Biggest-ever 'Jeopardy!' winner finally falls

74-game streak comes to a halt after collecting $2.5 million

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For Ken Jennings, it ended with a light double-handed slap on the edges of his "Jeopardy!" podium when his incorrect question -- "What is Fed Ex?" -- appeared.

Ken Jennings congratulates Nancy Zerg after she ended his skein of wins in the television game show.
Click photo for larger image.

At the Ken Jennings DC Roadkill Reunion last night at Faccia Luna, a bar in Arlington, Va., about a dozen contestants who had lost to him during his 74-game winning streak watched with a mixture of relish, relief and remorse as Nancy Zerg, a real estate agent from California, did what they had failed to do: beat Ken.

Jennings, who normally wins by a large margin, last night was unable to pull away from the competition. He missed two Daily Doubles and had trouble with a category on pro sports venues. Entering Final Jeopardy, he had $14,400 to Zerg's $10,000.

Zerg correctly responded "What is H&R Block?" to the Final Jeopardy clue: "Most of this firm's 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year."

Jennings smiled after his loss and embraced Zerg, who finished with $14,401 to break his winning streak and become the first new returning champ in six months.

Since his first "Jeopardwy!" appearance on June 2, Jennings, a 30-year-old software engineer from Salt Lake City, won $2,520,700, giving him the records for most money ever won on a television game show as well as the most victories.

He's making a round of talk show appearances this week, and plans a book and perhaps a Ken trivia game.

Though the big media hype around the streak was predictable, it was the small-scale skirmishes between the dueling armies of Ken-lovers and Ken-haters, most fought in Internet chatrooms and office water cooler conversations, that fueled Ken mania.

Some loved the clean-cut Mormon teetotaler who plans to donate 10 percent of his earnings to the church. Others hated the relentless nerdiness of the champ and said he'd made the show boring.

Then there were perhaps the most interested parties of all, those who were beaten by Jennings.

Merritt Allen is a big "Jeopardy!" fan who estimated she's watched 80 percent of the shows since it started its second incarnation two decades ago, but she had missed a number of episodes because of illness and travel for her job. When she auditioned over the summer in Washington, D.C., she said, "I had no idea who Ken Jennings was."

No idea he was on a record-setting winning streak. No idea he was crushing opponents with his combination of knowledge and buzzer-pressing skills.

When she found out that she had successfully auditioned to become what is known in "Jeopardy!" message board circles as Kennon fodder, "my excitement kind of drained."

Nevertheless, she prepped hard. She read the World Almanac, making it to R before her time to tape came. She squeezed a gripper ball to strengthen her hand for ringing in. She played along with the TV every night to practice.

Suriname did her in. She couldn't come up with the South American country that was the correct response in the Final Jeopardy round and Ken Jennings won again on the October show in which she appeared.

She still hadn't grasped the full extent of Ken mania, however.

"After my episode aired, I engaged in the ultimate navel gazing. I Googled myself. I found a reference to the game I'd just played. There is a game recap every day" posted on the "Jeopardy!" Web site message board.

"Then I saw that people were actually giving themselves numbers," said Allen, who is KJL122 -- Ken Jennings Loser No. 122.

"There's now a critical mass of Ken Jennings losers in the country," said Jeff Suchard, KJL 97. Suchard, an emergency physician at University of California Irvine Medical Center who is an expert in rattlesnake bites, has watched almost all the shows of the Ken epic and kept up with other KJLs on the "Jeopardy!" message board.

"A lot of former contestants continue to communicate that way," he said. "The shows get analyzed. People say, 'I would have done great on this game.' "

Allen said that for a while after her losing appearance, she couldn't bear to watch. She'd know a correct response right off and wonder why she didn't get that kind of category when she played.

"Then you have to remind yourself it's a game show. The contestants for "Jeopardy!" are not jump-up-and-down types. They might take themselves too seriously, but you probably have to take yourself more seriously than you should if you are going to play this game on television that's about being smart and you might wind up being the dumbest person on it."

She conceived of the Roadkill Party when she realized a number of the KJLs were from the D.C. area.

"D.C. is probably the perfect combination of trivial knowledge and ego to make the perfect "Jeopardy!" contestant -- with the exception of Utah, of course," she said.

She created a DC Roadkill address and extended a vague, open invitation to a gathering that insiders understood to be for the purpose of watching Ken Jennings' losing performance. Though that game actually was taped in September, it had been a closely guarded secret until its airing last night.

At last night's party, the former contestants played along, but probably not in their best form.

When the contestants tried to make a response in a category about soup, Allen said she kept yelling, "It's a soup! It's a soup!"

Al Arsenault, who was an early victim in Game 8, said he had mixed emotions after watching Jennings lose.

"He is such a nice guy. It's just hard to root against him."

Allen, though, said there was no mixture in her emotions. "I was elated! Absolutely. I'm a very poor loser."

Rob Kimbro, who calls himself "the ultimate Ken Jennings loser," was the only one at the party who had seen the game before last night. He was in the studio audience some weeks ago for Jennings' final game after being defeated in the previous game.

"I had seen the awesome force that was Ken," he said.

As a member of the studio audience, Kimbro said he joined in the standing ovation that "lasted forever."

Jennings, interviewed yesterday in the midst of a frenzy of media appearances, said that the best moment did not come with any of the record-breaking performances.

"My very first game was probably the biggest high. I had gone in not even expecting to win once. It was a dramatic exciting finish, with a lucky guess on my part. At that moment I had already exceeded the expectations I had for myself. I felt an incredible wave of elation at that point."

Jennings seemed bemused by Ken mania, particularly at its chat room level.

"The sort of grass-roots response is the most fun, love me or hate me." He's posted occasionally, but mostly stayed out of the fray.

Jennings said he'll miss playing.

The KJLs said that not getting another chance is what stings. Suchard and several others felt that against anyone but Jennings, they would have won at least one game.

That's why there's talk of a Ken Jennings Roadkill Tournament.

Jennings laughed at the mention of such a tournament.

"I'd love to watch that. I'd probably be the most enthusiastic viewer."

But, he added, he would never turn down any chance to play "Jeopardy!"

"The hardest thing about losing is it means you probably don't get a chance to play again."


Lillian Thomas can be reached at lthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3566.


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