“No one would watch me on Jeopardy! and say, ‘Wow, this guy is smarter than Stephen Hawking because he knows all his state birds.’ I think they know it’s a different thing.”
If I get a few answers right on Jeopardy!, I pat myself on the back. Ken Jennings won 74 games in a row and accumulated $2.5 million in winnings.
In June of 2004, Jennings rose from obscurity in Seattle, Washington, and captivated audiences with an unprecedented streak on one of America’s longest running, and most beloved, game shows. Night in and night out he dominated opponents and for six months straight seemed unbeatable. His highest one game total was $75,000, which still stands as the second highest total of all time.
Finally, on his 75th appearance, he succumbed to defeat. He entered final Jeopardy! with a sizable lead, but botched this clue: Most of this firm’s 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only 4 months a year. He said Fed-Ex. The answer was H & R Block. The crowd gasped. His opponent, Nancy Zerg, was shocked. The streak was over, but it was only the beginning of Jennings’ time in the spotlight.
Following the historic run, he found a platform to fulfill his dream of unleashing his wit and passion for knowledge onto the world. In the 11 years since Jeopardy!, he’s become an author of five history and trivia books, with titles like Ken Jennings’s Trivia Almanac and Junior Geniuses Guides. He contributes a regular quiz to Slate, where he puts readers through a rigorous test of weekly world events. He also operates a popular Twitter account where he tweets a daily stream of sarcastic, witty, thoughts. On his timeline, you’ll find gems like:
Yes, in fact I DO know what it's like to bleed like crazy once a month. That's my flossing schedule.
— Ken Jennings (@KenJennings) March 6, 2015
Jennings would later return for a few victory laps on Jeopardy! and rake in an additional $600,000. He’s also appeared on other shows like Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader? and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
There is enormous divide between my knowledge catalogue (and probably yours) and Ken Jennings’. So how did he become the human computer of trivia?
It can largely be attributed to two things: extensive traveling and religiously watching his favorite show, Jeopardy! Ken Jennings was born in 1974, just outside Seattle, Washington. But he spent the first fifteen years of his life living in Korea and Singapore, where his father, an attorney, settled for work. During those years, Jennings became an avid after-school viewer of Jeopardy! He was hooked. And from there his passion for knowledge sprouted.
As an adult, he returned to the US and studied English and Computer Science at Brigham Young University. It was here that he formalized his trivia pursuit by becoming the captain of the quiz bowl team and editing questions for the National tournaments. After graduation, he pursued a more pragmatic route and worked as a software engineer in Salt Lake City. He still, however, kept up his trivia and even applied to be on Jeopardy! One day in 2004, the call came, and his entire life changed.
There is much I WANNA KNOW from America’s greatest trivia master. I caught up with Jennings in March of 2014.
From Jeopardy!, to his time as a Mormon missionary, to becoming an author, to facing one’s mortality, we cover it all.
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Your latest release, the Junior Genius Guides, is your 5th book. How does it feel to have transformed into a professional writer?
It’s exciting. The only thing I was ever good at as a kid was writing. I was an English major at school for quite a while. I thought I’d go teach medieval literature of something. I remember one of my friends saying, what’s the difference between an English major and a large pizza? At least a pizza can feed a family of four. I added computer science as a double major at that time. I ended up, in 2000, working for a start up. I wasn’t that great at it and wasn’t happy. I just wanted to write, but I didn’t know how to make a living out of it. And now I guess I know how. You go on a game show 74 times and they let you write books. It’s been very exciting. I remember the first time the box came with the first book, I was wigging out.
This book continues your fascination with maps and geography. Research has shown that many Americans don’t know much about geography. Why is this issue important for you?
That’s one of the reasons I wrote a kid’s book. It’s too late to convince grown ups. I wrote a book called Maphead about how I felt about it. I remember people who interviewed me being bewildered, you like maps? These are people who associate maps with stress. They only look at them when something has gone wrong. It’s only a recreational thing. So I figured kids are the right audience. Kids see mystery and adventure still. The same thing people saw on maps 500 years ago. So, I would argue that map ignorance is just a symptom. Nothing is going to go wrong if you can’t exactly point to Romania or Afghanistan. It’s just a symptom of curiosity. If 90 per cent of Americans can’t find Afghanistan on the map, I’m sure they have a strong opinion on American foreign policy there. What does that say about the rigorousness and the legwork of their opinion? That’s the least you should be able to do, know where things are.
I loved in your TED talk when you talked about knowledge going obsolete. There’s interesting paradoxes between having more knowledge at our finger tips than ever with technology, but more ignorance and stupidity floating around. How do you reconcile a world with everything at our fingertips and yet people not knowing the country above them?
I wonder if that’s related. There’s so much more to know now. It’s much harder to be a Thomas Jefferson style renaissance man today. We have to accept there are literally thousands of fields to master. Most of them are isolated and esoteric. You can’t know everything. I remember reading a couple weeks ago about a study on aging in the brain. The brain’s retrieval works fine, but there’s just so much more stuff in there that facts get tangled and confused. Maybe that’s where we are as a society. Now we’ve accumulated too much for anyone to know everything. It seems like, why bother? I’ll look it up if I need to.
You played Watson the IBM computer on Jeopardy. It seems like there’s this idea that if we can build a piece of technology we should, because we can. Is it worth pursing what machines can do even if it makes us dumber? And are we too far gone to go back?
I think we’re too far gone. Maybe we’re in an uncomfortable middle state. We are outsourcing our abilities one at a time. I have a GPS and know I don’t have to know how to get to my job. All these skills go away one at time. Eventually as the interfaces of these tools get better, we’ll have to start thinking of all that stuff as part of our brain; our cellphone, Google, plus GSP. Soon it will be some heads up display, a chip in the brain, not Google Glass hopefully. That’s just what our brain is: me plus the cloud
Humans created Watson and Watson can beat humans at Jeopardy. Do you just look at Watson as an extension of human ingenuity?
That was IBM’s spin. They had two headlines ready: Humanity wins, Watson loses; Humanity wins, Watson wins. I’m sympathetic to that. Watson could do things no human could ever do. And did things that humans didn’t teach it to do, like the speed on the buzzer. It had ways to compare millions of combinations and phrases. We didn’t have to teach it that, we just had to press a button and start it.
Is it fair to say you wouldn’t fear that robots could take over the world? Because it’s really like humans taking over. We just created a way to work less.
That’s the idea I think. It’s old fashion, a 1960’s idea, that automation creates a way to have hours every day for art and leisure. These days it’s easier to say we’ve automated ourselves out of a purpose. Why am I even here? How do I fill the day? I remember having a few existential months after Jeopardy!, “Well, here you are, your dreams came true. You have money. You can do exactly what you want to do.” I remember thinking, that’s awesome, but I have no idea what that is.
At the end of your book Junior Geniuses you have a quote from Blaise Pascal, “It is much better to know something about everything, than everything about something.” I’m wondering if you’ve received pushback from those who might say if we know too much about little things, we miss the importance of their context? So we might learn where Afghanistan is on a map, but not know why America invaded.
Yeah, it’s pretty easy to push back against Pascal there and he’s not here to defend himself. If there’s a trend though that is problematic in our society it’s specialization. We are all very good at our fields. We know all the buzzwords, and the latest trends in our field. But our field is becoming increasingly hermetic and hard to explain to others. So we’ve lost this vast sense of cultural literacy. When I say I’m in favor of being a bit more of a generalist, I agree that can make you an annoying spouter of factoids. It feels like it’s making you come off as smart. Nobody is fooled by that. Someone with a shallow grasp of a lot of fields, we know they’re not for real. No one would watch me on Jeopardy and say, “Wow, this guy is smarter than Stephen Hawking because he knows all his state birds.” I think they know it’s a different thing.
Going back to geography. Maps were created with a Western orientation. Should we take some truths as they are? Or should we also seek the context and try to change our knowledge of things?
Maps are a really good example of that. It seems much more authoritative than any reference. You look at a map and think I’m seeing a picture that is true of the world. But you’re exactly right, maps make compromises, artistic decisions, theological decisions. That goes into every map: what goes in, what you leave out. Is Africa at the top? Or the bottom? Medieval maps used to have the East at the top. That’s where the word Orient comes from. You would orient a map by putting it at the top. There’s also map projections. People all over the world will draw Africa too small. Because of the projections we’ve used for centuries. I’m a big fan of digging into and exposing whatever those compromises are. Not just with geography, but with everything. I wrote a book about parental misinformation, like it’s not bad to sit close to the TV. I wrote a weekly column with the same thing. Here’s something you always thought was true, but it’s not even close. It’s a grabber. It’s a good way to get people interested in a field. It’s not true there’s different fields on your tongue that relate to different tastes. People just believe what they were taught in school, whether it’s true or not. On another level, that skepticism is really important. That’s scientific method at work.
This idea of truth shifting is interesting because it seems like an oxymoron. It’s as if we have to monitor the state of some perceived truths. I read an article recently saying eating meat and cheese is more unhealthy than smoking. How do you balance seeking knowledge and assessing its validity?
It is funny how people believe what they want. I remember writing that “Ring Around the Rosie” is not about the bubonic plague. People got upset. You realize how much of our passion is what our fourth grade teach taught us. People have no stake in what “Ring Around the Rosie” is about. Yet they are angry at me. I rely on facts like that. I’m better at world capitals of countries that existed when I was a kid. I’m foggy on the former Russian republics, because the world changed and I was invested in that known world. It sometimes just becomes information overload. People think, they said two glasses of wine is good, now it’s bad. It causes people to tune out. We are constantly debunking conventional wisdom for shock value.
What is the origin of “Ring Around the Rosie? I thought it was the bubonic plague.
It turns out the idea of the bubonic plague idea dates back to the late 1950s, no later. An earlier version of the song doesn’t have the clever parallels. A whole bunch of literature came about because of the historical resonance. It’s actually based on a children’s dance, with nonsense syllables to allow the movement of the dance. So, it means nothing. It’s sort of a bummer.
You are a practicing Mormon. As someone so intensely studied and read, does knowledge ever conflict with your faith?
I’ve sort of become a big believer in the power of doubt. When you’re younger you really like certainty. That’s what religion does for a lot of people. The world is a big confusing place, but you can do these simple things and you’ll be good. And you know, later in life, I really appreciate doubt because certainty is dangerous. You’ll stop questioning your actions, why you do the things you do, why you value the things you do. You’re constantly re-evaluating that kind of stuff. If it is of value you’ll appreciate it more. Anybody who has faith without doubting is doing it wrong.
The Mormon faith is often called into question for its historical accuracy. How do you respond to those questions?
I almost feel like you can’t. Obviously there’s no factually converting someone to Mormonism. They might know the basics and it’s silly. Because it is. The founding myths are all pretty weird. Religious people have to admit that’s what we like about them. We’re not going to make them sound sensible. Maybe we could 200 years ago. I’m used to the idea that doesn’t work. If we want to persuade people of the value of religion it has to be about how it affected our life and how it resonates with how we act and see the universe. And not just arguing, of course you’re wrong, haven’t you read the Bible? That’s not going to work.
There’s a lot of misconceptions and misunderstanding about Mormons. If there was one thing you’d like to clear up, what would it be?
Um, I don’t know. I guess it’s become politically fashionable because of Mitt Romney running for President, and with debates on gay marriage, to use Mormons as a shorthand of intolerance. You’d see people scoring points against Romney by saying he’s propping up a racist institution by donating to the Latter Day Saints (LDS) church. The LDS church institutionalizes homophobia. I mean, there are plenty of good arguments. They did have racist policies until as late as 1978 and still have a problematic relationship with them. It has the same complicated relationship to gay issues that many religious traditions do. I think culturally we’ve seen remarkable changes in Mormons in general. I feel like Mormons should not be used as shorthand for silly gullible people willing to do cruel things in the name of their faith. People meet Mormons and there’s this disconnect. They’re nice, good neighbors. But there’s this public perception because of a few hardline issues. Let’s be honest, the LDS church chose to become the face of stepping up against gay marriage at the wrong time. They brought that on themselves. It hurts them. I wish people knew Mormons aren’t monolithic. If they are monolithic anything it’s not racist, unfriendly to gays, it’s monolithically salt of the earth neighbors doing their best.
You spent two years in Spain doing your Mormon missionary service. Were those seminal years in your life?
Yeah that’s pretty common in Mormon culture to have that fond nostalgia of your two years as a missionry. It’s right between high school and college. It keeps a lot of kids out of trouble. It’s very, very hard to live this monastic lifestyle when you’re 18, 19 or 20. I look fondly back on it for the focus on it. Waking up everyday, trying to do one thing, and asking how am I going to help people today? Mormon missionaries they are not Jehovah Witnesses. They are not trying to argue with you. They’re looking for those who are curious to answer questions. I thought it was more defensible than going door to door and yelling at people. You’re 20 years old and living like a medieval monk, just thinking about this weird aesthetic life and the mysteries of the world. It’s a weird thing.
This upbringing and traveling the world led you towards Jeopardy!. Does it feel like ten years ago?
It feels hard to believe it’s 10 years go. But maybe it shouldn’t. I’m a full time writer now. I’ve done all this crazy stuff. My kids are obviously 10 years older. I have another kid. We moved to Seattle. I got to go on Sesame Street. But it does still feel like, how can this be 10 years ago? How am I turning 40?
How much do you attribute your success on Jeopardy! to luck? Or does your religious-self apply more purpose to the outcomes?
Luck’s a huge part of it. Jeopardy! convinced me of that. I think a lot of people will say, “Finally someone got rich because he deserves it. He wasn’t just trading options. He was smart and now he’s got money.” I think that’s exactly the wrong lesson. Jeopardy! is not a meritocracy the way it seems. I caught so many breaks. Many people don’t even get to go on that want to. Looking back at tapes there were at least a dozen times where if one question goes the wrong way I lose. I almost lost my first game. So you see what a nice edge people’s outcomes rely on. It makes you push back against idea that in America the right people get rich and the poor deserve it. My own Jeopardy! experience convinces me that’s not true. It’s a huge crap game.
What is it that makes Jeopardy! so special as a gameshow? It is because the contestants are generally pursuing knowledge and not wealth?
I think it feels high brow. Jeopardy! has a different feel than Who Wants to be a Millionaire. They don’t ramp up the drama. Alex Trebek says, “Let’s go to work.” I think that’s funny. Jeopardy! is an institution to people. They don’t relate to it like other shows, they don’t want excitement and they certainly don’t want change. They want it to be the same as it was when they were kids. It’s been the same every night for 50 years. People relate to it that way. It’s part of the rhythm of their evening. It’s not entertainment.
Is that resistance to change why Arthur Chu pissed off so many Jeopardy! fans?
Yeah it shows people don’t want exciting. They prefer for their contestants to be a faceless series of cogs in a machine. Anyone who comes on whose name you remember, people don’t like. There like, “this guy again.” Some people were like something’s happening on Jeopardy! when I was on. But hardcore fans who make it a part of their evening thought, I wish it would just go back to being about Jeopardy!, not Ken or Arthur. Old people hate you when you are memorable.
Is there friendly competition and camaraderie with you and other Jeopardy! contestants who have done very well?
It is very collegial. When we get together it is a little club. Personally when I see headlines about Arthur, I’m not like Gloria Swanson saying, “I used to be big!” I like it when Jeopardy! is relevant. Part of it is because my streak was so improbable, It doesn’t look like anyone can reach it. Maybe there will be some time when someone’s making a run and I’ll be like this is the only thing people will remember me for and I’m gonna get passed by this joker!
You lost to a woman named Nancy Zerg. She’s now so connected with your story. Do you keep in touch?
Yeah I’ve seen Nancy a few times. She lives near Ventura. I did a book event and she came and we hung out. She’s got family in Seattle. Last time we were in town we had lunch. It’s funny how life just throws you together. We don’t have much in common, but one thing we have is a YouTube video of us that millions of people have watched. It is funny to reminsce about that.
That clip of you losing went viral. Do you ever YouTube other gameshow contestants losing on easy questions?
I’ve seen a few of those. I actually feel bad. I’m the worst guy as far as cringing along. I find it hard to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm. And much worse than that is the Jeopardy! contestant interviews. I always fast forwrad, they are so awkward. I have a hard time appreciating the awkward suffering of others on TV, I gotta say.
I’ve listened to you talk about the way your brain is slowing down. How does it make you feel realizing your intellectual capacities are declining?
It makes you think about death. All the time. I’m not depressed. It’s like a pitcher who realizes he doesn’t have the same speed on the ball. Or a receiver who realizes he can’t get to some of those passes anymore. There’s nothing you can do about the march of time. I’ve always thought I’ll always be like this, aging and death that’s for other people. Seeing myself get physically slower at Jeopardy!, the one thing I was good at, makes you think everything is fleeting. Certainly that kind of youthful glory. I look so young looking at tape of me on Jeopardy!. I think, “just enjoy it, it’s not going to last.
Maybe God wants us to slow down and focus on things that really matter later in life.
A lot of evidence suggests people get happier early on in life or later. Middle age people are unsatisfied and discontent. When you get older, none of that stuff matters. I’m still ailve that’s what matters.
As someone who’s known to be a wealth of information, if you could know the answer to one question, what would it be?
If you’d asked me as a teenager I would have said the Kennedy Assassination. Right around the time the Oliver Stone movie came out, I was obsessed with who shot JFK. I feel the only right answer is the existence of God. If there was some final Jeopardy! and I could get Alex Trebek to tell me the right answer to any question it would be that. That’s the great mystery. I hope that’s the answer for everyone. Even the most die hard, fedora wearing, atheist. Or weirdo snake handling evangelical. I hope they would say that’s the right answer. From a six month Jeopardy! winner that’s the right answer to know.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON KEN JENNINGS:
1) Visit his webiste: www.ken-jennings.com
2) Follow him on Twitter: @KenJennings