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No Question About It: The Winner Loses

'Jeopardy!' King Finally Meets His Match

By Tamara Jones
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2004; Page A01

And on the 4,575th question, in the 975th category of the 75th day, the master of the trivia universe was laid to rest.

Grinning ruefully as the studio audience let out a collective gasp, Ken Jennings ended the longest and richest winning streak in TV game show history last night, meeting his doom on "Jeopardy!" courtesy of a California real estate agent who never went to college and threw her hands to her face in disbelief when she unseated the $2.5 million winner extraordinaire.

Patrons at an Arlington restaurant react last night as "Jeopardy!" champ Ken Jennings misses his final question. (Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

'Jeopardy!' Champ Defeated: Ex-"Jeopardy!" contestants gathered at Faccia Luna in Clarendon, Va., to toast the anticipated end to champion Ken Jennings's record 74-game winning streak.

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"There goes the ballgame," the 30-year-old software engineer remembered saying to himself during the September taping of the show when he heard opponent Nancy Zerg busily scribbling an answer to the final question while he stared blankly into space.

Asked to name the company whose 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work just four months a year, the 48-year-old Zerg correctly answered "H&R Block." Jennings guessed "FedEx." Zerg ended up $5,602 ahead of her famous opponent, who immediately shook her hand and reached over to give her a congratulatory hug.

Forced to keep mum for two months until the taped denouement aired, Jennings expressed both wistfulness and relief yesterday about the end of a streak that made him a pop-culture celebrity.

"It's sort of like losing a job I had all summer," he said in a telephone interview, but "now I can get back to my real life, which has kind of been on hold." He began taping "Jeopardy!" episodes in February -- five games at a time, two days a week, making his on-air debut June 2.

"People appear on game shows all the time and it's not what you think of as a fast-track to notoriety," Jennings said. "I thought my grandmother and her friends maybe would watch it over cookies."

Instead, his brain-to-brain smackdowns ended up luring an average of 2 million extra daily viewers to the show, with ratings dipping significantly when he was off the air for summer hiatus or while special tournaments aired. Even his rivals were impressed.

A handful of vanquished opponents gathered at an Arlington bar last night to watch the show during a high-spirited wonk wake they dubbed the DC Roadkill Reunion.

"My mother hates him," said Merritt Allen, a 34-year-old public relations specialist who organized the event at Faccia Luna.

Rob Kimbro drove down from Princeton, N.J., eager to share his pain as the last challenger defeated by Jennings, on Monday's show. Kimbro was in the studio audience when Jennings went down in flames.

"It was pretty incredible," said the 31-year-old stay-at-home dad. "I've never been part of an entire-room collective gasp." He proudly brandished his official Roadkill T-shirt, with his name and player number.

As the fateful game played on the TV set over the bar, the self-christened KJLs (Ken Jennings Losers) shouted out answers to the clues.


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