Ken Jennings



How do you get to be a Jeopardy! contestant?

Jeopardy! now administers its contestant test online, but back in 2004, you had to wait for them to do a contestant search in your hometown. They never came to Salt Lake City, where I lived at the time, so I made the long drive down to California just to go to what was then their monthly L.A. tryout. The show warns people not to make a special trip just to try out, because the odds are pretty long. They get tens of thousands of applicants every year for just 400 spots—mathematically, getting into Harvard or Yale is about eight times more likely than getting on Jeopardy! Auditioners take a 50-question written test, with clues taken from the harder rows of Jeopardy! material, and then the few who pass that test role-play a little mock game and mini-interview. And then, if you get lucky, as I did, nearly a year goes by and one day you get a call out of the blue inviting you to be on the show.

Once you found out you were going to be on Jeopardy!, how did you prepare?

Studying up for Jeopardy! isn't like studying up for a bio quiz in eighth grade. Jeopardy! can ask you questions on literally any subject from the entire history of all human knowledge, ever. This makes it a little bit hard to cram. That said, there are topics that, Jeopardy! fans know, come up time and again on the show: U.S. presidents, world capitals, Shakespeare, and so on. So I made flash cards on topics like these, plus a separate set on cocktail ingredients, since Jeopardy! loves their "Potent Potables" category, and I don't drink. So, after I got The Call, my wife drilled me incessantly on the flash cards for the next month. That February, the only topics of conversation in our house were, for the most part, the presidency and cocktails, the presidency and cocktails, the presidency and cocktails. It was like going to college with George W. Bush.

Also, I set new nerdiness records by deciding to start watching Jeopardy! (a) twice a day, (b) standing up behind my recliner to imitate the podium experience, and (c) hammering my thumb on my toddler's Fisher-Price ring-stack toy, which I figured was about the same size as the Jeopardy! buzzer. I looked and felt like an idiot, but I think it helped.

What's the secret of the Jeopardy! buzzer?

If you watch Jeopardy! casually, it's easy to assume that the player doing most of the answering is the one who knew the most answers, but that's not necessarily true. All three contestants, after all, passed the same very hard test to be there. Most of the contestants can answer most of the questions. But Jeopardy! victory most often goes not to the biggest brain; it goes to the smoothest thumb. Timing on the tricky Jeopardy! buzzer is often what separates the winner from the, well, non-winners, and the Jeopardy! buzzer is a cruel mistress.

Here's how it works: the buzzers don't get activated until Alex is finished reading each question. If you buzz in too early, the system actually locks you out for a fifth of a second or so. But if you're too late, the player next to you is going to get in first. Somewhere between too early and too late is a very narrow sweet spot, like swinging a tennis racket or a baseball bat. No, that's not right. The Jeopardy! buzzer, she is like a woman. No, that's not it either. All I know is, the more I thought about the timing, the less I could nail it. When I could somehow just Zen out and not think about what I was doing, I would do okay.

What's Alex Trebek really like?

[Photo of Ken posed with Alex Trebek]I don't know what you've heard, but we're just good friends. Actually, the contestants don't get much of a chance to chill with Alex. The ultra-tight Jeopardy! security procedures keep the contestants well separated from anyone who might know the day's questions and answers, and that includes Alex. You don't see him until the second he steps out on stage. So, to most contestants, Alex remains a mystery wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a Perry Ellis suit. But after spending forty-plus hours on camera with the guy, I felt like I got to know him a bit. The first thing you notice is that the seriousness-to-the-point-of-pomposity thing that he does on air is mostly a put-on. In person, he's a lot looser, prone to little jokes, accents, snippets of song and even soft-shoe. Like Alex or dislike him, you have to admit that he has one of the toughest jobs in show business—reading 61 clues flawlessly while running a fast-paced game show is an amazingly difficult task—yet he's made it look easy, every weekday for the last two decades. So ease up on the Trebek-hatin', y'all.

Do they tell you in advance what the categories are going to be on your show, so you can study up?

I don't know where people get this idea, but I get asked this all the time. No, you don't see the categories until the second the viewers at home do. And then you're like, "$#%&, 'Hockey' again?!"

Did you have to move out to California for six months while you were on the show?

It only looked like I was on Jeopardy! for six months. Actually, Jeopardy! tapes five consecutive shows, a whole week's worth, in a single afternoon. Alex changes his tie and presto! America is fooled into thinking it's a whole new day on Jeopardy! Typically they shoot ten shows in two-day chunks a couple times a month, so I spent that whole spring commuting from Salt Lake to L.A. every few weeks. My first 48 shows were taped before any of my shows had aired, so the tricky part was keeping my regular L.A. "commute" a secret from friends and family (so as not to give away whether I'd won or lost). My boss told my co-workers a series of increasingly implausible lies about my whereabouts every other Tuesday and Wednesday. You think computer programmers are all geniuses? No one ever caught on.

Why did you write your name on the Jeopardy! podium in a different way on every show?

[Examples of Ken's Jeopardy! signatures]This was an accident. Obviously I had no idea I was going to be on Jeopardy! 75 times. I would have been ecstatic with just a win or two. On a whim, I decided to switch up my name in the second show, as a shout-out to family members who had suggested various ways I should write my name on the podium. I soon came to regret this little whim. There are only so many ways you can write a name like "Ken." It's only three letters. Before each taping I'd be in the greenroom frantically trying to invent new "Ken" fonts on a cocktail napkin. And some of my wilder typographical ideas would get vetoed by the show's producers. The Man doesn't want you writing your name backwards or in Cyrillic on the Jeopardy! podium. That's how he keeps you down.

You know, they're not podiums. They're lecterns. A speaker stands on a podium and behind a lectern.

Shut up.

How do you know all that stuff?

I always hate getting asked this, because I feel like I don't have a very good answer. Or rather, there are lots of answers. I like to read. As I mentioned above, I studied up on some of the most frequently-recurring Jeopardy! categories, so I'd be ready for the show. I played quiz bowl in college, which is good practice for pulling random things you haven't thought about since high school from deep in the recesses of your brain at a moment's notice. I had a lot more game-day practice and buzzer rehearsal time than most of my competitors, which gave me an unfair leg up that had nothing to do with knowledge. I apparently have a pretty good memory for things I'm interested in—like everybody else I guess, but maybe I'm just interested in more subjects than is normal.

Mostly, it comes down to curiosity. I think I'm a pretty inquisitive person about the world around me, so as a result I find myself learning new stuff no matter what I'm doing: watching an old movie on TV or doing a crossword puzzle or reading the back of a cereal box. There's information all around us, if we'd only pay attention to it. It's a state of mind more than anything else.

Did you really think the "long-handled gardening tool" was a ho(e)?

The longest-remembered thing about my Jeopardy! games, I'm proud to say, will probably be this YouTube clip, in which I am ruled incorrect for supplying the response "What is a hoe?" to a clue about a "long-handled gardening tool" with an unfortunate double meaning.

Here's the scoop: at the time I buzzed, I felt good about my answer. By the time Alex called on me, though, I had realized that there was no way Jeopardy! was asking about ho's. But by that point, as you can tell by my smirk in the video, I was perfectly willing to spend $400 for the privilege of asking Alex Trebek what a ho is. During the next ad break, Al, the Minnesota pastor on the end who says, "What is a rake?", told me that he'd been trying to buzz in with "What is a ho?" as well, and he was glad he'd lost the buzzer race, since his congregation never would have let him live it down.

Many people who ask me about this clue think that I was jobbed. I think Alex was right to rule against me, for one reason: the gardening tool is a "hoe," while the immoral person (and is he or she necessarily a pleasure seeker?) is usually spelled "ho." But I have always wondered if the clue was designed to elicit the "What is a ho?" response from some lucky contestant. It sure smells like a set-up.

H&R Block? Come on!

That's not really a question.

No, seriously. You really didn't know H&R Block?

Many people have been kind enough to tell me how easy they thought my final question was. And it's true, this was the kind of question that many people, millions of people, would know instantly. I lost on the humanizingly easy, "Can you believe he doesn't know this one?" question, just like John Turturro ("Don't make me lose on Marty!") did in Quiz Show. But quite honestly, I could have thought about this question all day and not come up with the right answer. Here's how they asked it: "Most of this firm's 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year." For some reason, tax season never even occurred to me. I assumed the answer would have something to do with summer or the holiday season. That's what I get for always doing my own taxes, I guess.

I also suspect that many of the people who gave me a hard time for missing this answer (I lamely guessed "Who is FedEx?") wouldn't have gotten the right answer either. They read the answer in news articles and thought, in hindsight, "H&R Block? I've heard of that. That's not so hard." Which is a little different than actually producing the right answer under the gun.

One silver lining to that final question was that it led to gigs doing publicity for both FedEx and H&R Block. So the moral of the story is, if you're going to lose on Jeopardy!, lose on the corporate question. If your final answer is "Who was Herodotus?" or "What is Paraguay?" you're not getting jack as far as endorsements go.

Where can I get a DVD set of your games?

Really? You want to watch 75 straight episodes of an eight-year-old game show, all featuring the same contestant? Well, I'm very flattered, but I'm afraid there's no such product. The only Jeopardy! DVD ever released by Sony TV is the one subtitled "An Inside Look at America's Favorite Quiz Show," and it does have a handful of my games. Unfortunately, they chose to include only my 75th and final game, and then my appearances in the 2005 "Ultimate Tournament of Champions." So if you want to see the four games where I lose, this is the set for you.

That IBM thing was rigged, right? Watson totally cheated!

No, the 2011 Jeopardy! match that IBM's Watson supercomputer won was scrupulously fair, just like all TV quiz shows have to be, by federal law. It's true that Watson did have some advantages that no human player could match, like his superhumanly fast and consistent reflexes on the Jeopardy! buzzer (see above). Without its buzzer edge, Watson isn't yet good enough to beat top human players. But I don't think that means the match was unfair--computers just happen to be innately better at some things than humans are, like buzzer reflexes. Brad and I weren't asked to handicap the skills we have that Watson can't match (understanding of humor and nuance in Jeopardy! clues, for example), so why would you deny the computer its advantages? What's amazing isn't that Watson could buzz in so much faster than me--it's that it could provide the right answers afterward, which is an unprecedented leap forward in artificial intelligence. (Obviously I'm kissing up in hopes of favorable treatment once Watson becomes sentient and enslaves the human race.)

Life A.T. (After Trebek)

What did you do with the money?

After taking care of the three essential T's (taxes, tithing, and new widescreen TV) it was a lot less than the three-million-plus you saw on Jeopardy!, but it was still more money than I ever thought I'd have in my entire life. Most of that is invested in your usual boring places: stocks, bonds, real estate, etc. I don't want to be one of these lottery winners you see bankrupt on TV a few years later, having already lost it all. Some has already gone to charity, and I plan to do a lot more of that. I don't really have a pet crusade, but I can see quite a bit going to educational causes—scholarships and the like. This is not an invitation to e-mail me about paying off your student loans.

Are you still working at your day job?

[Image of Ken posed with his wife and son]I kept my programming job right through the end of my Jeopardy! streak, but when I got the book deal to write Brainiac, I had to take some "semi-permanent leave" from my employer so I'd have time to work on the book. Working from home and being my own boss has been pretty great, so now I'm a freelance writer pretty much full-time. That's really the only major purchase I've earmarked from the Jeopardy! millions: more time with my family. This FAQ answer has been a message from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: the Mormons!

Do you still watch Jeopardy every night?

Somewhere deep down, I think I'm still as Jeopardy!-addicted as when I was ten years old, watching the show every day without fail right after school. Because if I'm in an airport or restaurant or somewhere and Jeopardy! comes on the TV, I can't look away. That said, I find that I have a hard time sitting on my couch and lazily shouting out answers at Trebek, like I used to. Everything about the show—the music, the graphics, the sound effects—causes some fight-or-flight adrenaline spike in my blood and I become hyper-aware of every detail of the show. Maybe I have post-traumatic stress disorder.

Didn't I hear you were going to be in your own game show?

Who Wants To Be a Millionaire producer Michael Davies and I had a deal with Comedy Central to develop a quiz show for them. They were looking for a half-hour show to pair with The Daily Show, as I understand it, and even though they really liked the game show we came up with, Stephen Colbert's new show was by then doing so well in its post-Daily Show spot that they decided they weren't in the market for a quiz show anymore. Sadly, there are no current plans to rescue the modestly titled Ken Jennings vs. the Rest of the World from limbo, but you never know. Watch for any updates.

I read that you were slamming Alex and Jeopardy! on your blog. Uh, what were you thinking?

It's a sad fact of life that, sometimes, even bastions of fine journalism like The New York Post and People magazine let us down. What really happened was this: in July 2006, I posted a list of silly suggestions for "improving" Jeopardy! on my blog. The ideas included killer bees, ventriloquism, and cannibalism. In other words, they weren't remotely serious. In fact, the idea was to poke fun at misguided "retoolings" of classic entertainment properties. Unfortunately, a week later, a few media outlets cherry-picked quotes from the posting (either maliciously or just gullibly, I'm still not sure) to make it look as if I were seriously pissed at the show. This was frustrating to me only for its irony—Jeopardy! has been my favorite TV show ever since I was, like, ten years old. Even before it paid for my new house, I'd be about the last person in America to be dissing Jeopardy!

How can I get a signed copy of your books?

The wonderful Seattle independent bookstore Third Place Books sells signed copies of my books and will ship nationwide. Contact Steve Winter to inquire about prices, personalizations, postage, and so on.

So, what about paying off my student loans?

Get a job, hippie!