Politics & Policy

That Jeopardy Guy

Ken Jennings is winning and winning on Jeopardy.

Answer: As of this writing, he’s won a record 22 straight rounds of Jeopardy!.

#ad#Question: Who is Ken Jennings?

Greatness is an elusive quality. It doesn’t lend itself to definition, but, with a nod to Justice Potter Stewart’s famous remark about pornography, you know it when you see it. Right now, five days a week, a disconcertingly well-groomed software designer from Salt Lake City is oozing greatness on a television quiz show. Jennings is quite simply better at what he does well than any human being I’ve ever seen. He’s better at Jeopardy than Michael Jordan was at basketball, than Wayne Gretzky was at hockey, than Bobby Fischer was at chess. The only comparison that comes close is Secretariat during his Triple Crown rampage.

Jennings’s run was made possible by the show’s decision last fall to drop the rule that forced champions to retire after five victories. But no one expected this. Prior to Jennings’s current streak of 22, the record was seven. Prior to his current cash total of $737,760; the record was $184,900. He’s just in a different league. He seems to have no gaps in his knowledge. History. Geography. Science. Literature. Sports. Movies. Music. Languages. He not only knows, he recalls. Under pressure, in the form of a question. He buzzes in to respond while his rivals are still deciphering what’s being asked. He wagers aggressively, but never recklessly. It’s spooky–in the way that genuine greatness is always spooky. But it’s riveting.

Half way through the streak, the category for Final Jeopardy! was “Famous Products.” Jennings had long since sewn up the win, more than quadrupling the total of his nearest competitor. When the “answer” was revealed, the other two players rolled their eyes: “First designed as a surgical disinfectant, in 1895 it was available to dentists and by 1914 was sold over the counter.” The guy in third place guessed Windex. The woman in second place simply wrote down “What is…whatever Ken’s answer is?”

Jennings, of course, knew the correct response: “What is Listerine?”

Jeopardy! is taped months in advance. Jennings’s run of shows actually occurred in February–and he’s already gone back home to Utah (though sworn to silence), so at some point he must have lost. I’ve no idea how…though my guess is what finally tripped him up was a too-easy board. After all, if you lower a basketball rim from ten feet to six feet, even average sized guys can suddenly play like giants.

Meanwhile, all hail Ken Jennings. We’ll not see his like again.

Mark Goldblatt is the author of Africa Speaks.

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