For the rest of his days, Ken Jennings will be searching for the answer. Or, this being Jeopardy!, the question.
After a winning streak of 74 games and an unprecedented game-show booty of $2.5 million, what tripped him up and sent him home to Salt Lake City? FedEx, for one. That was his guess for Final Jeopardy! on the Sept. 7 taping—the country didn't learn that his reign was finally over until the show aired Nov. 30—in response to the statement: "Most of this firm's 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year." (It's H&R Block). But something undefinable was off anyway—the mojo: "I didn't find my rhythm," says Jennings, 30, married to Mindy, 29, and father of Dylan, 2. "I couldn't find my groove."
For the five-month run of tapings, Jennings had stuck to a set pattern: He stayed in the same highway motel, drove to the Culver City, Calif., studio every morning in the same rented Dodge Neon, ate the same breakfast of chocolate doughnuts. But, being by now a celebrity, he'd flown to Canada during the weekend, visited his wife's folks and thrown out the first ball in a Toronto Blue Jays game. Back on the set, "I guess I felt some performance anxiety. Both my wife's parents and my parents were in the audience and I knew, I warned them, one of these days, my number will be up. As it turned out, that was it." Mindy was home with Dylan. "When Ken called in the middle of the day, I knew it was over," she says. "They never let you call while they're taping. Not unless you lose. My first thought was, 'But Ken doesn't lose.' "
Alas, he had. After fielding trivia about British monarchs, bird-watching, baseball and even booze—a Mormon, he does not drink, but his wife helped him study mixology with flash cards—will he ever recover? "I feel sad," he says. "But I'm really happy I got to play so much Jeopardy! It's really fun!"
He made it considerably more so, becoming that rare thing—a game-show folk hero. "We were eating at an Italian restaurant," he recalls, "and this man came over and swiped the check and paid it. I said, If you've been watching the show, you know I can afford my tortellini.' " As he pitted his trivia-fortified brain against 148 other comers, says host Alex Trebek, "our ratings went up 20 percent."
There maybe a return engagement for Jennings—Tournament of Champions, anyone?—but now it's time to hand back some of those 50 silk ties he borrowed from family and friends to wear for the show. And to move on. Around Thanksgiving, he quit his job in Salt Lake City. "Computer programming—it's what I do. It's not what I want to do." Now he's writing a book about his Jeopardy! experience, and he may go to grad school and study literature. He also met with Microsoft officials with proposals for encyclopedia software. "I didn't see Bill Gates," he says. "Don't know that I ever would, and that's okay."
As to his own fortune, he's consulting financial planners and is pledging 10 percent of it to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. "I've been doing some research on what people who get sudden windfalls do with their money," says Jennings. "And 80 percent buy a new car within the first year. I don't think we're going to do that." His 10-year-old Saturn is running fine and Mindy's four-year-old Toyota will last "for years," he says. So far, all they've done is build a small deck on their two-bedroom home outside Salt Lake City and install a 52-inch flat-screen TV in the basement.
"But the truth is," says Ken, "we were going to do that anyway."
Tom Gliatto. Pamela Warrick in Salt Lake City
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine