Record-setting Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings has an underestimated secret to his success.
Jennings, a 30-year-old Utah software engineer, is the most successful Jeopardy! champion ever, winning $920,960 so far and making his 29th appearance on the game show tonight.
He admits he never missed Jeopardy! as a child growing up and that he loves to read. But Jennings says one key to his record-breaking run is his mastery of the buzzer when answering Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek's questions.
"Most people watching at home don't realize how important the timing on the buzzer is," Jennings told ABC News' Good Morning America. "Those are three very smart people every night. Most people know most of the answers. The buzzer is going to be what separates the men from the boys."
"When he [Trebek] finishes talking, that's when the buzzer activates," Jennings continued. "You need to have your answer in your mind already. … If you are too early, you get locked out. [If you are] too late, you get beat. There is a narrow sweet spot. It is a rhythm, anticipatory move you have to make."
Will He Ever Lose?
Jennings' run on Jeopardy! began on television on June 2. His headline-making run was made possible not only by his talent and a good memory, but also by an adjustment in the show's rules. To mark the start of its 20th season last September, Jeopardy! producers lifted a five-game limit for its winners and allowed them to continue on the show until they lost.
The record-holder before Jennings was Tom Walsh, of Washington, D.C., who won $184,900 in a seven-day run in January. But Jennings' Jeopardy! accomplishments have dwarfed Walsh's. His winning streak and earnings have been featured on ESPN and have been the topic of daily conversation at water coolers, late-night TV shows, and morning programs. Jeopardy! officials say the show's ratings have gone up 30 percent since Jennings' streak began.
Jennings is not feeling pressure from his new celebrity. He says he has felt more relaxed with each game.
"I felt a lot more comfortable and a lot more relaxed out there," Jennings said. "My dad watched my first show and said, 'Wow,' I looked stiff out there. I think I looked more and more relaxed as time went."
But there was one question that Jennings said made him nervous. It was during his very first appearance on Jeopardy!, and the question focused on the 2000 Olympics. Jennings and his wife Mindy had been on their honeymoon during that time and had not paid too much attention to the Olympic competition.
"The whole week of the Sydney Olympics, my wife and I were on our honeymoon in London," Jennings said. "[The answer was] Marion Jones. I guessed and got it right. I would not be here if I hadn't."
A member of Brigham Young University's College Bowl team in the 1990s, Jennings writes and edits literature questions for the national Academic Quiz Tournament. He reportedly expects to invest his Jeopardy! winnings for his wife and their baby son Dylan. Young Dylan, Jennings said, watches his father every time he's on television and is already a Jeopardy! fan.
"He will wake up from his nap and say, 'Watch Jeppy,'" Jennings said. "Every time somebody claps on the show, he will be like, 'Yay, Daddy!'"