Final Jeopardy, Nov. 30, 2004.
The Clue: “Most of this firm's 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year."
“Thirty seconds,” said “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek. “Good luck.”
Standing that evening at the first lectern — the reigning champion’s spot — was Ken Jennings, a quirky software engineer from Salt Lake City.
Jennings wasn’t just the returning champion. He was on a streak unmatched in the history of the show — a streak Las Vegas gambler James Holzhauer nearly surpassed on Monday before being eliminated.
For Jennings, it was his 75th episode. He had already pocketed $2.5 million. America cheered.
The streak seemed steeped in fate.
“Some people apparently have a sponge-like brain that sucks up information and detail from almost birth,” Jennings would write later. “These people are indiscriminate information gourmands, driven by inexplicable urges to scrawl every scrap of knowledge that comes their way on their blank chalkboard of a brain.”
That was Jennings.
As a boy, nothing was too trivial to memorize — the names in movie credits, the countries (all of them) by the alphabet. He’d quiz his mom with questions such as how much household dust is derived from dead human cells (three-quarters).
By adulthood, he came to grips with the grip facts held on people like him.
"We did not choose trivia,” he wrote. “Trivia chose us."
That included a Realtor from Ventura, Calif., named Nancy Zerg.
When Final Jeopardy arrived that November evening in 2004, she was the only opponent standing next to Jennings. The third lectern was dark because that contestant had no money left after the first two rounds.
Jennings had $14,400 to wager. Zerg had $10,000.
Cue the classic “Jeopardy!” music.
Jennings, usually confident, suddenly looked a little dazed. It took him a while to finally scribble an answer on his monitor.
Meanwhile, Zerg wrote her answer so quickly and confidently that it might as well have been her phone number.
The music stopped. Trebek, of course, had the question — and a tsk, tsk.
“Nancy, you wrote down your response rather quickly, I thought,” Trebek said. “I hope it’s correct.”
Zerg replied, “I hope so, too.”
Her answer: “What is H&R Block?”
That’s the company that processes millions of tax returns from January to April.
“You’re right,” Trebek said.
She dropped her head in amazement and delight. Her wager: $4,401, bringing her to $14,401.
“You have a $1 lead over Ken Jennings now,” Trebek said. “And his final response was...what is FedEx?”
The audience gasped. Jennings smiled. Zerg put her hands over her mouth.
Jennings had wagered $5,601 on his wrong response, taking him to $8,799.
Trebek seemed almost crestfallen, too.
“He winds up in second place,” Trebek said.
The streak — over. (Holzhauer got his Final Jeopardy response right but appeared to wager too low to win.)
Many wondered how in the world Jennings didn’t know the correct answer.
“I do my own taxes,” he told the New York Times. “I would have never thought of taxes.”
Taxes! An eternal irritation — even to trivia geeks.
Jennings has gone on to have perhaps an even more lucrative career than game shows. He’s a best-selling author of books for adults and a children’s trivia series subtitled “Junior Genius Guides.”
In the introduction to his children’s book on presidents, he asks readers to take an oath:
With all my fellow Junior Geniuses, I solemnly pledge to quest after questions, to angle for answers, to seek out, and to soak up. I will hunger and thirst for knowledge my whole life through, and I dedicate my discoveries to all humankind, with trivia not for just us, but for all.
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