The Man With All the Questions
Ken Jennings's 'Jeopardy!' Streak Is Anything but Trivial
By Rebecca Dana
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 28, 2004; Page C01
Tom Walsh's television, the one on which he watches marathon episodes of "Jeopardy!" shows, is almost all rabbit ears and very little screen. It doesn't look like the television of a "Jeopardy!" record-holder, which he was until a few weeks ago. His spartanly furnished townhouse on Capitol Hill doesn't seem like the den of a game show titan who earlier this year won more prize money in regular season play than anyone else in the history of the show.
But that's not what Walsh is thinking about as he sits watching the tapes on which a 30-year-old trivia wunderkind from Utah surpasses his record. Then doubles it. Then triples it.
Walsh, 39, ticks up the volume on the tiny set using a remote control that has been imbedded into a small stuffed football, and watches the screen. For the 17th time he watches Ken Jennings win.
"I feel like 'Cactus Gavvy' Cravath," Walsh says. "Do you know who that is?"
"Right," he says. "Nobody does. He's the guy who had the home run record before Babe Ruth came along."
It may have been the hottest winning streak "Jeopardy!" watchers had ever seen in one season, but who knew Walsh's record would fade to a historical footnote so quickly? Twenty-one weeks and two days, it stood. Then Jennings showed up.
As of Friday, Jennings had won $601,760 in 18 consecutive "Jeopardy!" episodes, shattering every other record set on the 40-year-old quiz show. David Letterman has created a running nightly gag about his winning; his employer threw pizza parties in his honor; Jennings's father has a recording on his answering machine to ward off any media types who might call.
As his fame has grown, Jennings has remained mum. But Walsh, like millions of "Jeopardy!" fans, is glued to the TV. You can't not root for Jennings, he says: "He's making a very tough game look like the easiest thing in the world."
Walsh understands Jennings's predicament very well because he lived it. He won seven consecutive shows, which aired in January 2004. He remembers standing there, staring at the camera during the opening of the show, trying to look modest. The question running through his head was: "How do you convey the 'I can't believe this is happening' thing" with your facial expression at this moment, "when it's happening show after show after show?"
The biggest challenge, Walsh says, was coming up with a different funny story to tell each time. Walsh has heard the same stories as the rest of the world -- all supplied by Jennings. How Jennings is a computer guy who likes roller coasters and hates Ferris wheels. How he played on a successful quiz bowl team as a student at Brigham Young University in the late 1990s. How he has a 1-year-old son, Dylan, a wife, Mindy, and a puppy named Banjo.
College friend and quiz bowl teammate Nephi Thompson describes Jennings as a polymath and painter who recently finished a mural of Winnie the Pooh in his son's bedroom.
Jennings stayed with his old friend the night before his first "Jeopardy!" appearance. The two reminisced about the time they were on their way to a quiz bowl tournament in Berkeley and the team's van ran out of gas in Nevada, Thompson says. He recalled how the fan belt on his Ford Fairmont broke as they drove to another tournament, leaving them stranded again.
If Jennings comes across as soft-spoken and amiable, Thompson says, that's because he is. Jennings, a former missionary, has promised to give 10 percent of his winnings to the Mormon church.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company