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`Jeopardy!' champion makes some fine points on trivia

`Trivia must be noteworthy, novel or clever,' according to Ken Jennings, who has a book on the subject.

September 22, 2006|Ron Berthel | Associated Press

NEW YORK — Ken Jennings has been a lifelong trivia fan. Now he's also the answer to a trivia question:

"In 2004, who won 74 consecutive games and more than $2.5 million to become the all-time champion on TV's 'Jeopardy!'?"

Jennings is also the author of a new book, "Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs," which is the reason for his recent visit to New York, the first stop on his book tour.

In the book, Jennings neatly blends the story of his "Jeopardy!" experience with the history of trivia, a chronicle that goes back further than one might imagine -- more than 300 years.

"Brainiac" is Jennings' first book, but he says he might have written a book about trivia history even if he had not become an unsuspecting celebrity by denting the bank of the long-running game show.

"I always wanted to write this book," said the slim, fair-haired Jennings, whose boyish face and casual but neat attire belie his 32 years.

"I enjoyed the experience," he said. "And because of the book, I got to meet [trivia icon] Fred Worth and the people who write trivia questions."

And, as someone who has long been fascinated by what he calls "knowing weird stuff," he added, "It's the book I always wanted to read."

Jennings had been a true trivia advocate even before his penchant for the subject brought him fame and fortune.

"I think its name shortchanges trivia and downplays the importance of knowledge," he said. "Maybe it should be called 'cultural literacy' instead."

What does Jennings think is the difference between a tidbit of trivia and a plain old straightforward fact?

"Trivia must be noteworthy, novel or clever. Like Albert Brooks' name," he said, referring to a passage in the book in which he writes: " 'Comedian Albert Brooks attended Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh' is a fact.... But 'Comedian Albert Brooks had to change his name because he was born Albert Einstein'? Ah. That's trivia."

Jennings also points out the value of trivia as a social tool. "It's an icebreaker, a conversation starter," he said. A certain piece of trivia can connect people and give them common ground.

In "Brainiac," Jennings chronicles the evolution of trivia and its following, in books and magazines, on radio and TV, in campus tournaments, and in board games such as Trivial Pursuit.

Along the way, he briefly profiles some of the people who have loved trivia and even made a living from it. These include Robert L. Ripley, who, believe it or not, was "the world's first true trivia celebrity," Jennings writes.

He adds that being on "Jeopardy!" was "something I've been dreaming about since I was 10." He describes the audition process, in which he was one of more than 30,000 who compete annually for only 400 spots ("Getting into Harvard is about eight times easier," he says).

He tells how he prepared for his appearance by watching the show from behind his recliner (about the height of the "Jeopardy!" podium) and "buzzing in" with his year-old son's ring-stack toy. In spite of his vast knowledge of odd and obscure facts, Jennings made several sets of flash cards, on subjects that included world leaders, college team mascots and -- especially important for teetotaler Jennings -- cocktail ingredients

Jennings called his "Jeopardy!" winning streak a fluke and said he frequently wondered, "What have I lucked into?"

"I expected to lose any day," he said, which could have been his first day on the show, as Jennings recalls in the book how the answer to his first "Final Jeopardy!" question came close to being ruled incorrect for being incomplete.

The book is written with frequent touches of humor, as in Jennings' revelation that he was on "Jeopardy!" for so long that he ran out of cute little personal stories to share with host Alex Trebek in the brief interview segment midway in the show. So a few times, "desperate for material," he confesses, "I even make something up."

By the way, he doesn't think his "Jeopardy!" winning streak will be broken soon.

Jennings left his "humdrum" job as a computer software engineer in Salt Lake City to write "Brainiac" and moved with wife, Mindy, and son, Dylan, to his native Seattle.

For his next project, he said, not surprisingly, "I would love to write a book of trivia."

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