Who Is Ken Jennings?

ByABC News

Nov. 30, 2004 — -- For two weeks of his run as the longest-reigning "Jeopardy!" champion, Ken Jennings lived a double life. The shows had not yet aired, and no one was allowed to know where he was when he took off time from work.

"Nobody knew except my boss," the Salt Lake City software engineer recalled. "So I'd be working at my day job, living my normal life and I'd feel like Clark Kent 'cause every couple of weeks I'd have to secretly fly out here [to Los Angeles] and have this secret identity as a game show star."

Seventy-four wins and $2,520,700 later, his co-workers have no doubt that their colleague is a pop-culture icon.

"I think they're as proud as could be," Jennings said. "There's all kinds of Ken memorabilia -- 'Kenmabilia' -- up on the walls at work."

Jennings may be the greatest quiz show champion ever. Millions tuned in nightly since June -- and the show's ratings soared 22 percent -- to see if he could win yet another round by astounding margins. Even his 2-year-old son, who watched faithfully, realizes his father's newfound fame -- Jennings told host Alex Trebek that little Dylan has taken to calling him "Ken Jennings" instead of Daddy.

Jennings spoke with "Nightline's" Judy Muller on the "Jeopardy!" set in Los Angeles in November. The episode in which he finally lost was taped in early September, but the series' producers barred him from talking about it until the show aired.

As "Jeopardy!" fans know, the show moves at an incredibly fast pace. The contestants come and go. Once in a while, of course, they come and stay. In Jennings' case, he stayed so long it became almost routine.

"It was like a day job. But I tried to go out of my way to sort of be the nice guy. I figured I'd be hated enough by the other contestants," he said. "Getting on 'Jeopardy!' is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I'm sure it's jarring to show up and have somebody tell you, 'And this is the 40-game champion -- you need to play him.' So I tried to be exaggeratedly nice."

Although he has shattered all of the show's records, Jennings says his greatest moment was the first day he won.

"Just winning that first game, which was a very close game, nip and tuck, could have gone either way," he said. "Just that sudden wave of euphoria when I realized I get to go home and tell people I won on 'Jeopardy!' -- nothing like it before or since."

After Jennings won his first million, he became a celebrity -- one who seemed to inspire as much animosity as admiration.

"I was reading an article in a sports magazine that said I obviously had the personality of a hall monitor, that I was the guy everyone avoided in the office Christmas party," he said. "And they said I was punchable! They encouraged physical abuse against my person."

"I was sort of ticked, you know. This guy doesn't even know me, he's just watching me on a game show."

Web sites sprang up charting Jennings' progress. Every possible statistic was recorded: the number of times he answered correctly, the number of times he was the first to ring in. And when it came to mastering the buzzer, it proved to be an art form at which he is particularly adept.

"The buzzer is what separates the winner from the two non-winners," he said. "For one thing, you have to wait till Alex finishes reading the question and then a human being activates your buzzer. If you buzz in too early, you're going to get locked out for a second. ... Often that is the beginner's mistake, I think."

Being quick with the buzzer is one thing, but it's all for naught without a vast trove of knowledge at the ready.

"It's related to intelligence," Jennings said. "To some degree, I think it's sort of a parlor trick to have all these facts and be able to pull them out at the drop of a hat. It doesn't make you smart in the same way that Stephen Hawking is smart or some guy researching cures for cancer is smart."

Jennings has kept his loss in perspective. "I got beaten by someone very good, that was great," he said. "And it was a relief just to know how the story ended. I've been as much in suspense as everyone else about this whole thing so it was cool to be able to know the end of the story."

But it was also bittersweet. Jennings and Trebek had bonded after four months together, and Trebek told "Nightline" he actually teared up when he said goodbye to Jennings.

"I felt that because, I don't know, it was the end of a wonderful experience for him and for me, I think," he said, adding that the ratings Jennings' run generated helped the show "immensely."

Trebek also said he was happy for the contestant who conquered the champion. "It was quite an accomplishment, the lady defeating someone who had won 74 games in a row," he said. "But there was that element of disappointment also because -- what? You mean Ken lost? Inconceivable!"

So what's next for Jennings? He's taken a leave of absence from work, but says he has no intention of leaving for good. "I love my job. I don't see myself as retiring at 30 just because of this."

He has a book being published next year by Random House "just about my experiences, what in my life led me to this point, what are the bigger questions of trivia and knowledge in our society in general and what that has to do with intelligence, things like that."

Always a master of suspense, don't think he'll be revealing any "Final Jeopardy!"-worthy insights. "I'm not gonna give it away," he said with a laugh. "Buy the book."