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Quiz master

Ken Jennings knows how to play the game

By Todd Leopold

Quiz shows
Matt Damon
k.d. lang

(CNN) -- Recently, a colleague at wrote a column criticizing million-dollar "Jeopardy!" champion Ken Jennings' winning streak.

Not only could you not compare Jennings' 30-plus wins in a row to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak or Eric Gagne's 84-consecutive-save streak, he wrote, but Jennings has a terrible blind spot -- sports. (He failed to answer fairly simple questions about Whitey Ford and McCovey Cove.)

Add that column to the various criticisms leveled at "Jeopardy!" and other quiz shows in the past few years -- they're dumbed down, the contestants are lousy, a 6-year-old could answer the science questions, they were better in Art Fleming's (or Bill Cullen's, or Bud Collyer's) day -- and it may seem as if Jennings isn't much of a player, and his streak is just a fluke.

Well, while I wouldn't want to bet on Jennings in a contest against the legendary "Jeopardy!" champ Chuck Forrest or former big-money winner Frank Spangenberg, it's obvious the man is no flash in the pan -- and he's winning impressively.

So I come not to bury Ken Jennings, but to praise him. Not that he needs it.

Eye on Entertainment puts its hand on the buzzer.


"Jeopardy!" in particular, is much harder than it looks. I was lucky enough to appear on one show back in 1988, and though I'd been a longtime quiz bowl player and trivia-book fan, nothing prepared me for standing on that set, in front of a studio audience of 300 and a possible TV audience in the millions, my heart beating so hard it felt like it was hammering off the opposite wall.

And it's not just the atmosphere. "Jeopardy!" is a game of timing. Players are prevented from buzzing in until Alex Trebek finishes reading a question, at which point a neon light -- not visible at home -- signals the circuits are open. So buzz too soon and you're locked out; buzz too late and, well, you might be too late.

That's why you see players getting in a rhythm, going into a category and running it from one end to another. (It's also why Forrest was so feared -- one of his favored tactics was skipping around the board.)

Then there are the questions. Sure, the science tends to be elementary-school level, sports comes up rarely, and I once saw an art question that went something like, "You'll find the [incredibly obscure artwork] in this capital of Italy." (Still, that's not as bad as a question I once saw on the old Wink Martindale "Tic Tac Dough": "This actor appeared in 'Captain Blood' and 'Robin Hood,' and his first name was Errol." I'm surprised he didn't spot the contestant the F, L, and N in the last name.)

But "Jeopardy!" is more a game of breadth than depth, and the span of Jennings' knowledge -- coupled with his poise and timing -- is awe-inspiring.

He's hard to knock off balance, even when thrown a tough question. And when the Jennings steamroller gets going, the other contestants are knocked out of the game before they can even begin.

I saw one show in which Jennings, starting from the top-left hand column, ran off 12 straight correct answers before his opponents even got settled in. By that time Jennings was up something like $6,600 to $0 to $0.

See if that's not intimidating.

Now that he's passed $1 million, the question is how long Jennings can keep it up. The joke on the "Jeopardy!" message boards is that, at this rate, the Tournament of Champions is going to pit Ken Jennings against Ken Jennings.

Still, sooner or later, someone's going to beat Jennings at his own game.

So enjoy it while it lasts. Ken Jennings may not be DiMaggio or Gagne. But he'd clean their clocks at "Jeopardy!" -- and who's to say what's more impressive?

(Incidentally, for a fine guide to Ken Jennings' "Jeopardy!" success and everything else game show related, go to link.)

Check local listings for "Jeopardy!" in your area.

On screen

  • Matt Damon reprises his role as secret agent Jason Bourne in "The Bourne Supremacy." The film also stars Julia Stiles, Franka Potente, Brian Cox and Joan Allen. Opens Friday.
  • So you thought Michelle Pfeiffer was Catwoman? Or Julie Newmar? Eartha Kitt? Lee Meriwether? Try Halle Berry, who takes on the role -- as a force for good, mostly -- in "Catwoman." The flick also stars Benjamin Bratt, Sharon Stone and a really skimpy outfit. Opens Friday.
  • On the tube

  • The new season of "Dead Like Me," about a group of grim reapers led by Mandy Patinkin, debuts Sunday. The show also stars Ellen Muth, who got to be a reaper by being killed by a falling toilet seat from the Mir space station. Sunday, 10 p.m., Showtime.
  • Though political conventions aren't considered as newsworthy as conventions were back in the pre-primary days of Alton Parker, John W. Davis and Wendell Wilkie, they're still nirvana for political junkies -- and they still make news, if only because they're one of the few parts of American life that still value oratory. The Democratic convention begins Monday. CNN, among other networks, will have gavel-to-gavel coverage.
  • Sound waves

  • The new album by k.d. lang, "Hymns of the 49th Parallel" (Nonesuch), is out Tuesday.
  • A two-disc history of X, "Make the Music Go Bang" (Rhino), comes out Tuesday.
  • Paging readers

  • The latest Jack Swyteck thriller from James Grippando, "Hear No Evil" (HarperCollins), comes out Tuesday.

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