious training, your Grandma could probably beat me at Kno’dgeball.

(TCONA 4 was a blast, by the way…great to see my Jeopardy! frenemy Brad Rutter and so many other quiz luminaries in one place. It’s not too early to get TCONA on your calendar for next year…there’s a discount for early sign-up.)

spacecoverI wrote two more Junior Genius Books! (Well, I’m in the middle of the last one now. HOW WERE THERE SO MANY DINOSAURS.) Outer Space comes out in less than a month! Pre-order now!!!!

Wordplay Wednesday! Geography, shocker. There’s a well-known island whose names is an anagram of a nearby (well, 1,000 miles or so) world capital. What are the island and the city?

Edited to add: at8ax was the first to solve, nicely done.

Posted by Ken at 11:39 am     

July 31, 2014


It’s getting dangerously close to the very last minute to register for TCONA, the Trivia Championships of North America, to be held August 8-10 in sunny Las Vegas! You won’t know it’s sunny. You won’t even go outside. There will be so many different kinds of quiz games going on you’ll barely have time for basic bodily functions.

I will be there! (I have tickets to the Cirque de Soleil Beatles show with my kids.) Brad Rutter will be there! (He likes blackjack and strippers.) Many, many other familiar faces from the world of game shows and trivia will be there! If you have enough of an interest in quiz stuff to be reading this website, you should probably be there too.

Here’s what I said about the first TCONA way back in 2011. (Short version: I said it was a blast.)

Sign up now at the Quizzing North America website. I’ll see you there…don’t forget to come up and say hi at a urinal or something.

Posted by Ken at 9:18 pm     

July 22, 2014

Okay, we are finally back from a month in Spain and Britain that kept me away from the blog pretty efficiently. On the plus side, lots of time in planes and cars meant I got to catch up on some reading. Here’s the full log:

  • The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. Seriocomic account of a fictional kid riding through Kansas and Virginia with abolitionist John Brown. McBride obviously takes great pleasure in the colorful way Americans talked then, or at least they way we would like to believe they did.
  • A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers. I saw Dave Eggers speak a couple months ago and I guess they’re filming this with Tom Hanks? Nice.
  • Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. A DeLillo-like explosion of things happening on both sides of the Atlantic on the same day in 1974 that that French guy tightroped across the World Trade Center.
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s great strength is his insight into the inner workings of a great alien mystery: the minds of little children. Love that this is framed as a memoir, like a couple of his early comics.
  • The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta. What would suburbia be like three years after the Rapture, or something very much like it? Better than the subsequent HBO series.

I can recommend all five of these books unreservedly, but if I had to pick just one it would probably be the Perrotta. We are lucky to have that guy.

Continuing my recent streak of playing literary chronology cop: I noticed an anachronism in the National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin: as her kids watch Sesame Street, a mom and her lover joke about characters like “Elmo” and “Grouchy.” The problem: this conversation is dated specifically as taking place the Thursday before the World Trade Center tightrope act. It’s August 1, 1974. Elmo made his Sesame Street debut using that name over a decade later, in late 1985. He slowly grew into a breakout franchise character over the following decade. Once again: authors of 20th-century historical novels, I beg of you, show me your manuscripts. I can help.

When I got home, I also had two books waiting for me in my mailbox because I liked them very much and wrote cover blurbs for them. Geography nerds (and true-crime nerds, but mostly geography nerds) should definitely read Michael Blanding’s The Map Thief, a profile of Forbes Smiley, the crooked map dealer whose case was mentioned briefly in my book Maphead. And please read Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell at Any Price whether or not you’re interested in old blues 78 records. Believe me, by the time you get done, you will be interested in old blues 78 records. At least a little.

Posted by Ken at 12:31 pm     

June 30, 2014

Hey! I finally got ten seconds to breathe and decided to spend it giving the ol’ blog its annual update. Here’s something new from the Internet this morning: Smithsonian magazine has a section this month about games and play and asked me to put together a little puzzle on the subject. It’s fun!

What about an even littler puzzle? It’s time for an early round of Wordplay Wednesday! I’m traveling this month with my family and this was inspired by a recent visit to a favorite city.

There’s a major world city whose name, when spelled backward, can be split into two words that are both animals. In fact, both are cold-blooded little creepy-crawlies that might leave you with a sore finger if you’re not careful around them. What’s the city?

Posted by Ken at 12:54 pm     

May 29, 2014

I saw this chart on the Internet a couple weeks ago, and realized it made a pretty good trivia question if you removed the caption.

What is being graphed here?


Edited to add: Correctly solved by econgator over on the message boards. Linky here.

Posted by Ken at 5:25 pm     

May 24, 2014

I had to fly to New York this week, and that’s a long flight from Seattle, so I got to finally finish some books I started over a month ago.

Both were very good, and I recommend them to your attention if you’re looking for a novel. But I noticed a weird anachronism in both.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: In 1910, a character makes a joke about The House at Pooh Corner, a book that came out in 1928.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. In 1981, a character nicknames her boyfriend “Chia Pet.” Chia Pet wasn’t a widely available brand (i.e. well-known enough to be in the cultural vocab) until 1982 at the earliest, probably later.

I feel like I have a weird talent for this. I have Spider-Sense that goes off if a character in a book or TV show says “It’s all good” five years too early. Publishers should hire me for this. Ken the Kronology Kop.

Posted by Ken at 10:27 am     

May 21, 2014

At long last: the return of Wordplay Wednesday!

What do these words all have in common? Which one doesn’t quite belong?

Edited to add: UNTAPES is the one that doesn’t belong, as eoyount and others explain. Then Bill pointed out that skullturfq came up with the exact same puzzle idea back in 2008! Oops.

Posted by Ken at 11:34 pm     

May 17, 2014

albrightriceSo 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.”

Posted by Ken at 11:58 am     

May 15, 2014

You’re probably already aware, but tonight we begin the long-awaited finals of Jeopardy!‘s 30th anniversary “Battle of the Decades.” There’s a notable lack of upsets among the finalists: Brad Rutter, Roger Craig, and I all won out (though not without suspense). I have to say this surprised the hell out of me. With all the luck that goes into a Jeopardy! win (believe me, I’m speaking from experience here) I thought the results would be a lot less predictable at this level of play.

This was my Jeopardy! tournament cherry (I can’t really count the abbreviated finals of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions or the Watson match) and it was as great as everyone says, just hanging out with everybody, meeting all my favorites from back in the day, etc. It was nice to see for the first time that (a) I could compete against top-level players and (b) I hadn’t lost too much of a step in the ten years since I was first on the show.

The two-game final is a doozie, by the way. Tune in.

But here’s a much more important game of Jeopardy! I got asked last week to host the announcement party for the music lineup at this summer’s Bumbershoot festival here in Seattle. With a little time to kill between the two music acts, I suggested a music-themed game show. We ended up playing a little mock game of Bumbershoot Jeopardy! with three contestants drawn randomly from the crowd. One lucky winner would receive a pair of coveted Platinum Passes to Bumbershoot!


The categories were pretty Seattle-centric, but I still thought you might have fun playing along at home.


The announcement show was called the “Pink and Purple Party” for reasons of both alliteration and branding, which hopefully explains a few things. The “Last Year’s Model” category focuses on the lineup for Bumbershoot 2013. (At the time we played the game, we hadn’t unveiled the video with the 2014 lineup yet.) “Seattle Venues,” a video category, will probably be pretty opaque to non-locals.































No Daily Doubles or Double Bumberdy round. We went straight to Final Bumberdy…in this category!



You have thirty seconds. (Answers for the whole game can be found here, by the way.)

Overall, the game material skewed a little bit rock-snob, so I was worried when I found out the contestants were going to be randomly selected audience members. Through the luck of the draw, one of our three players turned out to be a College Jeopardy! semi-finalist from 2005, who waltzed off with the game. Congrats, Amanda!

Seattle: I’ll see you at Bumbershoot!

Posted by Ken at 2:25 pm     

May 13, 2014

When I was ten or eleven years old, I watched Jeopardy! pretty religiously. The first contestant that ever made me say, “Whoa, wait, who is this guy?” was a law student named Chuck Forrest. He played innovatively (he was the first to consider unorthodox clue selection order for strategic reasons, and his signature move is still called the Forrest Bounce), he played effortlessly, and he was unstoppable.

Before Chuck, the people on the show seemed completely interchangeable to me. He made me want to be a Jeopardy! contestant.

Through one of those weirdnesses of life, I got to play Chuck on Jeopardy! last night and it turns out he is some kind of ageless wizard and still a top-notch Jeopardy! player almost thirty years later. Also: a real funny, genuine guy.

I got him (and co-author Mark Lowenthal!) to sign their book for me backstage before our game.


Lots of great memories from the tournament, but that’s clearly the best souvenir.

Posted by Ken at 10:17 am     

May 7, 2014

jgpresidentsI keep waiting for things to slow down and things keep not slowing down.

First up: the third Junior Genius book is out! It’s “U.S. Presidents” and it’s by far my favorite volume so far. SEE where Nixon hid the microphones! MAKE a log cabin out of a milk carton and two different shapes of pretzel! LEARN which president had a dog named Satan! FORGET any jokes about Clinton being a horndog because my editor removed them!

Here’s a preview. And places to buy it. Kids of all ages welcome.

I wrote this thing for Barnes & Noble’s Nook Blog about the Junior Genius™ way of life.

Also, I’m back on Jeopardy! this week! Yay Battle of the Decades! I got to spend a couple days hanging out with all your favorites: Brad Rutter, Chuck Forrest, Pam Mueller, Roger Craig, Colby Burnett…the gang. My quarterfinal game airs tomorrow, Thursday.

But I myself won’t be watching because I’m hosting the announce party for the Bumbershoot music lineup! Please buy come down to Neumos, Seattleites. (Ticket link.) It’s going to be so fun and we’re going to play some Bumbershoot Jeopardy! But Not Called Jeopardy! For Legal Reasons. Hope you know your stuff, because one lucky winner is getting platinum Bumbershoot passes. Also: Naomi Wachira! Pickwick!

I talked to Seattle Met magazine about Jeopardy!, Bumbershoot, the whole magilla. But I was sort of half-asleep at the time and I’m not 100% sure the interview makes any sense. Let me know!

Posted by Ken at 8:57 pm     

April 24, 2014

Three places to hear me talk about and do things, in chronological order from now until never.

NOW. I talked earlier this week with Myke Hurley for his podcast CMD+Space. It’s mostly Jeopardy! war storires, but I had a lot of fun reminiscing and Myke has a delightful British accent.

SOON. Portland! This week I’m guesting on public radio hit Live Wire! Radio. Saturday night, Alberta Rose Theatre, doors at 6:30, show at 7:30. Also on the bill: Wendi McLendon-Covey, Barbara Ehrenreich, the Minus Five! Come watch.

LATER. Seattle’s Bumbershoot festival has announced the lineup for its Words and Ideas stage, and it turns out I’m on the bill to do some funny stuff with George Meyer, of The Simpsons fame. What is “Needle Party”? WE HAVE NO IDEA. But we vow to figure it out by Labor Day!

Also: this sort of snuck up on me, but the release of the third Junior Genius book is now less than two weeks away! U.S. Presidents! Pre-order now unless you hate America.

Posted by Ken at 4:21 pm     

April 16, 2014

Been traveling for the last couple weeks, so the blog has been dark. Sorry for the inexcusable lapse. This week has been so crazy that Tuesday Trivia was even a few hours later, which never happens. Get it together, Jennings.

This one is fun. “Girlfriend in a Coma” is one of my all-time favorite songs. By changing the first letter in the title–the ‘G’–into the last letter–another ‘a’–and anagramming the result, you can get the title of another classic rock song, this one with a two-word title. What is that hit, which I am 110% sure you will never hear Morrissey cover?

Edited to add: Quickly solved by j. Partial credit for this one goes to one of my favorite Twitter accounts, ANAGRAMATRON.

Posted by Ken at 9:29 pm     

April 2, 2014


(This is something I wrote for the launch of the first two Junior Genius Guides that we never ended up using. The first two are available now, and “Presidents” comes out in a month!)

A couple years ago, I wrote a book about geography nerds, called Maphead. From what I can tell, the book elicited two very different responses from readers. A small but vocal minority would send me mail or seek me out in public to tell me how happy they were to read about other weirdos like me who read maps for pleasure. These reactions usually ended with the sentence, “I thought I was the only one!”

But 99 percent of the response was something along the lines of “Maps? What’s fun about maps?” Usually with pursed, disapproving lips. I learned quickly that the vast majority of us have unpleasant association with maps. These are people who only look at maps when they’re already lost: pulled over at the side of a highway, frantic in an airport parking lot, annoyed to be at the opposite end of the mall from Sbarro. It’s sort of like how Imodium is a wonderful invention, but no one loves looking at a bottle of it. If you’re looking at a bottle of Imodium, your day has already gone terribly, terribly wrong.

I realized that grown-ups were the wrong audience for a book about maps. Famously, Americans suck at geography. Last September, at the height of the tensions with Syria over chemical weapons, a website called UsVsTh3m put up a simple game called “Where’s Damascus.” About half of all guesses were more than 200 miles off the mark. The Department of Defense didn’t do much better; the success rate from Pentagon IP addresses was only about 57 percent. Luckily, no bombs were ever dropped.

Who’s the right audience for a book about geography, then? Children! Kids look at maps and see not headaches but adventure! Little blue lines are rivers to ford or lazily raft down. Steep hachure lines are mountains to climb. The empty expanses of Siberia or the Amazon rainforest: terra incognita to explore.

That’s why I started out my new series of nonfiction kids’ books, the Junior Genius Guides, with a book on Maps and Geography. I have middle-grade kids of my own, and I know how weird their little sponge brains are. Kids can master feats in hours or weeks that take adults years—as you know if you’ve ever called a child over to help you fix the DVR or the iPad.

Some parents leverage this freak mutant ability in oddly specific ways: Mandarin immersion schools, two-hour daily cello lessons. The goal of the Junior Genius Guides, on the other hand, is to turn ten-year-olds into little generalists, interested in everything. The first two volumes, “Maps and Geography” and “Greek Mythology,” are on sale now. There are going to be books on presidents and space and Egypt and dinosaurs and the human body and a bunch of other stuff. The official Junior Genius Slogan comes from Blaise Pascal: “It is much better to know something about everything than everything about something.”

Look: the contestants you see on Jeopardy! every night aren’t Rain Man-style savants. They just happen to be people who are curious about everything. When you’re interested in a subject, it takes no effort at all to remember it in incredible detail. Facts just stick. The amazing thing is that kids come out of the box like that, always asking “why?” about everything. If they outgrow that, it’s out fault, because we were impatient, or didn’t make the answers seem fun.

What’s fun about geography, you ask? What about the goofy time zones of Treriksroysa, Norway, where you can travel back in time four hours just by stepping across the Russian border? Or Batman, Turkey, the city that tried to sue the Batman movies for stealing its name? Or Monaco, a country so small that its national orchestra is bigger than its army? Or Thimpu, Bhutan, the only world capital without traffic lights? (Instead, traffic is directed by the choreography of dancing policemen!) The lesson of geography should be “This planet is a strange and wonderful place! Get out there and find stuff out about it!”

The local morning show hosts and drive-time radio deejays who have interviewed me about the Junior Genius books seem, on the whole, mystified. “Greek mythology? Maps? Why would you write children’s books about boring stuff like that?” But they’re grown-ups, and they’ve just forgotten. Kids can spend hours lost in a book of stories about gods and heroes, or just staring at a map. Do you remember?

Posted by Ken at 4:08 pm     

March 26, 2014

I don’t think I ever posted the cool Spanish cover for Because I Said So!, copies of which I got in the mail a few months ago. It’s called Manual para Padres Quisquillosos–literally, “Manual for Fastidious Parents.” Or Guide for the Persnickety, I guess, in honor of another great thinker who published in Spain.


I never thought this book would make it in foreign markets, because parental harangues and superstitions seem to be so culture-specific. Apparently, they’re more universal than I thought. Ariel, my Spanish publisher, only had to cut a handful of entries that they thought would be incomprehensible to Spaniards.

The illustration has the boy peeing blue, which probably reinforces one of the myths debunked in the book. Ah well.

On another note. Western Washington! I will once again be helping out with the Whatcom Literary Council Trivia Bee this Friday in Bellingham. I’ll be signing book around 6 and the trivia gets underway around 7. It’s always a good time and raises some money for local literacy efforts.

Wordplay Wednesday! Verbs ending with a silent ‘e’ in English typically lose the ‘e’ in the present participle: “live” becomes “living,” “ululate” becomes “ululating.” An exception is often made for words where the ‘e’ is preceded by another vowel: “toeing,” not “toing”; “eyeing,” not “eying.” But as far as I can tell, there is only one verb where Merriam-Webster insists on leaving on the extra ‘e’ before the “-ing” even though it’s preceded by a consonant. What’s the word?

Edited to add: After a few near-misses, Bill got this one first. So far, no one has suggested an alternative.

Posted by Ken at 1:20 pm     

March 21, 2014

wordplayStan Newman and Eric Berlin both sent me copies of a new Penny Press magazine called Will Shortz’s Word Play. Edited (at least in part) by the famed New York Times/NPR puzzle guru, Word Play seems to hearken back to old school “Pencilwise” material from pre-decline Games magazine: specialty word puzzles from top creators. No vanilla crosswords, but plenty of other grid-based stuff and other novelty puzzles. There are a few non-word games (nonograms, some spatial/maze/sudoku stuff) but for the most part it’s word stuff by big names (Patrick Berry, Brendan Emmett Quigley, Francis Heaney, etc.) Based on the first issue, definitely worth a look.

And map nerds may want to bookmark this “Comic Cartography” Tumblr, which features maps of all things comics, from Metropolis to Asgard to Beanworld to Obamacare.

Have a great weekend, my friends. Stay thirsty. (For “marching bands” variety crosswords and maps of Asgard.)

Posted by Ken at 5:01 pm     

March 17, 2014

Do you live in the great city of Seattle or surrounding environs? If so, take note of the following events.

This Thursday, March 20, I’m participating in “Film Court” at Central Cinema. Specifically, I am prosecuting Forrest Gump for crimes against humanity. It’s time to end the suffering. Local funny guy Doug Willott will be defending this travesty of an embarrassment of a movie for reasons known only to him. Should be a good time. Show starts at 8pm. Buy your tickets now and join the jury. Stupid is as stupid does, and I intend to prove it.

Then the next night, Friday, March 21, I’m guesting on Jackie Kashian’s awesome Dork Forest podcast, live from the Rendezvous at 6pm. Tickets on sale now. Which of my dorky obsessions should I drone on about? 1980s pro wrestling? Little Lulu comics? The Dewey Decimal System? Orphan Black? Come find out.

Posted by Ken at 8:35 pm     

March 12, 2014

I don’t think I ever linked to this goofy “Are You Smarter than Ken Jennings?” BuzzFeed quiz from last week. They took fifteen questions I got wrong on Jeopardy! back in the day and turned them multiple-choice. Beat my score of zero and you are smarter than Ken Jennings! Even if you flunk, you get a reassuring “You are just as smart as Ken Jennings!” message.

For the record, I am smarter than Ken Jennings, having gone for 15-for-15 on the BuzzFeed challenge. Nothing to cement a fact in your mind for all time like getting it wrong on national television!

Wordplay Wednesday! There are four U.S. states whose names rhyme with the name of a world nation. As a hint: two of the states also rhyme with each other, so there are really only three “rhyme sounds” to come up with.

Can you name all three rhymes? Ground rules:

  1. Rhymes must be exact, according to the first listed pronunciation in Merriam-Webster’s Geographical Dictionary.
  2. Rhymes must go back to the first stressed syllable. “Tennessee” doesn’t rhyme with “Haiti,” because it’s “HAY-tee,” not “hay-TEE.” “Wisconsin” doesn’t rhyme with “Benin”; an exact rhyme for “Wisconsin” would have to end in “-onsin.”
  3. Normal brief English country names. “France” with a short ‘a’, not “La Fraaance” or “French Republic.”
  4. No trivial cases. “New Mexico” does not rhyme with “Mexico.” “Georgia” does not rhyme with “Georgia.”

Edited to add: Answers (and some near misses!) in this thread.

Posted by Ken at 2:12 pm     

March 11, 2014

smithsonianmarchJeopardy! turns fifty this year, and the Trebek version turns thirty. (I’ll be back on the show in a few weeks for my turn in the “Decades” tournament, observing the big event.) I was asked to write about Jeopardy!‘s birthday in this month’s Smithsonian magazine, and took the opportunity to speak with Julann Griffin, who dreamed up the game with her then-husband Merv back in 1963. She’s now eighty-four — and still inventing games. (She also bakes a mean pumpkin bread.)

Ken Jennings: Where did I reach you today, Julann?

Julann Griffin: I have a plantation in Virginia. It sounds more elegant than it is. It’s over two hundred years old. I love it. But it’s a simple plantation, with the bricks made on the property and things like that. I love it.

KJ: And you were actually pulling a pie out of the oven when I called? That seems so Southern and perfect.

JG: Well, I was actually putting it in. I’ve got to watch it.

KJ: Is it in fact a pie?

JG: No, it’s pumpkin bread.

KJ: I’m sure you’ve had people ask you about Jeopardy! over the years, but since you were there when the whole thing started, I’d love to hear about the fateful first conversation that led to Jeopardy! Do you remember that?

JG: Oh, I do. I do. Merv and I were coming back from my folks’ place in Ironwood, Michigan and we were going to our home in New York and he pulled out a paper with some clips and notes and things on it. And I said, “What is that, another game show?” and he said, “Yeah.” And I said, “I’m getting so tired of these game shows with people jumping around and doing pantomimes and acting like fools. What happened to the knowledge-based games?” And he said, “You know, since The $64,000 Question, the network won’t let you do those anymore, because they suspect you of giving them the answers.” So I said, “Why don’t you give them the answers and make people come up with the questions?” And he said. “Like what?” I said, “Okay, the answer is ’5,280.’” He said, “The question is ‘How many feet in a mile?’” I say, “The answer is ’52 Wistful Vista.’” He says, “The question is, ‘Where did Fibber McGee and Molly live?’” I don’t know if you know about Fibber McGee. Of course you do, you know everything. Fiber McGee and Molly was a radio show and they lived at 52 Wistful Vista and evey time they opened the closet everything fell out for about five minutes.

I said, “Okay, the answer is ‘Kathy Fiscus’?” and he said, “What is the name of the little girl that fell in the well in the 1940s?’” It was a big event because it was on radio and people stayed up and listened to see if she was being saved. She wasn’t, incidentally. But it was one of those stories of the little girl who fell in the well. So anythow, we kept going and I kept throwing him answers and he kept coming up with questions. And by the time we landed the plane, we had an idea for a show.

KJ: All on the airplane?

JG: It was just coming back form a visit to my parents. He was very good about that. We went up to see his mother and his relatives and my parents all the time. He was very into games and I wasn’t, which is interesting, because now I have a company I just started and I do games on the Internet. Anyhow, that’s a long story. He was interested in doing games. I wasn’t, but my sisters were. They used to play games with him. And for some reason or other, because I used to do the cooking and the knitting and sitting in the background, I would see what would happen with these games, so I could see the structure better than they could, because I wasn’t trying. So everything turned into a game. Even when he was late for dinner, I would talk into the eggbeater, you know, and do a game show in the kitchen.

Anyhow, that’s how it started. Well, after that he went right down to his office, got the guys working on it, building some sets, which I helped him build, and then they had meetings at the house and I’d cook the dinner and come in and out, you know. I did all the “wifely” work. That’s the story of those days, you know. The wife was the one who stayed in the kitchen. The men were the ones who did the games.

KJ: So they were all sitting around your dining room table spitballing early Jeopardy! games?

JG: Yes. And then my sisters Sally and Maureen, they did writing when the show originally went on. A lot of the writing. Then they got some really good writers too. When we first went to NBC with the idea, they said it was too difficult, so we had to dumb it down a little so the big men at NBC could play it.

KJ: It was obviously a very smart show when it went on the air. Was that the easier version, or did it get bulked back up once the contestants weren’t network executives anymore?

JG: Once it wasn’t brand new, it got a little harder. And then people started to watch from colleges, and even Nixon in the White House used to take his lunch at that time. So they felt like it was okay to do some of the harder stuff. And it was interesting because the first, oh, what do they call it? The champion of the year? I’m 84 now, so my filing cabinet on my words doesn’t always work.

KJ: The Tournament of Champions?

JG: Yes, the first champion was a black taxi driver from Chicago who kept winning and winning, because he knew a lot of trivia. So he beat a lot of professors and everything else. It was kind of fun.

KJ: Did you say you helped build the first sets?

JG: Yes.

KJ: For the mock games you were do around the table.

JG: Yes.

KJ: So you had a little makeshift game show set in your New York apartment dining room. That’s great.

JG: And then, after my divorce, I went into my own game company. I had a game company with my sister and we called ourselves JAM, because it was Julann and Maureen, and then we teamed up — this was in 1999 — we teamed up with two guys from the University of Virginia here who did the programming. And we had a company called Boxerjam and we did kind of well until — it was during the bubble — they went through all the money and all our games and we went bankrupt. The games are still up. They were bought by the bank. But I lost everything that I’d put in it. So we decided not to do that anymore. Until a couple years ago, my sister — she’s in her 80s now, and I’m 84 — we decided to go back into business. So we just started up, we’re getting some apps ready now, and I’ve got about 20 games in the pile waiting to be programmed.

KJ: Are these trivia games like Jeopardy!?

JG: They’re different kinds. Some are information games, a couple are gambling games, some are just, you know, the kind that you play over and over when you have nothing else to do. One of them is on foreign languages, and the one we’re coming out with now is called Move Your Vowels. I’m sorry. It begins with a ‘V’. SO they’re all different.

KJ: What’s your new company called?

JG: Right now we don’t have anything up on our website. It’ll probably be a couple months. But it’s Jam and Candy.

KJ: I love the idea that you say you’re not into games, but here you are fifty years later and still working on games.

JG: Isn’t that funny? I think that happens to a lot of people. What you don’t realize you’re doing on the side, you know. You’re spending so much time trying to succeed in one thing and — I don’t know, it’s just kind of strange.

KJ: The fact that Jeopardy! is still around fifty years later is amazing as well. That’s just unheard-of in TV. What do you attribute that success to?

JG: It’s a bunch of things. First of all, Bob Rubin, the original producer, was very strict, and I think they’ve done very well now too. I think the writing; they get good writers. There are just so many rivers and countries that you can put on Jeopardy!, unless we go to the Moon and get some more, so the writing is intriguing. They have to find another way around it to make it interesting. And I think they’re doing a great job.

KJ: Do you like Alex Trebek? Is he a good fit for the format?

JG: I like him very much. Very much.

KJ: I am also a big fan.

JG: Well, he’s getting up there but he’s held it together very well. And he’s strict too. That thing came up about the young kid that lost because he did something — I didn’t see the show. And I thought, you know what? These kids today are poor losers. They’re poor winners! You know? You’ve got to be strict. Otherwise it isn’t a game!

KJ: Do you ever still watch? Do you find yourself flipping to Jeopardy!?

JG: You know, I do. I watch it a lot. Unfortutately, Chris Matthews comes along at the same time right now, so I go back and forth.

KJ:How does that feel, to have been there for the creation of this American institution?

JG: It’s amazing when I think about it, but I don’t really connect it when I watch it. I watch it because I enjoy the show. And I watch Wheel of Fortune too. You know, Wheel of Fortune was Merv’s idea, and that has evolved a lot. They used to have some crummy prizes in the beginning. But if you look at the way the show is constructed, it’s very well-constructed. I used to watch that PBS show where they built houses and everything, and I guess that’s how I got interested in doing games. Because I like the structure you don’t see underneath something. You know, you walk into a house, you have an idea what somebody went through with the basement and in between walls and things like that.

KJ: I think that is part of the appeal of game shows for a lot of people. They’re very tightly structured, carefully designed. You know what they show is going to be every day. People expect it. It’s like a part of their life.

JG: And I think another pull about games, especially information games, is that you learn a lot of things through life that you never have a chance to use, and now you have a chance. Not just to use them, but to maybe even be smarter than somebody else! I’ll bet you were frustrated when it came to the IBM — what was its name again?

KJ: Watson?

JG: Yes, Watson!

KJ: That was a lot of fun, but Watson was just too fast. A human doesn’t have the same precise reflexes that a computer has.

JG: Exactly. If I were in trouble, I would call on you before I’d call on Watson.

KJ: You know what, I appreciate that. This has been a real pleasure for me. Thanks so much for taking the time.

JG: It’s been a pleasure for me as well. I’ll have to tell my sister I talked to you, because we were big fans. We thought, my God, he’s really something else. Do you have a photographic memory?

KJ: I really don’t. I guess I was just one of those irritating kids that’s a sponge for information, and curious about everything. And I would run home from school every day to watch Jeopardy! That was a huge formative thing for me, watching these smart people on Jeopardy!

JG: Well, your curiosity is great. That’s whwat keeps the world spinning around, I think. So many people just put one foot in front of the other and don’t even know what’s happening. I think it’s good to find out about how everything works.

KJ: I’m also a big believer in learning your whole life. Well, thank you for Jeopardy! It changed my life.

JG: No, thank you for Jeopardy!

Posted by Ken at 5:27 pm     

March 10, 2014

Arthur Chu is back on Jeopardy! tonight…and now in double digits, win-wise. I call him Art Chu, as in “Art Chu glad Twitter wasn’t around back when I was on that show?” I recently chatted about Arthur with my friends at Slate’s Hang Up and Listen podcast, and was asked about the perils of game show fame for this New Yorker blog post.

But enough about promoting that guy who doesn’t even have anything to promote yet! What about my needs? I’m glad you asked. The Junior Genius Guides just got a very nice starred review from Booklist, which I am nowhere near modest enough to not quote below:

The new Junior Genius Guide series kicks off with a stellar collection of facts about climate, national flags, maps, and more, all in an engaging, arch tone. Jeopardy! champ and author Jennings, making his foray into books for children, arranges the trivia in chapters that lightly satirize a school-day schedule, including a “lunch period” offering an ingenious and easy recipe for an edible map, a craft project in “art class,” and an official certification exam before the “dismissal bell.” Cartoon illustrations, inset boxes, and Jennings’ jokey patter break each fact-stuffed page into delicious wonder-bites, each as satisfying as the next: Papua New Guinea’s flag was designed by a 15-year-old; a fear of maps is called cartophobia; the largest country with no permanent lake or river is Saudi Arabia; and so on. This is no mere list, however: games, pop quizzes (including an encoded answer key and cipher to solve it), jokes, mnemonic devices, and even suggestions for field trips will pull in any young trivia fan. Lowery’s black-and-white spot illustrations help explain concepts, such as cartographic projections, and add the overall levity, making this a successful nonfiction package as well as pure reading fun. Published simultaneously with the second in the series, Greek Mythology.

If this sounds like the kind of “pure reading fun” you want for you or a loved one, shop for the Junior Genius Guides at a local bookstore, or online here.

Posted by Ken at 8:42 pm     

March 5, 2014

Amazon just put up the cover of the fourth Junior Genius book, about space, so I assume that means I’m allowed to debut it here.


Is that a young Sandra Bullock before everything hits the fan? It might very well be!

Outer Space, with a galaxy full of amazing facts and fun projects to do right here on Earth, hits shelves October 14!

Posted by Ken at 2:23 pm     

March 4, 2014

velmaParade magazine wanted to promote the new Mr. Peabody & Sherman movie for some reason. I wanted to promote my new Junior Genius books. An editor had an idea: I would list the five smartest fictional characters ever, in order. Go.

Fun, quick assignment. I spent a few days batting it around with pretty much everyone I met. Obviously, some indisputably worthy choices (Isaac Asimov’s Hari Seldon, Watchmen‘s Doctor Manhattan) were a little too esoteric for Parade. I remember at one point becoming very convinced that E.T. should make the list, because he learns to talk after watching about eight seconds of Sesame Street, and can make an interstellar transmitter out of a Speak & Spell, a table-saw blade, and an umbrella. “But he’s not human,” a friend pointed out. “He could be the dumbest E.T. You don’t know. He’s the only one who wandered off and got left on Earth, right?”

The final list was chosen more for joke potential than for actual IQ, but I wasn’t really happy that the list was 100 percent guys. It was worse than that: of the dozens of iconic smarty-pantses we had batted around as candidates, exactly zero were women. A few people on Twitter agreed. What’s going on here? Where are the fictional female geniuses?

It’s hard to write genius; invariably, the creator isn’t as smart as his or her creation, and has to fake it. So, instead of actually writing super-intelligence, writers use shorthand: they leverage a few tired archetypes. There’s the Mad Genius (Dr. Frankenstein, Hannibal Lecter), the Coolly Competent Computer (Sherlock Holmes, Spock), the Precocious Prodigy (Doogie Howser, Jimmy Neutron), the Absent-Minded Professor (Emmett Brown, Cuthbert Calculus) the Maladroit Nerd (Leonard and Sheldon, Urkel). And most of those archetypes, unfortunately, date back to an era when it was unthinkable that they would be anything but male.

And so I had a hard time coming up women candidates that wouldn’t seem like tokens. Lisa Simpson and Hermione Granger are very well-known (and welcome) variations on the tired “boy prodigy” trope…but can you really put them on a list with Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Spock? They’re kids. Lisa still plays with Malibu Stacy dolls. Same problem with Penny from Inspector Gadget–though I like the postmodern twist of the smart young thing who quietly solves the mystery herself while the vaunted male crimefighter bumbles.

This Entertainment Weekly list grappled with the same diversity problem, and took pains to include a handful of fictional geniuses of color and even a few with no Y-chromosome. But Temperance “Bones” Brennan and Gabriella from High School Musical (really?) also would have looked a little odd on a five-person list full of math savants and time travel inventors. The choice of Jane Craig, Holly Hunter’s hyper-competent Broadcast News producer, is a revelation. Not a household name, but at least a newer, less male-centric archetype: the Workaholic Who Wants It All. (Liz Lemon is a better-known example–iconic enough for the list for sure–but comedy writing and showrunning don’t quite have the world-saving gravitas of, you know, Tony Stark or whoever.)

You’d think there’d be more juicy nerd parts for women nowadays, but the only A-list name I could come up with was Chloe from 24. Even in the detective arena–a genre kept alive by women!–none of the all-time greats are women. The few that are big brand names–Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher–always get their man, but not in the show-offy, mental-gymnastics manner of a Holmes or a Poirot.

With one exception! In hindsight, I can think of one woman who’s perfect for the list, and I wish I’d included her: Lisbeth Salander from the Dragon Tattoo books and movies. She’s a top-shelf brain in all regards: photographic memory, world-famous computer hacking skillz, crime-solving chops. She’s an indomitably tough survivor who overcomes impossible odds over and over. She’s essentially a super-hero and she should have made the top five, because she could kick Will Hunting or MacGyver’s ass any day of the week.

We regret the error.

Posted by Ken at 11:20 am     

February 24, 2014


Polarizing Jeopardy! champ Arthur Chu returns to the show tonight after being sidelined for three weeks due to tournaments. A couple weeks ago, Slate asked me to write about the ginned-up “controversy” over Arthur’s play, and so I reached out to the man himself to get his thoughts. The article I was supposed to write turned into an appreciation of the Daily Double (mostly because I’d already seen every conceivable take on Arthur Chu online) but Arthur said he wouldn’t mind if I ran our interview here on my blog. It’s been lightly edited for coherence–mostly mine. Arthur has given exactly one billion e-interviews over the past three weeks and is now a master of the form.

So have you been watching your games? Anything you’d do differently now having seen them? I definitely have some goofy mannerisms I’d take back…

I have–in fact, I think all this hoopla started because of my impulsive decision to “live-tweet” all my games as I watched them from home. This was mainly because I wanted to have a really big watch-party with all my friends but lots of them ended up not being able to come because the Tuesday on which my first game ran was also a day with severe weather warnings all through Cleveland (not uncommon in these parts).

So I started live-tweeting my reactions to the first episode on Tuesday, and I guess this isn’t that common a thing for people to do because all of a sudden I started getting followers and mentions and people saying “The middle guy is live-tweeting!” And that’s when I started seeing the negative tweets–which my wife oh-so-helpfully and supportively retweeted, thus goading me into responding to them and getting this whole ball rolling.

I think there isn’t much I would change if I could go back–I mean, the very fact that the “haters” are the reason for me to, bizarrely, become a national celebrity means that if anything I owe the haters a favor for broadcasting their negative impression of me.

That said, I would probably buy new clothes and get better at tying a tie–you can probably tell how often I dress up to Jeopardy!‘s “business-casual” standards in real life by how adept I was at making sure everything was pressed and straight when I was on TV. Either that or try to negotiate with the producers to dress in something closer to my usual style rather than trying and failing to rock the clean-cut look–only after I was on the show did I find out their “rules” requiring jackets and ties for men are more like “suggestions” and that guys have gone on before wearing sweatshirts and the like.

And yes, I’m aware that I come off as kind of robot, flat-affect and hyper-intense about the game on Jeopardy!. It’s not something I can really help, or at least not something I would be able to help without a degree of concentration that would throw me off my game (the game that I keep reminding everybody we’re playing for thousands and thousands of dollars). It’s the same thing that got me so mad about the hate-train on Colby Burnett for being “arrogant” or “smug”–you absolutely can’t judge what someone’s real personality is like based on playing a game show like Jeopardy!. It’s the most unnatural, contrived, high-stress situation imaginable. The fact that Colby involuntarily gives a huge pleased grin after he gets an answer right doesn’t prove that he’s a “cocky arrogant person” and the fact that I bite off the answer really fast and then jump right back into spitting out clues for categories doesn’t mean that in real life I’m an abrupt, callous person with nothing but contempt for my surroundings.

The one thing I do think is a negative thing where I wish I hadn’t done it was “cutting off Alex,” which is what I think gets people most riled up–but of course that’s what you’re likely to do when you’re in the zone and already thinking about jumping to the next clue. Problem is Alex kind of chooses the points at which he makes a little comment or joke about a question at semi-random, sparse intervals so it’s hard to predict when he’s going to do it– people accidentally “cut him off” on the show even when they aren’t all hyped-up and intense like I was. It’s something I would be more careful about if I could do it again, though, because I do think interrupting/talking over someone truly is rude in a way that just being intense and abrupt isn’t.

I feel like I’ve now read more secondhand reports about you being hated than actual instances of people hating on you. What have I missed? What terrible things are people saying? The more appalling, the better.

At this point it almost is a fake controversy–the comments on nearly every single article about how I’m a “hated villain” on Jeopardy! are 99.9999% people supporting me, defending me and calling out the “haters” for being jerks and hypocrites.

I say “almost” because I among all others probably know best how this hoopla started because at the beginning there really was a huge anti-Chu backlash and how the reason people latched onto it was my wife’s and my openly responding to the backlash.

There’s a blogger, Kevin Clancy, who writes for a kind of crude sports fandom blog, Barstool Sports, who kind of wears it as a badge of pride that he stirs the pot with “controversies” especially involving Jeopardy!. He was the one to start trolling the Colby Burnett haters last year, get them to come out of the woodwork and turn that into a phenomenon, and I suppose I have to give him credit for doing the same for me.

The reason this appears asymmetrical is that the haters obviously aren’t as public about their hate as the fans are about their fandom and a ton of them actually recanted, deleted their tweets or otherwise disappeared when I started getting into conversations with them. But the sheer volume of anti-me tweets on that first night was crazy, and the best place to see it is Kevin Clancy’s blog post about it:

(My sister, who takes these things more personally than I, said she found the “penis pump” girl’s Facebook, LinkedIn, home phone, work phone and address before she realized she was going off the deep end and backed down.)

Here are some others, many of which I responded to. (Ed.: Clicking on the timestamps to see Arthur’s responses will be worth your while.)

That should be enough to give you an idea, lest you think I’m obsessed or anything.

I’m pretty sure that the haters are still out there, just careful not to openly mention me on Twitter because they know I’ll descend on them bringing the #ChuChuTrain with me.

That said, there probably are other pockets of commentary out there, not obviously publicly viewable, where there’s people mad at me. I have to say the stuff about me being a “bad sport” or being an unpleasant, dickish person definitely bugs me way more than the obviously ad hominem stuff about my appearance or nerdiness or whatever.

For examples, here’s a dude on Reddit:

And here’s a huge discussion ripping into me on Television Without Pity. I used to enjoy the “snarky” tone of that site, but I’ve been really turned off on it now that I realize they consider it their sacred right to speculate about and tear into random people on shows like Jeopardy! in order to get their jollies. It starts here and goes downhill from there.

And yeah, one of the things that embitters me is that the entire Television Without Pity “brand” is now tarnished for me. I got especially incensed when they started ripping into my story about buying my wife the meteorite, and referenced it in a post on the JBoard here. And I guess that’s all I’ll really say about that.

I remember being surprised at how wounded I got with random drive-by Internet abuse when I was on Jeopardy!. Like, it shouldn’t hurt to have StewieGriffinFan46 say “This guy on Jeopardy IS THE WORST”…but somehow it does.

It’s natural and human to care what other people think about you. If I’d not been playing for enormously high stakes on Jeopardy! my natural instincts to try to be nice and make a good impression probably would’ve taken over, I’d've been shy and reticent and afraid to speak up, and as a result I would’ve lost horribly in my first game. As it was a ton of my “training” was just getting myself into the head-space where winning the game and taking home lots of money mattered more to me than what people might think seeing me on TV.

So on the one hand I was kind of expecting it and shouldn’t complain. But on the other hand, yeah, it’s really hard to see someone disrespect you like that and not react to it. To the extent that real celebrities have been exposed enough to it that they become numbed to it I imagine it’s a bad, dehumanizing experience for the celebrities involved–it’s a good thing about our nature that whenever there’s another person in front of us our instinct is to empathize with them, get along with them, apologize for offending them.

I have to give my wife credit for this because she’s a strong believer that dragging trolls into the sunlight to name and shame them is better than ignoring them, and the way she was kind of goading me by retweeting all the offensive tweets and getting me to reply to them got me to see that there were two choices–retreat behind a rock and wait for the trolling to blow over, or consciously engage the trolls, take control of the conversation and own my image as a nerdy rumpled “Jeopardy! jerk” and embrace it. And the latter has turned out to be a lot of fun–and in the end generated a lot more positivity and negativity, though it would’ve been hard to believe that’s how it would’ve ended up that first night of angry people calling me out.

Probably the only piece of your gameplay I would quibble with is “bet for the tie.” I’ve heard people defend this as a “bring back a player I know I outplayed once” strategy, or a “encourage big bets from trailing contestants in future” strategy. Can you talk about why you like the tie bet?

I dunno if you’ve seen Keith Williams’ discussion of this but I more or less agree with his math. The first and most important point is that the “bet for the tie + $1″ wager makes it possible to lose by that $1–it’s actually happened multiple times on the show that someone’s gone below their opponent by that $1 because the opponent anticipated exactly that bet and made the Maximum Safe Bet. Rani Peffer almost lost that way (and was saved because she got the question right and her opponent got it wrong) just before I went on.

The most important concept in Final Jeopardy is the Maximum Safe Bet, and the really key thing to get is that the “shutout bet” is not the Maximum Safe Bet–it is the Maximum Safe Bet plus one and therefore means that among rational wagerers you will lose if you and the 2nd-place player both get the question wrong.

So it’s not just “betting for the tie” on a double-get but also “betting for the tie” on a double-miss. And that’s the other part of it–because I’m making a pattern of betting for the tie on a double-get I make going all-in on a tempting category a potentially rational choice for a 2nd-place trailer, whereas if it’s known I always go for the shutout and therefore no second-place trailer can possibly beat me if I get the question right then planning for a double-get as opposed to a double-miss is a pure waste of time. And that means that if 2nd place happens to be confident on the category, I’ve just guaranteed myself a win if it turns out they’re overconfident and we both get the question wrong.

That it, really. The most important thing is ensuring that you do come back the next day. Questions about who you’d rather face after you come back, a new challenger or a known quantity, are, as Keith put it on the J Board, figuring out whether you’re in the end zone before you’ve caught the ball.

That said, I wasn’t relying purely on “buzzer mojo” the way some people do and the idea that my overwhelming advantage came purely from not being new to the buzzer never really dominated my thoughts. It seemed to me that my primary advantage came from the Forrest Bounce strategy and from aggressively strategic Daily Double wagering, neither of which my opponents were prepared for–and Carolyn, while not a “weak” player in terms of actual knowledge and of buzzer technique, definitely wasn’t prepared to match me in terms of aggressively hunting DD’s and category bouncing.

So yes, I was fairly confident that having her come back wouldn’t be a horrible disadvantage for me. The only time I’d consider betting for the win would be if I were facing someone who really was a lot better than average–I’d peg Julie Singer from my first game as an example of this–and we were facing a FJ category that felt like a “gimme” (like I commented “Capital Cities” felt like, since it’s a finite category of things you can and probably should memorize with flashcards before coming on Jeopardy).

In that situation I’d be so confident of getting the question right that the question of what happens after I get it right–do I bring my opponent back with me or not?–becomes relevant. But going for the shutout–which entails basically planning that you will get the question right, period–is pure hubris unless you can justify exactly why that category is an “easy” one. Capital Cities is easy because I had literally memorized all the world capitals–Comedic Actresses was not “easy” even though I know a lot about TV because it has the potential for surprises, as we saw happened with the actual Comedic Actresses category.

Yeah, I know Keith Williams’ thinking about the tie. I don’t like the end zone analogy because his tie strategy also involves thinking about the next game, i.e. creating a pattern of behavior that may (in a not-super-likely set of circumstances) lead to a future wagering advantage. But in the process, you’re getting rid of the returning champ’s #1 advantage: playing someone who’s never held a live buzzer before. If we’re already thinking about the next game, I’d take the second advantage over the first every time. I guess I could be convinced if Keith’s scenario started to happen in actual games more than zero times.

How do you explain the fact that dozens of “game theory” types, like David Madden and Roger Craig, have plied their strategies unnoticed, only to have you become Public Enemy #1 for doing the same thing over fewer games?

Madden and Craig actually were hated in their time, is the thing. I was somewhat prepared for this because when I was obsessively Googling Jeopardy history I found that there was a gigantic hate-on for Dave Madden at Television Without Pity for precisely the same reasons–they found him unsportsmanlike, they found him unpleasant to watch, he ruined the experience of “playing along” with the game…

If anything it was this conversation that cemented my desire to follow in Madden and Craig’s footsteps, because I was just overwhelmed at how amazingly crazy it was that people actually were mad at a guy for winning lots and lots and lots of money by playing within the rules of the game because they were so completely focused on their own pleasure watching it.

And yeah, I am a little weirded out by this becoming a meme now, since it mainly shows what a short memory America has. It’s not like Madden’s achievement becoming the #2 regular-season player of all time (after, of course, your most esteemed self) wasn’t big news, though it was before social media really took off.

But then you have the fact that Craig made an embarrassingly huge pile of news stories talking about his “computerized algorithm” for studying for Jeopardy! and proclaiming him the “game theorist who solved Jeopardy! and all that nonsense once he broke the one-day winnings record. And that was only a couple years ago.

So what probably explains it is that even though a lot of people hated on Craig and Madden for being “nerds”, and a lot of people were in fact offended at people “breaking the purity of the game”, the world has become even more interconnected through social media than it was even in Craig’s era a few years ago and I, unlike Craig, was sitting in front of the TV with my iPhone live-tweeting at the same moment that millions of Americans were seeing me on TV.

“Viral” stories usually have to do with a feeling of interactivity and mass participation in a story, and the fact that I was right there, on Twitter, willing to be talked about and willing to talk back is what caused this to turn from just people griping into a genuine conversation, and from a conversation into a narrative with a protagonist.

Could it also have anything to do with you being Asian, and them not?

Well, 100% of the Asians who’ve talked to me about it have been extremely positive and extremely convinced that the haters are motivated by racism.

Obviously some of the most offensive tweets are openly and unabashedly racist, so you can’t argue with that. That said, I’d avoid playing the race card too openly–I’m sure if I were Asian but I otherwise looked like a “good guy” out of central casting, I was thin, and charming, and smiled easily and all of that, that the narrative would be somewhat different. (No offense to you personally, Ken, but I think you may have seen the quote where I said that as talented and charming as you are on TV you were also kind of lucky that you look like a cherubic boy next door from a Hallmark card.)

I do. I am America’s sweetheart.

That said, stereotypes aren’t so much about people totally projecting things that completely aren’t there but about people having a framework with which they interpret things that actually are there. It’s not that racism causes people to see (for example) belligerent teenage boys where there are none, but that a white belligerent teenage boy is just seen as himself while a black belligerent teenage boy is part of a pattern, a script, and when people blindly follow the scripts in their head that leads to discrimination and prejudice.

So yeah, it is a fact, I think, that I was a bit off-putting in my Jeopardy! apperance–hyper-focused on the game, had an intense stare, clicked madly on the buzzer, spat out answers super-fast, wasn’t too charming in the interviews, etc.

But this may have taken root in people’s heads because I’m an Asian and the “Asian mastermind” is a meme in people’s heads that it wouldn’t have otherwise.

Look, we all know that there’s a trope in the movies where someone of a minority race is flattened out into just being “good at X” and that the white protagonist is the one we root for because unlike the guy who’s just “good at X” the protagonist has human depth, human relationships, a human point of view–and this somehow makes him more worthy of success than the antagonist who seems to exist just to be good at X.

So we root for Rocky against black guys who, by all appearances, really are better boxers than he is, because unlike them Rocky isn’t JUST a boxer, he has a girlfriend, he has hopes, he has dreams, etc. This comes up over and over again in movies where the athletic black competitor is set up as the “heel”–look at the black chick in Million Dollar Baby and how much we’re pushed to hate her. Look at all this “Great White Hope” stuff, historically, with Joe Louis.

So is it any surprise that this trope comes into play with Asians? That the Asian character in the movie is the robotic, heartless, genius mastermind who is only pure intellect and whom we’re crying out to be defeated by some white guy who may not be as brainy but has more pluck, more heart, more humanity? It’s not just Flash Gordon vs. Ming the Merciless, it’s stuff like how in the pilot episode of Girls Hannah gets fired in favor of an overachieving Asian girl who’s genuinely better at her job than she is (the Asian girl knows Photoshop and she doesn’t) and we’re supposed to sympathize with Hannah.

Okay, here’s one more comment from the Internet that kind of encapsulates it. The kind of un-self-awareness of what someone is saying when they say they’d prefer I not win because I try too hard at the game, work too hard at it, care too much about it, and that they’d prefer that a “likable average Joe” win.

This is disturbing because it amounts to basically an attack on competence, a desire to bust people who work very hard and have very strong natural gifts down in favor of “likable average Joes”–and it’s disturbing because the subtext is frequently that to be “likable” and “average” you have to have other traits that are comforting and appealing to an “average Joe” audience, like white skin and an American accent.

Here’s something I haven’t seen you talk about: I was watching your fourth game last night and noticed you trying to make a run with an unusual strategy: powering through the $2000 clues early. It wasn’t the Forrest bounce, it wasn’t optimal Daily Double hunting, and it totally worked. Anything you want to say about your thinking there?

Yeah, part of it is just if you can rack up lots of money quickly you should do that–build a lead that’s tough to recover from, put a little fear into your opponents, etc.

My “strategy” is basically a mix of principles that center around trying to build the lead to a locked game as fast as possible while keeping opponents off balance–Forrest Bounce is part of it, starting at the bottom is part of it and DD hunting is part of it but it’s mainly an ethos opposed to the “slow build” that’s the standard progression of Jeopardy!

As far as why I did what I did at any particular point that’s mostly a blur now, and a lot of it acting on instinct–as you can tell I don’t like to spend a lot of time mulling over what the next clue to jump to will be. What I mostly remember in my mental highlight reels of these games are the points where I messed up–so now in retrospect it’s weird to see how well I did.

Thanks so much for your time, Arthur. This is great stuff. Oh, one other thing. In the Wall Street Journal interview, you ask what the equivalent of “Linsanity” would be. The answer is clearly “Chu-phoria.”

Posted by Ken at 11:24 am     

February 19, 2014

I don’t think I’ve mentioned it here before, but my friends at OtherWise Games recently released (finally!) the long-awaited sequel to their hit movie trivia game MovieCat. It’s called MovieCat 2 (catchy!) and it’s only $1.99 for over 1,000 puzzles. (Also available for Android.)

Wordplay Wednesday! This is unnecessarily complicated; please pay attention.

Someone who is very per____ed might, by definition, _____.

____ is, by definition, a product similar to per____.

The second blank in each of these sentences is filled with the same word.

The first blank in each of these sentences is filled with the same word…but it’s spelled backwards in the first sentence.

What are the two sentences?

Edited to add: This one was admittedly a bit of a stretch, but alklunzinger was not deterred, and posted the answer here.

Posted by Ken at 11:35 am     

February 18, 2014

sljI really am trying to get into the habit of getting more content onto the blog. Even if it’s just self-serving Junior Genius hype like this. Got some cool stuff coming over the next couple weeks, though. No fooling. Sometimes I still have thoughts that are more than 140 characters long–EVEN WITH ABBREVIATIONS!!!–and have no place to put them.

The new kids’ books seem to be doing well. The week they came up, I saw them atop Amazon’s “Mystery and Wonders” bestseller list, which I thought was cool mostly because I didn’t know Amazon had a “Mystery and Wonders” bestseller list. Pretty good place to start if you like books about mystery and wonders!

Today, I found at that School Library Journal has run a very nice review!

Jeopardy legend Jennings scores a win with this title in his new middle grade nonfiction series. Chapters are divided up into parts of the school day (“First Period,” “Recess,” “Lunch,” etc.), and though each is fairly long and covers a great deal of material, the book moves quickly because of the conversational writing style, bits of trivia thrown in among paragraphs, and humorous drawings. Lowery’s sketches are a big selling point; the silly tone they evoke matches the lightheartedness of the text perfectly. One of the strengths of this book is that Jennings is able to sneak in important geography concepts through what will feel like a series of interesting facts. For instance, when he discusses the Dead Sea, readers may be surprised to learn not only that it is not the saltiest body of water in the world but also that there is enough gold in the ocean to give every person on earth five pounds of it, if it could be extracted. The book concludes with a fun final exam that would be an excellent and inconspicuous way to test reading comprehension, as well as some suggestions for how to keep learning about maps and geography in real life. A great addition to middle grade libraries, both school and public.

My mom is a school librarian, so this is the review that means the most, because it *sniff* comes from my peers.

Posted by Ken at 10:22 am