Jennings buzzes in to cool $1 million

Month of `Jeopardy' proves rewarding

July 14, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Enough already.

Now that Ken Jennings, a baby-faced software engineer from Salt Lake City, has become the first person in Jeopardy! history to win $1 million, it's time for him to call it quits. It's the only way out, since it seems that no one can come close to toppling him.

Jennings, whose 30th appearance yesterday earned him $1,004,960, has done it in dominating fashion. He does not squeak by with $1 margins of victory and "Final Jeopardy!" cliffhangers. Instead, he tosses off competitors as if they had just wandered over from the Wheel of Fortune set. On Monday night, Jennings won with $52,000. The guy who came in second had $300.

"You have to be really smart to be on that show," said Ryan Ballengee, 21, of Pasadena, who reached the semifinals of Jeopardy's teen tournament in 2001. "They don't let slouches on Jeopardy! So the way he blows people away is unreal."

Former champions say they are mesmerized by Jennings, and they have been studying his technique over the last month. They speak in awe of his command over the buzzer and the breadth of his knowledge, and they appreciate that he has made Jeopardy! - a staid game show in which no one takes off their shirts or eats maggots - the summer's TV sensation.

"People talk about Jeopardy! now, and normally people don't talk about Jeopardy!" said Ballengee, now a graduate student in public policy at the University of Maryland. "In dominating the game, he's made Jeopardy! seem sexy again."


Barbara Walker of Westminster, a four-time Jeopardy! champion in 1996, who took home $46,000, has seen most of Jennings' appearances and is surprised by his margins of victory. That's why she thinks the show's producers may find a way to ease him off, especially with the current season ending this month. But she also says Jennings has been good for the show and is probably having a great time.

"Being on Jeopardy! was absolutely a blast," said Walker, 56, an administrator for the Carroll County school system. "It's a chance for all of us nerds to really show what we can do."

Jennings' amazing run has been possible because for this season, the show's 20th, the producers lifted the five-day limit on consecutive appearances. Now, contestants who keep winning can stay on the show until they lose. Former five-day champions say they have no problem with the rule change, but they also think it's unfair to compare their runs with Jennings'.

"Basically, I look at it like athletes who are from different eras," said Andrew Maly of Bel Air, who won $44,100 over five days in 1998. "I played by a set of rules and did the best I could under them."

Maly says the spike in the show's ratings - they're up 28 percent during Jennings' run - demonstrates that Jennings hasn't overstayed his welcome. But Maly wonders if the public will begin to turn on the contestant.

"I think most people want to see him get to a million dollars," said Maly, 40, an environmental engineer at Aberdeen Proving Ground. "And then they'll start saying, `You've had your fun, now it's time for someone else.'"

Maly wonders how anyone will ever knock Jennings off, given his uncanny knack for buzzing in first. Contestants cannot buzz in until after host Alex Trebek has finished reading a clue and an off-camera bar of lights turns on. Those who buzz in early are locked out for a half-second. So the key is getting into a rhythm with the person who controls the lights.

"When you're on that long, you know the buzzing, you know the rhythm," said Maly. "He's had 28, 29 opportunities to practice this. And everybody else has had rehearsal and they're expected to get it and go on."

But the 30-year-old Jennings also seems to possess a broad and seemingly bottomless well of trivia and information. He correctly answers questions on topics ranging from birds to Italian operas to the Bible. He recently missed a question on horse racing's Triple Crown, but he did correctly name Maryland's first female lieutenant governor.

A Mormon and a graduate of Brigham Young University, Jennings has pledged to tithe his winnings. He comes across as earnest, competitive and sometimes a little arrogant. When Trebek noted on Monday night's show that Jennings was the only contestant on the plus side, he responded, "That's cool."

But former contestants say Jennings, whose run began on June 2, should be given some slack.

"He's cocky, but who wouldn't be?" said Joy Y. Bell of Gainesville, Fla., who won $15,700 and a trip to Mexico over two days in 1993. "What human being who has been on Jeopardy! 29 times wouldn't be cocky at this point?"

Bell, a former Columbia resident, said she likes that Jennings is relentless and doesn't give his competitors an inch. She also hopes he takes it as far as he can and doesn't give in to critics who say he should quit.

"He's an odd bird, but he's having a good old time," she said. "He's trying to make it fun for himself - playing with how he writes his name [he writes in different styles each night], doing whatever he can to stay on and keep winning. And I admire that."

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