It is hardly surprising that, as a child, Ken Jennings, the “Jeopardy!” whiz, fell asleep with atlases rather than stuffed animals.
Or that he was irked because libraries wouldn’t let him check out reference books (you know, “pleasure reading”). Or that he grew obsessed with 1970s game shows like “Family Feud” and “Tic-Tac-Dough.”
What may be more unexpected about Jennings, who holds the record for the longest “Jeopardy!” winning streak, is that he grew up in Korea, has a sharp and often self-deprecating wit, and loves long, deep novels like “Moby-Dick” and “The Brothers Karamazov.”
“My wife and I are reading Anthony Powell’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ right now,” he tells The Salt Lake Tribune. That’s a 12-volume novel about British political, cultural and military life in the mid-20th century. A real page turner, lots of ‘em.
Jennings has written a dozen books himself, watches sports, is obsessed with Legos, and is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
After his 2004 trivia triumph, the former Utahn became an unlikely TV folk hero and a champion to bookish brainiacs everywhere.
He appeared on “The Tonight Show” and “The Late Show With David Letterman.” According to Jennings’ blog, Barbara Walters named him one of the 10 “most fascinating people of [2004.]” Slate magazine dubbed him “the Michael Jordan of trivia, the Seabiscuit of geekdom.” ESPN: The Magazine dissed him as “smarmy (and) punchable,” with all “the personality of a hall monitor,” thus, the blog jokes, “continuing America’s long national struggle between jocks and nerds.”
This month, Jennings began a stint as guest host on “Jeopardy!” after the November death of the legendary Alex Trebek. He also is getting airtime as one of three regulars on “The Chase,” a fast-paced quiz show, with fellow “Jeopardy!” grandmasters James Holzhauer and Brad Rutter, in which contestants try to best them at their own game. That has put Jennings back on American televisions and in the hearts of game show wannabes.
Yet fame, friends and family say, has not altered the 46-year-old Jennings’ affable nature.
“He’s essentially the same person he always was,” says his wife, Mindy Jennings. “Ken’s a very smart person who is aware of being smart but not promoting that as the only thing about him.”
Being confident about his intelligence, she says, “he doesn’t need to prove it all the time.”
Jennings is “unpretentious, friendly, genial, always polite and respectful,” says Aaron Brown, a Latter-day Saint friend in Seattle. “He fits in with everybody else. There’s really no other celebrity quite like him.”
So how did this “Opie from Salt Lake City” get to the top of egghead heaven?
Birth of a whiz kid
Jennings was born in 1974 just outside Seattle as the eldest of four children.
His parents were “brainy,” he says, and nurtured their kids’ mental acuity, including playing board games with them.
“If I knew some trivia that Mom or Dad didn’t — especially if it was some kind of boomer thing, something about ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ or art or something, it was a very grown-up feeling.”
When he was in the second grade, his father took a job at a law firm in Seoul, where young Ken attended an international school founded by Christian missionaries. He watched “Jeopardy!” on the Armed Forces Network after classes.
The family also attended a Latter-day Saint ward (congregation), whose members were roughly split between diplomatic expats and military personnel.
As you can imagine, Jennings was the kid whose hand constantly shot up at LDS Sunday school — saying who did what to whom in the scriptures — but he credits that knowledge largely to his mandatory Lutheran Bible classes.
In the summer, the family would return to see their relatives in the states, where he could satisfy his craving for U.S culture.
“Every day, I would soak it in or just watch TV commercials — like somebody had a tape with Michael Jackson videos or the movie ‘Airplane,’” he says. “I honestly think that that is part of my love for pop culture — feeling like I never got enough of it as a kid. I’m like a Depression-era kid, but for sitcoms and commercials.”
After graduating from high school in Korea, he enrolled at the University of Washington for freshman year and then served a two-year church mission to Madrid, Spain.
Upon returning, he went to LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, where he roomed with future fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson.
“I was so happy to be the second geekiest guy in this apartment for a change,” he quips. “Who’s laughing now? Brandon has sold tens of millions of books.”
Yes, Jennings, the man with seemingly all the answers on college quiz bowls, was bunking with a budding bestselling novelist, and “had no idea.”
Love at first movie allusion
Mindy Jennings lived in a BYU apartment across the street from her future husband, and the two sets of roommates often got together.
One night in April 2000, as Ken was leaving, he said to her, “Let’s not say goodbye. Let’s say, ‘au revoir.’” To that, Mindy responded, “No, let’s say goodbye.”
They both recognized those lines from the 1972 screwball comedy “What’s Up, Doc?” — one of the approved flicks on the military list.
Turned out both had grown up living overseas — Mindy’s dad was in the foreign service — and there were a limited number of available American movies and TV shows.
Their reel world experience became their shared reality.
Their first date was to Mindy’s mission reunion (she had served in Paris) and their second was to see “High Fidelity.”
“The next day, I was laying on my couch, and thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to marry Ken,’” she recalls. “I realized I had better date him.”
They saw each other every day between April and May, when they both were graduating, and Mindy was considering leaving to teach English in Taiwan.
“What if you don’t do that?” she remembers Ken asking. “And we get married instead?”
They wed in September and moved into an apartment in Draper before later buying a house in Murray. Mindy taught preschool, while Ken worked as a software engineer for a Salt Lake City health care staffing company.
But he was bored.
“I thought I would just love computers. I thought it’d be like solving puzzles all day,” Jennings says. “But it turned out I just was not that great at it and not having much fun with it.”
The couple began talking about a career change for him — considering law school or the foreign service.
That’s when the answer, or, better put, the question came:
Should he audition for “Jeopardy!”?
In winter 2004, Ken tried out and was accepted as a contestant for the show, which was taping in Los Angeles.
He was a natural, Mindy says. “Under pressure, his recall gets better. That’s the difference between someone who is a good player and someone who is not.”
“Jeopardy!” tapes five consecutive shows on a single day for two days a week — with only tie or dress changes in between.
Mindy attended the first taping, while her in-laws watched Dylan, their 2-year-old. Ken kept winning, so after the first two weeks, she couldn’t go anymore.
When the taped shows began to air, his little son (now 18) started calling him, “Ken Jennings,” in a voice just like Trebek’s.
After 74 victories in a row, Jennings lost on the answer: “Most of this firm’s 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year.”
Jennings “lamely” guessed: “What is FedEx?”
The correct question was “What is H&R Block?”
“That’s what I get,” Jennings shrugs, “for doing my own taxes.”
He later appeared in commercials for FedEx, Microsoft, Allstate, Cingular, IBM and, he writes on his blog, his “onetime nemesis: H&R Block.”
Even in defeat, it was clear Jennings had won. The trivia king no longer had to work, having earned a cool $2.52 million. Nothing trivial about that.
Soon he landed a contract to write his first book, “Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs,” and the couple moved in 2006 to his hometown of Seattle, where Jennings had always wanted to return. That’s where their second child, Kate (now 14), was born.
Church life, busting stereotypes
Ken does get recognized by curious onlookers.
On their first Sunday in their new Seattle Latter-day Saint ward, most members “played it cool,” Mindy says. “But we were sitting in the back of the chapel, and people were peeking in at him through the doors.”
After that, the family just became regulars.
During his “Jeopardy!” run, the fact that he was from Utah meant that his faith became an inescapable topic of conversation.
Trebek, who wrote in his autobiography that, like Jennings, he too didn’t smoke, drink or do drugs. Yet the two rarely spoke about religion. Once, though, the host asked him whether he would pay tithing — or hand over 10% — on his hefty winnings to the church.
Jennings said yes, and did.
The TV time gave the Latter-day Saint contestant a chance to show that Mormonism is not “monolithic,” he says. Many outsiders seem to think that deeply religious people would not do well on a quiz show because they would not have wide-ranging academic or pop culture interests.
In some quarters, they might think “you don’t believe in dinosaurs,” he says. “I liked the idea that in this smarty pants context, I was kind of pop culture omnivorous, curious about everything.”
Jennings is religiously “grounded,” says Brown, his Seattle friend. “He doesn’t strike you as super Mormon in his demeanor, in his affect. He is devoted, but pretty liberal, while not angst ridden about religion.”
That could come from attending a Protestant school, where books critiquing his church were readily available.
“It built in me a kind of healthy mix of faith and skepticism...a weirdly hardy kind of conviction,” Jennings says. “I know what I love about my faith, and I know which things are challenging to me, challenging in a good way.”
It’s a decision to “live life in a certain way,” he says, including teaching weekly Sunday school and “loading and unloading the moving truck” for others.
“There is this great leveling thing,” Jennings says. “Everybody pitches in. There’s this really democratic feeling.”
Humor and controversy
Jokes, of course, can be hilarious or hurtful.
Greg Taylor, a fellow BYU alum who was “mercilessly beaten” during one of Jennings’ early “Jeopardy!” matches, remembers his friend’s humor.
“Years ago, I sent him a note of encouragement when he was about to take on IBM’s Watson and ended with a joking word of caution about going up against a machine,” Taylor recalls. “Remember John Henry!”
The savant wrote back, “Screw John Henry. Remember John Connor!” — the human character who takes on the “Terminator” in the action movies.
That wit went on display as Jennings built his freelance career by developing a personality online, hoping to connect more with what he was writing and less with game shows.
But if you are jesting on Twitter, he says, “you’re going to say some boneheaded things.”
Last month, after he was announced as a guest host, some of those tweets resurfaced, and he issued an apology for offensive comments about the disabled and President Donald Trump’s son Barron.
“Sometimes I said dumb things in a dumb way and I want to apologize to people who were (rightfully!) offended,” he tweeted. “It wasn’t my intention to hurt anyone, but that doesn’t matter: I screwed up, and I’m truly sorry.”
Back then, Jennings says, he had the “illusion” that he was just talking to himself, posting thoughts that momentarily struck him as clever or funny. The immediacy was “fun.”
It didn’t always play well to “football stadiums full of people,” he says. “It seems obvious, but you need to think first, you know, you want to be thoughtful about what you say to literally everyone.”
Hosting and competing
About 10 years ago, Mindy Jennings threw away pieces of a broken frame and, without knowing they were there, Ken reached into the bag and punctured his hand on the glass.
“Luckily,” she says, “it was not his buzzer hand.”
Which was, indeed, lucky since her husband has continued to compete, even cleaning up at last year’s “Greatest of All Time ‘Jeopardy!’” competition.
“The Chase,” the new show that pits Jennings and his two GOAT competitors against other contestants, launched earlier this month.
“Ken obviously knows a ton of stuff across a broad range of subjects, but the thing that distinguishes him from the other greats for me is that he’s the best I’ve ever seen at the ‘Jeopardy!’ wordplay categories, the ones where you have to unscramble words or come up with obscure rhyming couplets … [like] ‘Initials to Roman Numerals to Numbers,’” says Rutter, one of his opponents. “I’m pretty good at that stuff, too, but whenever I was playing Ken and I saw one of those categories come up, I knew I was going to have to make hay elsewhere.”
Jennings is happy that “The Chase” is on the air and pleased to participate.
What he doesn’t like, though, is being “the obstacle between someone and happiness,” Jennings says. “I’m always getting in the way of some office manager or Uber driver winning a nice check.”
On the other hand, hosting “Jeopardy!” means you are “no longer doing a party trick,” he says. “Under the best of circumstances, it’s incredibly difficult and nerve-racking — especially having to fill in for a broadcasting legend like Alex Trebek. He made it look so smooth and effortless for 37 years, and I’m here to tell you it is not smooth or easy to host. Yeah, it moves very fast.”
Jennings still thrills to the rush he gets from games — especially in this era of misinformation and fiction masquerading as fact.
At a time when so many truths are in dispute, it can provide a kind of balm, he says. “Only people armed with the right facts make the right decisions in their lives. When facts become fungible, decisions become less informed and faulty at every level — at the individual level of deciding what I’m going to do today and at the national level and global of deciding policy.”
At least during one half-hour every day, “universally agreed upon facts matter,” he says, “and an authoritative person can swiftly say, ‘Yup, that’s it,’ or, ‘Nope, you are wrong.’”
“Jeopardy!” is popular “on both sides of the political spectrum,” Jennings says, and “could be an important unifying force, a bottom line of a place where people agree that some things are accurate and some things are not.”
Work on these two shows will keep him busy for a while as the country begins coming out of a pandemic, but Jennings’ dream would be “sitting in a university library, reading up on Maori mythology.”
Mindy and Ken, though, no longer play board games with each other.
“We still have a scorecard from a game of Scrabble I won maybe 10 years ago,” Mindy says. “I don’t play Scrabble with him anymore. I’m not a complete masochist.”
Ken is not the kind of person who would cheat to lose, she says. “But I am 95% sure he let me win.”
Yep, he’s a champion at marriage tactics, too.