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The trivia king learns something new

By Todd Leopold
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- I wanted to hate Ken Jennings.

Jennings is the man who won 74 consecutive "Jeopardy!" games in 2004. I am a man who, leading on his only appearance, blew a Final Jeopardy question -- and the game -- in 1987.

Jennings won $2.5 million. I won a pair of his-and-her watches and a home exercise contraption, along with a half-dozen bags of dried prunes, a can of Pledge and a year's supply of Pepsodent.

(My experience on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," though entertaining, wasn't much more financially beneficial: I walked away with $1,000 after missing the $32,000 question. Watch a CNN employee who did somewhat better -- 4:44 Video)

So when I first picked up Jennings' book, "Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs" (Villard), I wanted to hate him.

But I can't. In fact, I like Ken Jennings. He handled his "Jeopardy!" fame with an easy grace and modesty, characteristics also evident in his book. (Jennings dots the book with trivia questions; can you answer them?)

Jennings could have written a quickie chronicle of his rise to "Jeopardy!" fame and riches, but "Brainiac" is much more -- it's a look at trivia as a hobby, as a business, as a fascination for millions, from solitary bar denizens poking at computer keyboards to the residents of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, home of "The World's Largest Trivia Contest." (Disclosure: It's also full of familiar names to me, even a couple of acquaintances, since I've been part of the trivia subculture for more years than I'd like to admit.)

"You have to have social fuel," Jennings, 32, says in an interview in the glass-walled confines of the CNN.com break room, where he is, once again, on display to onlookers. "Much useful knowledge doesn't live up to that."

But trivia, he says, can provide a quick bond between strangers in an airport, or minglers at a cocktail party.

"It can lubricate social interaction," he says. "I like to see it as a way to build bridges."

'I knew nothing'

Trivia, notes Jennings in "Brainiac," didn't come by its current meaning -- "questions and answers about unusual bits of everyday knowledge" -- until the 1960s. But, he adds, the interest in those bits of knowledge goes back decades earlier, to at least 1927, when the book "Ask Me Another!" became a best-seller.

"Ask Me Another!" was followed by radio quiz shows, which begat TV quiz shows, "GE College Bowl," high school and college quiz bowl teams, Trivial Pursuit, bar trivia games, and all the attendant paraphernalia: the "Guinness Book of World Records," Fred L. Worth's "Trivia Encyclopedia," the Wallace/Wallechinsky "People's Almanacs" and "Books of Lists," Mental Floss magazineexternal link and "10,000 Answers," among many other key source materials.

Even before "Ask Me Another!", there were English commonplace books, John Timbs' miscellanies (including the 1856 "Things Not Generally Known," a huge best-seller in its day), Albert Southwick's "Quizzism" and "Ripley's Believe It or Not," which began in 1918.

Jennings was already familiar with a number of these works -- he recalls devouring "Believe It or Not" paperbacks, the "Guinness Book" and quiz shows while growing up in Washington state, South Korea and Singapore -- and also played on Brigham Young University's quiz bowl team. But before writing "Brainiac," he says, "I knew nothing [about trivia history and subcultures] going in."

"I learned it from the ground up. I called friends, networked ... it turned into criss-crossing the country," he says.

Among his stops were the college campuses where, Jennings writes, "an alphabet soup" of quiz organizations exists (there are at least four, each with fierce partisans); the aforementioned Stevens Point, which devotes 54 hours to its town-wide trivia game; and the Sacramento, California, home of Fred Worth.

Worth wrote his three "Trivia Encyclopedias" before the age of the personal computer and the Internet, and is dismissed by some trivia experts as "Fred L. Worthless" because of errors in his works. He's now more forgotten than esteemed -- despite providing the raw material for hundreds of Trivial Pursuit questions (a fact he sued the game's creators over, and lost).

"Nobody knows who he is anymore," says Jennings.

In some ways, Worth is a prophet without honor, Jennings observes; not only did he lose the Trivial Pursuit suit -- and the riches it would have brought -- but he's also seldom acknowledged by today's trivia aficionados.

"I think he felt bad," Jennings says. "He's never been a question, and he's never been a phone-a-friend [on 'Millionaire']."

Complicated journey

Jennings, of course, is now just the opposite. His success on "Jeopardy!" earned him the contract to do "Brainiac," not to mention appearances on countless talk shows and, more recently, a guest spot on the new quiz show "1 vs. 100."

He says his success was unlikely; in "Brainiac," he writes of his tryout trip to California with his "incredibly smart" friend Earl Cahill, wondering if he'd pass the test and never expecting to get the call.

Once on the show -- even after drilling at home with flash cards -- he fully expected to lose, a feeling reinforced by the terror of knowing that his performance and brainpower were being judged by 20 million people.

Even when he started winning, the streak came with its own complications. "Jeopardy!" asks its players to remain mum until the shows air months later, so he had to hide his success from his co-workers, coming up with a weekly excuse so he could travel to Los Angeles for "Jeopardy!" tapings (his boss, however, knew and covered for him). His $2.4 million in winnings was also off-limits until the shows aired.

Despite 74 straight wins, he acknowledges that he was probably no better than many of his competitors. ("I'm not a smart person," he writes. "I just play one on TV.") It's just that his familiarity with the show's rhythms, accrued during early victories, gave him "an incredible home-court advantage."

"It's not that I was better than 150 people," he says. "It was just like playing at home in the Super Bowl."

Two years on from his huge success, Jennings can afford to relax, though he's been cautious about spending his money. He took his family to Europe and bought a wide-screen television. His big plunge was quitting his job as a computer engineer and moving from Utah to Seattle, where he can spend a great deal more time with his family -- wife Mindy and son Dylan.

"I can work from home now," he says.

As for the future? Jennings, a one-time English major, likes being an author. (He also writes a regular column for Mental Floss.) He's proud of "Brainiac" -- more than he thought he'd be -- and he's fascinated by the subjects of memory and knowledge, as well as recent books (Mark Kurlansky's "Salt," Tom Standage's "A History of the World in Six Glasses") on allegedly minor topics that had world-changing implications. Perhaps there's a subject for Jennings.

"That's the great thing about trivia," he says. "You're interested in everything."


Jennings

Ken Jennings won $2.5 million on "Jeopardy!" in 2004.

'JEOPARDY!' BITS

- Questions. The show's test consists of 50 questions. Qualifiers must earn a passing grade; contestant coordinators do not reveal where the pass/fail cut-off is.

- Heartbreak hotel. Been selected as a contestant? That's nice. You still have to pay for your trip and lodging. However, the show, which tapes 10 episodes a week, will pay to bring back returning champions.

- Good timin'. Contestants are not allowed to buzz in until lights around the board -- not visible on television -- are activated, about the time host Alex Trebek finishes reading the question. Hence, players try to pick up Trebek's rhythms.

- Stage fright. "Jeopardy!" is taped in front of a live audience at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, California, so it's not as if you're playing in a quiet room. In "Brainiac," Jennings records several examples of "brain freeze" during his victories.

- Do you want to know a secret? "Jeopardy!" episodes don't air until months after they're taped. Contestants are contractually obligated to keep game results a secret. Jennings had to hide his success from his co-workers, coming up with a weekly excuse so he could travel to Los Angeles for "Jeopardy!" tapings (his boss, however, knew and covered for him).

- Brother, can you spare a dime? Even once the shows air, "Jeopardy!" doesn't pay out until up to 120 days later. The state of California takes 7 percent in taxes off the top; contestants are responsible for reporting winnings to the IRS for federal taxes.
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