REDMOND, Wash., Dec. 6, 2004 — From June through November, he correctly answered thousands of questions — on topics ranging from Viking explorers to 17th century physicists — in the midst of a record 75 consecutive wins on television’s “Jeopardy!” game show. Now Ken Jennings is focused on continuing his winning streak on the small screen by challenging news desks across the U.S. to take the challenge to “Quiz the Whiz.” His biggest competitor? Microsoft Encarta.
Starting today, media nationwide will try to stump the “Jeopardy!” champion, using content from the new Microsoft Encarta Reference Library Premium 2005.
Before embarking on his new role as Encarta spokesman, Jennings answered questions about the streak that made him a national phenomenon, his thoughts on the best research sources, techniques that gave him the edge, and what’s next.
Q: You won more than US$2.5 million dollars over 75 episodes of “Jeopardy!” How did you do it?
Jennings: I’ve always considered myself to be a very curious person by nature. If I don’t know the answer to something, it’s like a mystery I need to solve; it spurs me on to find out more information. I read just about everything I can pick up, I watch a lot of movies and I also like to enter my questions into Encarta; it’s a great digital encyclopedia with the answers a mouse click away.
Q: Did you practice any particular techniques to help give you a winning edge?
Jennings: My experience with the National Association of Quiz Tournaments (NAQT) has helped me broaden my familiarity with topics; I write and edit quiz questions for NAQT on literature and mythology. Other than that, my only real “technique” is a very broad one that applies to my whole life: I try to always be in the pursuit of knowledge, even if I’m just leafing through a newspaper or chatting with someone on a plane.
Q: What do you find to be some of the most helpful information sources?
Jennings: When I’m writing literature quiz questions for NAQT, my favorite sources are “The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature,” the Masterplots series, and of course the book summaries in Encarta. Some of my favorite reference works are “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable,” “Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Allusions,” Cecil Adams’ “Straight Dope” collections, howstuffworks.com and the subsequent books, and Charles Panati’s “Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things” and its sequels.
Q: What do you see as some of the hazards from looking for info on the Internet?
Jennings: The Internet can be an incredible resource, but the scary thing is you never know what’s out there or whether the answer you will find will be accurate. In fact, out of curiosity I searched for myself once and turned up all sorts of erroneous information. One seemingly reputable and authoritative page even had my name wrong! That’s why I really enjoy using Encarta: all its content has been reviewed by a team of editorial experts and all the Web sites include approved content.
Q: Do you think in today’s world it’s easier to amass as much information as you have in your life, or do the many distractions actually make it more difficult?
Jennings: I’m guessing that in the days of the great Renaissance men, like Ben Franklin or Leonardo da Vinci, human knowledge was small enough that one person could be an expert in every subject. You could literally know everything in those days! Nowadays there’s just too much to know in too many fields, and lots of it is technical and specialized. But I think there are wonderful opportunities today for interested people to “graze” a little in all the areas that interest them. For example: Ben Franklin and Leonardo didn’t, as far as I know, have the Internet and educational TV and online encyclopedias and public libraries everywhere.
Q: Why are you working with Microsoft Encarta?
Jennings: I’ve been using Encarta since the first version came out, more than a decade ago. It’s been fascinating to watch the content and information grow and get more sophisticated with the evolution of technology. It seems like a natural fit: Encarta has a long-standing commitment to furthering education, and I’ve had a lot of kids tell me that watching me on “Jeopardy!” has made reading and learning seem just a little cooler.
Q: How does Encarta help you learn?
Jennings: With Encarta, you see for yourself how stars live and die in space, you don’t just have to read about it. I love the breadth of content; whether it’s when I’m using the Interactive Atlas or looking at its Literature Guides — in fact I turn to Encarta to help me build quiz content for NAQT.
Q: What is your favorite moment from the months you were on “Jeopardy!”?
Jennings: As great as the whole streak was, nothing was as exciting as the very first game. It was a close match, with exciting come-from-behind run from one of my opponents. The Final Jeopardy question was about “The 2000 Olympics,” and I thought that was about the worst category possible: my wife and I had been on our honeymoon during the Sydney games and I hadn’t seen a single event! I made a lucky guess and it was enough to win the game. Winning just one game exceeded any expectations I’d had for myself, so I felt this incredible wave of relief and happiness wash over me. It was great.
Q: What was your scariest moment on “Jeopardy!”?
Jennings: My 49th game came at the start of a new season on the show, so I hadn’t played “Jeopardy!” in months. I was out of practice, and I had to play a very bright guy whom I knew a little bit from the world of quiz bowl. He had been able to spend the whole summer practicing to play me, and for most of the game, he was just as fast and accurate as I was. He kept the score close enough that I absolutely had to get the Final Jeopardy clue right to win. If I got it wrong, he would win, even if he was wrong. Luckily the clue was about “Poets,” a strong category for me, and it turned out to be about Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, two of my very favorites. I was the only one who knew it, and I lived to fight another day, but it was a very close call!
Q: How many total questions do you think you answered correctly in your time on “Jeopardy!”, and what do you think was the most difficult question?
Jennings: The folks at “Jeopardy!” say it amounted to about 2,700 questions. There were many difficult questions, many of which I didn’t answer correctly. The hardest one that I can remember asked for the name of the last grand master of the Knights Templar. “Who is Jacques de Molay?” apparently. I’d never even heard of the guy. I just looked him up in Encarta, and he gets a brief mention under “Military Religious Orders” but that’s about it. Tough question!
Q: You’ve mentioned that your buzzer technique was very helpful in your success — what did you do different than other contestants?
Jennings: The buzzer on the show is all about rhythm and timing–you’ll get beat if you’re either too early or too late when you ring in. I think I just had more practice than most other people, which helped me to find and keep that rhythm. While watching the show at home, I used my son’s plastic ring-stack toy as a faux buzzer to try to prepare me for the real thing.
Q: What is Alex Trebek like off-camera?
Jennings: When it comes to Alex, what you see is what you get–very polite, dignified, and scrupulously fair to all three contestants. He’s old-school. But when the camera’s not running, you can also tell he’s a funny guy. He’s always trying out little goofy comedy bits or accents or snatches of song and dance.
Q: Does your 2-year-old son watch you on “Jeopardy!”? Is he a fan?
Jennings: Dylan is possibly America’s biggest “Jeopardy!” fan. He never misses a show. Sometimes he asks for the “Jeopardy!” theme to be sung to him as a bedtime lullaby. He’s heard me introduced on the show so many times that he often calls “KEN JENNINGS!” around the house instead of “Daddy.”
Q: So what are you going to do with all of your winnings?
Jennings: Next summer, my wife and I are planning a trip to Europe, to show each other the cities there where we’ve each lived. Most of the money will be invested to finance our kids’ education, and a possible return to school or career change for me. I also plan to donate to causes that interest me: the environment, AIDS and cancer research, a scholarship fund, and to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which I’m a member.
Q: When you finally lost, what did you feel like?
Jennings: I don’t consider my last show a loss — I definitely don’t consider this experience something I’m walking away a loser from (laughs). I did feel some relief, as it’s been a long and exciting experience for me — I’m looking forward to spending lots of time with my family. Hopefully Dylan will start calling me Daddy again soon.