Ken Jennings knows how to play the game
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- Recently, a colleague at SI.com 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 http://tvgameshows.net/.)
Check local listings for "Jeopardy!" in your area.
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