'Jeopardy!' winner Ken Jennings hopes his books will inspire young learners

Published: Saturday, Feb. 8 2014 3:45 p.m. MST

Ken Jennings in 2005.

King World

OREM — Ken Jennings grew up with a unique love for learning. Now, with two books he's written that are targeted at middle-grade readers being released this week, he hopes to share that love with a new generation of young learners.

The two new books, titled “Maps and Geography” (Little Simon, $7.99, ages 8-10) and “Greek Mythology” (Little Simon, $7.99, ages 8-10), are Jennings’ first books for children and the first in a series of what he calls Junior Genius Guides.

“The whole point of the books is that any kid can be a Junior Genius,” Jennings said. “It’s just a matter of liking to know weird stuff — being curious about the world around you. I definitely believe that. It’s a way of thinking. It’s not necessarily an IQ level.”

His historic run on “Jeopardy!” in 2004 earned him a permanent spot in American pop culture, but Jennings attributes much of his vast knowledge to his childhood.

“I was already the kind of kid that just comes out of the box, you know, full of annoying facts from the ‘Guinness Book of World Records,’ ” he said. “It just used to be a personality type — a certain type of kid that’s just an information sponge and can’t wait to tell you how long a giraffe’s tongue is.”

When Jennings’ father, who served a mission to Korea for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, got a job as an international lawyer, the family packed up and moved overseas.

Jennings spent 15 years in Korea and Singapore, spanning the entire 1980s and part of the ‘90s. While there, he had only one outlet to American pop culture — “Jeopardy!” which was aired daily on the Armed Forces television station. He remembers running home from school to watch it religiously.

“It’s funny,” he recalled. “I would watch the show as a kid and think, ‘Oh, these people are so smart!’ But it never really occurred to me that it was something you could actually do.”

During his college years, Jennings traveled around competing on the Quiz Bowl team at Brigham Young University, which established itself nationally as a top-10 team in the late ‘90s.

“I started to see people I knew from the Quiz Bowl world showing up on ‘Jeopardy!’ and ‘Millionaire’ and ‘Win Ben Stein’s Money,’ ” Jennings said. “These are actual people that I saw on weekends, and here they are paying off their student loans. I was like, ‘Wow, this is really something that you can do.’ ”

His curiosity eventually landed him a spot on “Jeopardy!” in 2004. Jennings won 74 straight games and amassed roughly $2.52 million during that time, earning him a worldwide reputation. Slate.com once dubbed him “the Michael Jordan of trivia, the Seabiscuit of geekdom.”

Jennings, now 39 and living in the Seattle area, said that his time on the show was not quite what he had expected as a kid.

“It’s so different than watching from your couch,” he said. “It’s so much more intense. It moves faster. The game literally goes so fast that your brain can’t keep up with the stress of it. It’s almost like before you know it, the show is over, and you’re just blinking at the scores. It’s a real crazy adrenaline rush. I really got addicted to it, actually.”

Jennings said the secret to “Jeopardy!” is knowing a little bit about everything.

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