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Jennings' magic ends

Published December 1, 2004 1:25 am

The record-setting 'Jeopardy' champ 'disoriented' by loss
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2004, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Sure enough, "Jeopardy!" champ Ken Jennings encountered the two inevitables in life: death and taxes.

The 30-year-old Murray whiz on the longest winning streak in game show history finally met his demise in Tuesday night's broadcast, and it was a Final Jeopardy question about tax preparation that did him in.

The category: Business and Industry.

Answer: "Most of this firm's 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year."

Jennings' opponent, Ventura, Calif., real estate agent Nancy Zerg, scribbled down the correct response: "What is H&R Block?" bringing her total to $14,401.

Jennings answered "What is Fed Ex?" dropping him to $8,799.

The audience groaned, then applauded Jennings.

Jennings said learning he had lost left him "disoriented."

"It was like, 'Whoa, usually there's a close-up of me at this point. I've been in this situation 74 times and it never goes like this.' " Jennings told The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday from New York City, where he was about to make an appearance on the "Late Show With David Letterman." "Then the next thing was relief, knowing the end of the story. I finally know how it ends, and I can finally move on."

But there are no tears at the end of this story. The tale of a Murray software engineer who tore up the game show record books concludes with him richer by $2,520,700 and a lot more recognizable.

Since his first appearance on "Jeopardy!" on June 2, Jennings, a Brigham Young University graduate and former college quiz bowl player, has risen through the ranks of American pop culture, surely becoming either a "Trivial Pursuit" or future "Jeopardy!" question himself.

"Tom Hanks and Oprah [Winfrey] were talking about Ken on Oprah's show one day," said Jennings' wife, Mindy. "I mean, Tom Hanks talking about Ken on national television. That's pretty cool."

Jennings was especially appreciative of what he said was the support of fans in Utah.

While going to the theater here, he said, the "nice old ladies were, of course, huge fans of the show," he said. "And my arms were bruised by the time I got out of that lobby from all of the well-meaning knuckles that gave me a squeeze."

In all, Jennings correctly answered more than 2,700 questions in 75 games, a success rate of 90 percent. And thanks to good timing and a limber thumb, he would ring in first on 62 percent of the questions, according to TVGameShows.net, which had been monitoring his progress. He broke the records for the most money won on a game show and most consecutive appearances on a game show.

"This is one of those once-every-10-to-20-year phenomena," said Steve Beverly, a game show historian who runs TVGameShows.net. "We will have some more long winning streaks, but at this level, I don't think we'll see that in the immediate future."

Now that Jennings is a lot richer, he hopes to parlay his game show success into something more. He quit his job as a software engineer at Comp-

Health Group in Salt Lake City two weeks ago because "the money is going to be great for, in effect, buying time - time at home with my wife and kid."

He's also writing a book about his experiences with "Jeopardy!" but said it will also deal "more with trivia in our culture in general and why people are interested in it."

Jennings also is working out promotional deals, possibly with Mercedes Benz, according to one friend, and with Microsoft, where Jennings will be pushing the Encarta encyclopedia software.

He even was approached by none other than H&R Block, the subject of his losing question.

"They want to make sure I don't forget their name again, so they've offered me a lifetime of free financial services," he said.

Former co-worker Tom Kealamakia said success and money has hardly changed Jennings.

"I kid him because I sat there and watched closely to see if he changed, like his spending habits," Kealamakia said. "The only thing he splurged on was a new insulated lunch bag."

Mindy Jennings would like a new car since their old 1994 Saturn won't do anymore.

"I would like to see it upgraded, and I would like to see me driving it," she said, laughing.

Jennings said the best part of his "Jeopardy!" experience was just playing the game. It is the one thing he will miss most about his journey from humble software geek to game show giant.

"The best part is just how incredibly fun it is to play 'Jeopardy!' " he said. "You're going up against the smartest people in the country. You're playing for high stakes, real money. It's very fast-paced. It's just an incredible adrenaline rush. It's a thrill to play the game."

Game show feats for $100, please

Here is a by-the-numbers breakdown of ''KenJen's'' remarkable leap from humble software engineer to the nation's No. 1 game-show geek.88

Number of times he swept a category.

2,586

Correct answers.

$33,643

Average daily winnings.

$75,000

Biggest one-day winnings.

Source: TVGameshows.net