From almost its very first episode in 1984, the Alex Trebek-hosted version of Jeopardy! has been synonymous with competitive trivia, but throughout the first two decades of its run, it aspired to be little more than a showcase for forgettable eggheads to demonstrate their acumen for retaining facts. For years, Jeopardy! champions were retired from regular competition after five wins. Enough people usually managed this feat to field an annual Tournament of Champions, but by tournament time, most of that year’s contenders were far from familiar faces, and after it, only the show’s most diehard fans would remember any of them.
The question of whether the five-time rule was preventing a true trivia juggernaut from showing themselves, coupled with the fact that Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’s high-stakes prizes had reinvigorated interest in game shows in general (and big payouts in particular), caused Jeopardy! to lift this limit for its 20th season, which began in 2003.
It took less than a year after the rule was revoked for Jeopardy to achieve its desired effect: a trivia powerhouse whose 74-game winning streak would bring the show to the forefront of popular culture for the next six months, and whose name would become synonymous with the brand for years to come. Before his streak ended on November 30, 2004, Ken Jennings would amass more than two million dollars, and everyone was talking about him.
Jennings’s historic run might yet have been a flash in the pan, but fifteen years later, he’s still second only to Alex Trebek himself as far as iconic names associated with the brand. In addition to his initial run on the show, he’s returned for numerous tournaments, including a famous exhibition game against IBM’s “Watson” computer. He’s also parlayed his Jeopardy! success into numerous appearances on other game shows, his own board game, several bestselling nonfiction books, a top-20 podcast, and a weekly trivia e-newsletter.
This January he’ll face off with Brad Rutter, who holds the Jeopardy! record for most total winnings and most tournament wins, and recent Tournament of Champions winner James Holzhauer, in a two-day ABC primetime event dubbed the “Greatest of All Time”.
But while Jeopardy! is purporting to settle the question of who is truly the greatest, if we’re going by name recognition alone, that question is undisputed. Jennings remains a household name in ways that Rutter (whose career winnings are, in point of fact, nearly double those of Jennings) and Holzhauer (who racked up nearly as much money as Jennings in half as many games) could never be.
For one thing, 74 wins is a lot of wins. It’s a record that has never been remotely challenged since 2004. It’s true that Jennings was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the elimination of the five-time rule, but it’s also telling that over the past fifteen years, no other contestant has racked up a streak half as long. He was just that good. A distinguished collegiate Quiz Bowl career, as well as years spent writing and editing Quiz Bowl questions, made him uniquely prepared to dominate. Knowledge is only one piece of the puzzle, of course. Jennings also routinely beat his competitors to the buzzer even when they all knew the answer. He’s noted, however, that Jeopardy!’s buzzers were configured such that returning champs became more familiar with their timing the longer they played — an issue that was eventually somewhat mitigated once new challengers were given more time to play practice games.
Jennings’s innate likability also made his long winning streak palatable to viewers. Certainly there were camps of viewers who tuned in every night hoping that night would be the end of his run, but something about the guy was just impossible to dislike. It’s difficult to imagine the wholesome young dad spiking a football in your face after besting you at trivia. Throughout his initial run and beyond, Jennings has embodied far less of the hypercompetitive intensity that is usually emblematic of a Jeopardy! powerhouse. Though he’s focused, he seems at home behind the podium, and whether he wins or loses, he’s the epitome of class.
His humility was paired with a wicked sense of humor that frequently manifested in the tongue-in-cheek adversarial relationship he cultivated with Alex Trebek over the course of his run, but Jennings is never funnier than when he’s the target of his own comedy. After all, a man who adopted “WatsonsBitch” as his Reddit username obviously doesn’t have a problem laughing at himself. Sure, his astounding well of trivia knowledge makes him a dweeb, but he would probably be the first person to call himself that, and he’d even embrace it. His self-deprecating wit remains on full, glorious display on Twitter, where he’s a constant source of obscure facts, dad jokes, and even the odd spate of good-natured trash-talking with James Holzhauer and other trivia legends.
As we look at the legacy of Jeopardy! at large, it’s impossible to divorce the show itself from the enduring influence of its most iconic player. It’s not quite accurate to say Ken Jennings made trivia cool, but he at least played a major role in making it fun.
Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie.