The Unbearable Brightness of Being Ken
Thirty—eight straight games, over $1,300,000 in winnings, every record broken and 76 challengers crushed by Jeopardy! juggernaut Ken Jennings. His phenomenal performance has generated responses that run the gamut from love to hate; from deep suspicion to cultish adoration, while others are left to musings upon the nature of genius and fairness.
It all began with the decision at the outset of the show's 20th season to allow contestants more than 5 wins. You kept on playing until you lost. Obviously nobody considered the possibility that a Ken Jennings would appear on the game show horizon; that a 30 year old Mormon software engineer whose countenance defines "nerd" would be visited upon them. And this is where the "fairness" aspect arises.
In the old format the 5—time champ would be retired. The next time he or she competed, it was against their peers —— other 5—time winners. The current situation presents us with two rookies, two novices, going up against Jennings The Dominator. Pick your poison here, but it is like sending minor leaguers in to play the pros.
Genius is defined variously as "a person of extraordinary intellect and talent" and "exceptional or transcendent intellectual or creative power." Ken Jennings is said to have a genius IQ of 175. He also has artistic talent. And as Holmes, explaining his own brand of genius to Watson, said: "Art in the blood is likely to take on the strangest forms." Some Jeopardy! fans, pondering the Category King, might be excused for thinking he may not just be a strange human form, but an alien life form, possibly a Venusian.
Beyond this, there are folks who are convinced that, since no human can be as omniscient as Ken seems to be, he must be cheating. Their conspiracy theories range from use of cranial implants or an invisible earplug to covertly relaying categories and answers in advance. His admirers hotly deny any such possibility, averring that their hero is blessed with high IQ, an eidetic memory, comprehensive preparation and superb reflexes.
Then are those who cannot bring themselves to like a player so quick with the snarky quips. These were previewed early on when Alex asked about his not seeming to like a category having to do with businessmen. Replied Jennings: "I hate them. Come the revolution we're gonna hang 'em all." Of course, Jennings may have been joking, which doesn't say much for his sense of humor. Weeks later, after accumulating nearly a million bucks, Kenny boy quipped that he might change his mind about those Bush tax cuts. Right.
No doubt mindful of his image, Jennings has appeared on most of the popular day and night—time talk shows to project a personable persona: "Hey, I'm a likeable guy with a wife and a kid." Okay, just don't try to convince us you're just a regular guy.
The Jeopardy! juggernaut has talked about what he might do with his mountain of moolah. Even after the tax bite and the Mormon church tithe, he'll be able to afford whatever he wants. Start a consulting firm for promising Jeopardy! contestants? Pursue his artistic talents by launching a new comic book starring a caped cybercrusader who rights wrongs and does good works by stealth? Endow a new institution of higher learning named What Is Jeopardy! University?
Meantime, back at Jeopardy! Hqs., producers, looking at alpine ratings, are deciding whether or not to reinstitute a 5 or maybe a 10—game win limit when the new season opens in September. And those who like or loathe Ken Jennings continue to wonder if anyone can beat him.
John B. Dwyer is a military historian