Before he became the Jeopardy! GOAT, or the highest-earning game-show contestant of all time, or Vulture’s personal draft pick to become Alex Trebek’s replacement (when the time comes in a million years, that is), Ken Jennings was a humble 29-year-old software engineer from Salt Lake City who hoped he wouldn’t embarrass himself on his first Jeopardy! appearance back in 2004. What happened next was the stuff of game-show legend, with Jennings going on to win 74 consecutive games and add over $2.5 million to his bank account — all before officially cementing his status as the show’s best player earlier this year, those other two guys be damned.
Now, due to the coronavirus pandemic shutting down production for the foreseeable future, Jeopardy! will be reairing Jennings’s inaugural appearance on Monday evening, which, in a dramatic twist, could’ve nearly ended in Final Jeopardy! heartbreak if it wasn’t for the show’s liberal rules with certain answers. (Pshh, like a first name is required for identifying a person.) Jennings was nice enough to hop on the phone with Vulture to reminisce about his experience with that episode, which he believes was the most intense match he played during his entire tenure on the show. We also discussed the white lies he’d tell during his anecdotes, his slow slide into fame, and the three clues he got wrong on that first day.
How are you? Have you turned down any more offers to play shitty trivia games from fans in quarantine?
I’ve been rejecting 100 percent of the offers to play trivia with fans in quarantine. Who was the famous model who said, “I’m not going to get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day?” That’s me right now. My family and I are doing well. I’ve been working from home for 15 years and I kind of like it, actually. Canceling plans has always been one of my favorite things to do, and now I’m in week six of it. I don’t want it to last forever, though.
Does it feel nice that Jeopardy! is reairing two of your most defining episodes, or are you pissed that the other 73 regular-season episodes are being snubbed?
I don’t feel too snubbed. I do hear a lot from Jeopardy! fans who want to see those shows, but I can’t help. I burned little discs of the episodes when they first aired, off my DVR, but if you didn’t have the foresight to do that then I can’t help you. [Laughs.] I’m a little salty that they’re going to air two of my games and I have a 50/50 record of those two games. The show is going to make me look like a .500 Jeopardy! player! But what are you going to do?
I was so surprised that your first episode isn’t lurking anywhere on the internet to be watched for free. Some fans you have!
People are going to be shocked when they see my face from 2004. It’s in standard definition — that’s how long ago I was on Jeopardy! It might just be in a square box. I was a lot smoother back then, too, in other ways you wouldn’t know.
Paint me a picture of 20-something Ken Jennings. Where were you in your life when you auditioned for the show and got the call to be a contestant?
I was 29. The year before, I was down in Los Angeles with a friend of mine on a short vacation, and we always talked about trying out for Jeopardy! since our days on a college quiz-bowl team. We called Sony and found out that there were no auditions that week, and it was actually a few days after we were planning to leave. We were super bummed, but finally said, “You know what? Let’s just come back. Why not?” We drove back home and came back. My wife was all right with it. We had been married for about four years at that point, my son had just been born, and we had recently moved into our starter home. I was a computer programmer at a small firm. So, we both drive back to Los Angeles, and we both passed the test at the Radisson on a Tuesday morning. It was great.
But a year goes by. I totally forgot about it, and suddenly I’m sitting at my boring job and a guy from Jeopardy! calls me. He was basically like, “Hey, you’re going to be on the show in three weeks.” I panicked.
Did your friend harbor any secret resentment that he also wasn’t chosen as a contestant?
It’s worse than that, because I may have been a part of the problem. You can’t play against somebody you know on Jeopardy! because of FCC regulations and possibilities of collusion. The fact that I was hogging the show for the last few months of his eligibility kept him from getting the call. I have some Irish guilt about it.
Did you go into this first episode with a goal for yourself, like, getting enough winnings to help with the mortgage for your starter home?
My very specific goal was … well, you try to lower expectations to yourself. What I said out loud was that I didn’t want to be negative going into Final Jeopardy! I mean, that’s embarrassing if you disappear before the last of the show. In my head, I thought it would be great to win. Just one game! You get to say you’re a Jeopardy! champion, and not that you just appeared on the show. It’s a big difference. It was always my favorite show as a kid and I admired all of the really good players. I knew them all by name. So, I really wanted to win that first game. That was my only goal. I was happy with one, and everything after that was gravy.
Do you recall your first conversation with Alex?
I never really got to hang out with him during my entire run because of those really strict FCC regulations left over from the ’50s game-show scandals. Contestants have to stay apart from the staffers who know the material, and, of course, Alex knows the game material. He studies every clue before every show. You don’t see Alex until the top of the show.
Well, how did it feel to see him then?
I remember standing behind the podium when he first walked out, and it was almost like an angelic visitation or vision, something you heard described and can’t believe it’s actually happening to you. He’s right there; he’s in 3-D; he’s talking. In our first contestant interview, he ended up asking about one of the stories on my card, which was about running out of gas on the Nevada desert and having to hitchhike with some unlikely folks, and I thanked them on the air. It went okay. That was the other thing I wanted to do, to not look like a tool in my interview. Because they can be dumb.
And you had to tell 75 anecdotes!
After my first round of shows, I was out of fun stories. But every week, Jeopardy! would call and be like, “You’re taping again next week, we need more stories for your cards!” I didn’t have any other stories to share. I’m gonna admit that sometimes I’d make things up. I wouldn’t pretend to be a hero or anything, but you can put anything on those cards. The show doesn’t fact-check that stuff. Alex would look at my card and be like, “Hey, Ken, it says here you really like airline food.” And I’d be like, “I do Alex, I kind of think it’s a fun treat!” He has to tilt his head and look quizzically at you regardless of what you say.
For such a meticulous research department, I’m shocked that they don’t fact-check the stories.
The clues are all double-checked, but for contestant anecdotes, you can say whatever you want.
Your first game is relatively normal by Jeopardy! standards, but I think people will be surprised to learn that there was a bit of drama surrounding your Final Jeopardy! answer. But before I ask, I’d love to know what you remember about the game, or if you have any other memories about it.
It’s crystal clear in my mind. Of all the years with amazing experiences I’ve had on Jeopardy! since then, nothing has come close to this one in intensity. Playing Jeopardy! for the first time just knocks your socks off. You’re expecting it to be chill like it is at home, and it’s so different on the other side of the screen, because you can’t believe the pace and the intensity and the number of things you’re being asked to do at once, in addition to the surreality of having Alex there. It’s a real experience. I had almost put the game away before the end of the second round, but then one of my fellow contestants found her buzzer groove, so I only had a narrow lead going in Final Jeopardy!
You only put the last name for Marion Jones as your Final Jeopardy! answer, which gave Alex pause. He had to confirm with the fact-checkers that it was an acceptable answer because “in terms of female athletes, there aren’t that many.” Did you actually know it was her, or did you make an educated guess with a common last name?
I saw the category was the Olympics, and I was like, Okay, I like this! I love watching the Olympics and I grew up never missing an hour of the Olympics. But then I realized it was about the 2000 Olympics, which wasn’t Atlanta in 1996, as I had imagined it would be. It was Sydney. The two weeks of the Sydney Olympics were the exact two weeks my wife and I were on our honeymoon. We were in London the entire time, and I didn’t see a single event. So I thought, Well, this might be the end for me. But it turned out to be something guessable. It didn’t really have the usual Jeopardy! puzzle or problem-solving element. Unless there’s a weird trick I didn’t realize, the answer was Marion Jones. I knew the answer.
The thing is, I had been trained by years of Jeopardy! watching and college quiz bowls that you only give the last name. Because there’s then an additional opportunity to introduce some kind of error. By default, I just wrote down “Who is Jones?” I didn’t even think what a common last name that is. It wasn’t until Alex revealed my answer that I realized it looked like I just guessed a random last name. Who is Jones? Who is Smith? Who is Williams? There was what seemed like an eternity of a pause. He looked at the judges’ table. It didn’t take too long before he got a nod. I don’t think it was a tough judgment call. The Jeopardy! rule is almost always “the last name is acceptable by itself” unless there’s a particular ambiguity, like Benjamin Harrison versus William Henry Harrison or something like that. I did think for a moment, There are probably a number of American athletes named Jones, is it not clear I meant Marion Jones? I remember feeling this wave of euphoria when Alex said it was correct. Somehow, against all odds in these 20 minutes, I survived. The perception of time was crazy. It felt like 30 seconds. I couldn’t keep up what was going on. I had survived!
After that initial win, what was your life like as a contestant? And how much did it change when your episodes started to air?
I never actually lived in Los Angeles, which was nice. We taped five shows in an afternoon. I’d usually fly down to L.A. for two days, tape two shows in 48 hours, and then fly back home. I couldn’t tell anybody where I had been or what had been going on because these shows weren’t going to air for three months or longer, and I signed an NDA. I told my boss at work because I didn’t want to get fired, and my wife knew because I didn’t want to get divorced. [Laughs.] She was always my first call when I got back to the Sony parking garage. But none of my friends, family, or co-workers knew why I was sneaking away a few times a month. At first I stayed with a friend down in Orange County, but it was too far. So I found this little fleabag motel right off the interstate near the studio that I loved, because a sign bragged that it had colored television and phones. Just completely untouched since the ’60s. As the summer went on and I won millions of dollars, I was still staying at that motel. I had my routine down! At one point they recognized me and they were like, “Why are you staying here, man?”
For months and months nobody recognized me because I played about 50 games before they began airing. But eventually when they aired, I started getting recognized at the rental-car place. That’s when I knew things were changing. The Jeopardy! contestants would always recognize me, which was a bummer. I would walk into a room and I’d see their faces fall. They were hoping that I had lost in the interim. I would try to get there right at the last minute so I wouldn’t have to sit in the waiting room with them. I didn’t want to hang out with those people!
That’s very courteous of you.
I wasn’t being a jerk and I wasn’t playing games with anybody. I was trying to be nice. I would always make sure I held the door open for people, but they were going to dislike me anyway. And that’s fair enough.
You got three clues wrong in your first game. I’d like to ask you these three clues now so you can redeem yourself.
Let’s see. It’s been 16 years, I’m definitely not the Jeopardy! player I once was.
Excuse me, GOAT?
It’s true! Okay, I’m ready.
The category is Country Time. “In April 1939 this country absorbed Albania.”
I bet I said Greece, but it’s Italy.
Oh, yeah! Now that I know Past Ken got it wrong, I’m going with my second answer. That’s a tough question. Who knows much about Albanian history in the prewar era?
This is also from Country Time. “A child prodigy, violinist Yehudi Menuhin was born in this country.”
Ahhhhhhhhhhhh. I get all those violinists confused. Did I say the U.S.?
You didn’t, but that’s the right answer.
I originally said Israel, didn’t I?
That you did!
It doesn’t matter. I got it now!
Last one is from Senatorial Successors. “Follows North Carolina’s Jesse Helms.”
I swung away and got this one wrong?
Yes, I swear!
See, this is a teaching moment. You should really keep your mouth shut on Jeopardy! unless you’re sure. Just shut up. It’s hard when you’re in the trenches to remember that. I think it might be Lindsey Graham?
It’s Elizabeth Dole.
Ah, of course. Lindsey Graham is from South Carolina. I took a shot at that, huh? I’m 66 percent better today than I was then. No complaints.