Ken Jennings hits his final `Jeopardy!'

After 74 games, he bags $2.5 million

December 01, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

The man who won $2.5 million playing Jeopardy! was finally tripped up by a question about taxes.

Ken Jennings' record-breaking run as Jeopardy! champion came to an end last night, when the boy wonder who seemed invincible missed two Daily Doubles and then incorrectly answered the Final Jeopardy clue. The audience gasped, but Jennings held himself together and offered a wide, maybe even relieved grin.

The ending was anti-climactic in a way, since the news had been all over the Internet since Monday, including an audio clip of Jennings' final Final Jeopardy.

The category was Business and Industry, and the clue was, "Most of this firm's 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only 4 months a year."

Challenger Nancy Zerg, a real estate agent from Ventura, Calif., answered correctly: "What is H&R Block?" Jennings, a software engineer from Salt Lake City, went with "What is Fed Ex?"- thinking perhaps of the holiday season rather than tax season. And so Zerg won with $14,001 to Jennings' $8,799. His string of 75 consecutive Jeopardy! appearances was over. Last year's rule change allows winners to return until they lose.

The astonished Zerg cupped her hands over her mouth and Jennings graciously embraced her. Then the audience gave Jennings a standing ovation.

An apparently pleased host, Alex Trebek, said, "Nancy Zerg, congratulations, you are indeed a giant killer!" He then told Jennings to look at the audience and said, a bit more somberly, "All good things have to come to an end, don't they? Well, too bad for Ken, but he's going home with a lot of money - 2 1/2 million dollars. Congratulations, young man."

Jennings looked solid through the first round of last night's show, which featured Seinfeld-themed categories like "A Category About Nothing," "The Contest" and "No Soup for You!" (It's certainly no more than a coincidence that Jeopardy! is produced by Sony Pictures Television and the Seinfeld DVDs were released last week by Sony Entertainment.)

Jennings had a comfortable lead of $10,600 to Zerg's $4,800 at the end of Round 1. But he was undone by two tough Daily Doubles in the second round - one about a town in Belgium liberated by Gen. George Patton (it was Bastogne) and another about a brimless hat popular in the 1920s (a cloche).

For perhaps the first time in the last six months, Jennings seemed human. He made mistakes and hit categories in which he drew complete blanks (try Pro Sports Venues). He went into Final Jeopardy with a narrow lead of $14,400 to Zerg's $10,000. And when he lost, he seemed more relieved than anything.

In winning more money than anyone has ever won on any game show, Jennings has been both celebrated and despised - celebrated for his easy manner, graciousness and geek chic appeal, while despised for his effortless brilliance, occasional arrogance and his hijacking of a game show that once belonged solely to host Trebek.

Jennings' streak proved to be a ratings bonanza for the show, putting it up 22 percent over last year.

A former Jeopardy! champion, Barbara Walker of Westminster, tuned in, although she said she had trouble watching some of Jennings' victories.

"It was very hard to watch what I knew were other good contestants constantly losing and getting blown out of the water," said Walker, a four-time champion who took home $46,000 in 1996. "I know it's a big deal and a lot of effort just to get on the show, so when it's so dramatically one-sided, it's difficult for people."

Jennings, whom Trebek called "the Jet Li of television quiz shows," won't be disappearing from our lives entirely. He was scheduled to appear on both Nightline and the Late Show with David Letterman last night. He'll chat with Regis Philbin on his show this week, as well, and he has a book deal.

Jennings' amazing run began June 2. His average daily haul was $34,063.51. He gave more than 2,700 correct responses. He shattered Jeopardy!'s daily record with a $75,000 payday in Game 38 of his run.

Jennings said yesterday that he had been thinking about voluntarily quitting after some future milestone, like 100 wins or $3 million or $4 million in winnings. He said there were about a dozen games where one reply made the difference between winning and losing.

"The fact that they had all fallen my way was beginning to worry me," he said, "because at some point the law of averages was going to kick in."

Former champions say Jennings deserves all the credit for his mastery of a broad range of subjects - he tore through categories from country music to classical composers - and his expertise with the buzzer. They also admired his endurance; Jeopardy! tapes a week's worth of episodes in a single day.

"The biggest thing is not that he knows so much and is so quick on the trigger, but that he hasn't lost interest," said Michael Shutterly, a lawyer from Richmond, Va., who won $49,200 in five days in 1988. "He's one with Alex. He knows when to hit the buzzer. He jumps right into it."

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