Ken Jennings has made a name for himself as Seattle’s Jeopardy! champion, and he’ll go up against two of the long-running game show’s most successful players in the “Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time” tournament that begins Tuesday night on ABC.
But if Jennings, 45, had a superhero-style origin story, it would start with Quiz Bowl.
Forget the radioactive spider and the spandex-wearing sidekick, it was a plastic buzzer and a small group of like-minded brain-brawling nerds at Brigham Young University in the late 1990s that helped turn Jennings into the “Jeopardy!” uber champion he has become.
“Ken would tell you that a fair amount of what he’s got on ‘Jeopardy!’ he learned playing Quiz Bowl,” said Earl Cahill, a former BYU Quiz Bowl teammate. “You can’t really study for it. You have to be kind of a natural. The Maser Building at BYU, that’s where we would practice. We’d travel to tournaments and I think he got a fair amount of knowledge from that. And he’s kind of a natural sponge. He remembers everything once he hears it. And one thing that I think he always had since I knew him was the speed, just speed on the buzzer.”
Quiz Bowl is competitive trivia on steroids with college students competing internally to represent their schools, often as four-person teams, in regional and national tournaments. At BYU in the late ’90s, the team consisted of Jennings, Cahill, Dave Sims and Nephi Thompson, a formidable unit that barnstormed around the country, answering questions, absorbing odd bits of trivia and making friends with equally large brains.
It wasn’t quite “Animal House,” but it was a lot of fun, and it started Jennings on his path to this week’s “Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time” tournament. Though time and distance has fuzzed some of the details, Jennings and his BYU Quiz Bowl teammates largely remember being a top-10-type team, finishing as high as fourth in a national tournament.
“It’s funny,” Cahill said. “There was another guy who was maybe even a touch better than Ken, but he was getting married and he decided not to be on the team the next year.”
Each of the team members had specialty areas, with Jennings serving as the all-around hammer. “He could play all the positions, if we’re going for the football analogy,” said Thompson, who’s now a biology and chemistry professor at Colorado Mountain College.
“It was really fun to be a part of that team,” Thompson said. “And I would say that we were very complementary in our knowledge bases. … We got along very well. We’d go on a crazy road trip over to the Bay Area, and go to tournaments there. Or we’d fly back East. I don’t know if we could compete with the high-level teams, but we were competitive.”
Looking back, Jennings sees it as a crucial time in his development.
“I would say Quiz Bowl made me much better,” Jennings said. “If you do that for a few years a few times a week, you are basically doing ‘Jeopardy!’ prep. You’re learning French Kings and chemical elements and subatomic particles, opera. It’s perfect ‘Jeopardy!’ practice and you’re kind of doing it as a part-time job.”
It wasn’t long before Jennings received the inspiration to accomplish his lifelong dream of trying out for a game show.
“That’s why I first tried out for ‘Jeopardy!,’ honestly, because I started seeing people I knew from Quiz Bowl on these shows,” Jennings said. “You know, some guy I knew would win seven figures on ‘(Who Wants to be a) Millionaire’ or ‘Win Ben Stein’s Money’ or whatever. And it occurred to me, ‘Wait, you can just go to L.A. and try out for these shows.’ ”
Jennings and Cahill decided to do just that, They piled into Jennings’ Toyota Corolla and went to Los Angeles. Both he and Cahill passed the “Jeopardy!” test and entered the contestant pool.
“They had a short little trial game, just kind of like a little mock game, and we played that and they, of course — spoilers — they picked Ken,” Cahill said. “I went to a taping with him and I talked to one of the casting agents, and I said, ‘So, you can only pick one programmer from Utah?’ And she said, ‘No, we’re going to pick you as soon as Ken has lost.’ And he just didn’t lose.”
Jennings’ story might have ended with his 74-game winning streak in 2004. But given the opportunity to essentially become a professional game-show contestant, he began to prepare with the rigor of an athlete.
“Like he knew there were things that he didn’t know much about. He deliberately studied them,” said Sims, now an economics professor at BYU.
And, just like in sports, there are small movements that become easier with relentless practice.
“I think the other thing is he continued to get much better at the buzzer, which is actually a much underrated part of it,” Sims said. “He was very, very good at that — one of the best humans. And he’s brought his knowledge to the point where, you know, he might not need the rest of us around anymore.”
Whatever the outcome, “Jeopardy!” has given Jennings the kind of life few get to experience.
“ ‘Jeopardy!’ is the best thing that ever happened to me — uh, maybe in a three-way tie with my wife and kids,” Jennings said with a laugh during a phone interview last weekend as he waited to catch a plane to New York for a promotional appearance. “Because I wasn’t happy. I was a computer engineer in Salt Lake when I went on, and it turned out not to be a good fit for my career and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do next.
“I kept telling my wife I was maybe going to go to law school and she would roll her eyes. And instead I ended up just on a whim trying out for ‘Jeopardy!’ with Earl. And it changed my life. Pretty much everything I do all day is just by virtue of being a professional ex-game show contestant.”
“Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time” premieres Tuesday, Jan. 7, on ABC, at 8 p.m. PT.