Utah computer programmer Ken Jennings now a trivia icon

By Stephanie Moreton

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Feb. 13 2011 9:23 p.m. MST

Utahn Ken Jennings won 74 consecutive games of "Jeopardy!" in 2004, a record that still stands today.

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Who is Ken Jennings?

His is a name that echoes in the halls of game-show glory and trivia geekdom fame alike. It is the first "Jeopardy!" household name in decades. Who would have thought a Mormon computer programmer in Utah would turn into a pop-culture icon?

Now, Jennings and another "Jeopardy!" master, Brad Rutter, will face off against Watson, the IBM supercomputer, beginning today in a three-day battle that pits human versus machine in the ultimate challenge of trivial knowledge.

Trivial knowledge is what gave Jennings unexpected celebrity status after 74 consecutive "Jeopardy!" wins and more than $2.5 million in earnings. His unprecedented game-show success came from a change in "Jeopardy!" rules that allowed contestants to play until they lost rather than be cut off after five games. The rules change, accompanied by his strange ability to remember random trivia and his astute buzzer technique, led Jennings to win the most consecutive "Jeopardy!" games ever, a record that still stands. Not only did he win those 74 games, for the most part he blew the other contestants completely out of the water, answering 92 percent of buzzed-in responses correctly and locking up victories before the Final Jeopardy question in 65 of his 74 games.

Rutter, however, the show's biggest all-time money winner and the second-biggest all-time money winner on a game show, soon passed Jennings' record of most money won on "Jeopardy!" by racking up more than $3.2 million.

So how did Jennings make it from an average, everyday guy to a television folk hero challenging a supercomputer?

Although born outside of Seattle, Jennings grew up overseas — his father was an attorney in Korea. He religiously watched "Jeopardy!" every day after school on the Armed Forces Network and called the game show his first love. Jennings returned to the United States to study English and computer science at the University of Washington and BYU, interrupted by a two-year mission to Madrid, Spain, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

While at BYU, Jennings captained the university's academic competition team and started to take his childhood dream of going on "Jeopardy!" more seriously. He was working as a software engineer in Salt Lake City in 2004 when "Jeopardy!" producers called to inform him that he had made the cut to compete on an episode in June. The rest is history.

From June to November 2004, Jennings captivated American audiences and boosted the show's ratings by more than 22 percent. In the sea of reality TV shows and celebrities, Jennings stood as a paragon of knowledge, a clean-cut, upstanding, cheerful and just plain all-around good guy. He was someone America could root for.

Jennings' religion was on the forefront of how he was defined by the media. His descriptions always seemed to be prefaced with "Mormon." It was interesting to see how his religious beliefs made him such an anomaly in the television industry — how many other game show contestants are known by their religion? Indeed, there existed mixed reactions to the trivia buff, but for the most part, Jenning's humble, self-deprecating nature led audiences across the country to cheer for him, LDS or not.

After his run ended on a tax-related question in November 2004, Jennings returned to Utah as a national television star with many endorsement offers and a full bank account. Jennings appeared on major television talk shows and was named one of the 10 most fascinating people of 2004 by Barbara Walters.

He resumed his job as a computer programmer until he decided to become a freelance writer. Jennings has since published two books, "Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs" and "The Ken Jennings Trivia Almanac." He moved from Salt Lake City to Seattle, where he lives with his wife and kids.

Since his shot to trivia superstardom, Jennings' name has become synonymous with improbable human braininess. Indeed, perhaps he's reached the ultimate goal of any trivia buff: becoming a piece of trivia himself.

e-mail: smoreton@desnews.com

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