'Jeopardy!' Whiz Finally Meets His Match
NEW YORK - "Jeopardy" whiz Ken Jennings finally met his match after a 74-game run as a pop culture icon who made brainiacs cool, beaten by a woman whose own 8-year-old daughter asked for his autograph when they first met.
As someone who always has prepared his own tax returns, Jennings was tripped up in Final Jeopardy by this answer: Most of this firm's 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year.
The correct reply: "What is H&R Block?" But Jennings guessed Federal Express, ending his remarkable run as the biggest winner in TV game show history with a haul of $2,520,700.
Having an accountant-friend who's nearly impossible to reach at tax time paid off big-time for his conqueror, California real estate agent Nancy Zerg, who ousted the baby-faced killer competitor in the episode airing Tuesday.
During his streak that began June 2, Jennings usually had opponents so thoroughly beaten that the Final Jeopardy question was meaningless to the outcome. But Zerg was within striking range at that point, with $10,000 to Jennings' $14,400.
The champion had to think; out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Zerg had quickly written her reply.
"I was pretty sure before the music ended that was the ballgame," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Her correct reply gave Zerg $14,001 to Jennings' $8,799.
Even before that, she had needed an unusual display of Jennings fallibility to stay in the game. He twice answered wrong on Daily Double questions, which give contestants a chance to make big wagers and increase their leads.
Maybe that's why he paused, ever so slightly, when asked in the AP interview Tuesday whether he had lost or been beaten. He then graciously gave Zerg credit.
"I would have dwelt on it if I missed something that I knew or didn't phrase it in the form of a question," said Jennings, a computer software engineer from Salt Lake City. "It was a big relief to me that I lost to someone who played a better game than me."
Zerg, a former actress who lives in Ventura, Calif., told the AP that she psyched herself up before the game by repeating to herself: "Someone's got to beat him sometime, it might as well be me."
Hanging out backstage with fellow contestants, she saw some Jennings opponents had essentially lost before the game. She heard one person say that it looked like he was playing for second, and another just wishing not to be humiliated.
"I heard another one say, `It's no great sin to lose to Ken Jennings,' and they went in and lost to Ken Jennings," she said. "I thought, `That's no way to play the game.'"
Some stats: Jennings' average daily haul was $34,063.51. He toyed with the previous daily record of $52,000 — tying it four times — before shattering it with a $75,000 win in Game 38. He gave more than 2,700 correct responses.
He combined an extraordinary breadth of knowledge, uncanny skill at sensing the precise instant to ring his buzzer, and a sharp competitive instinct hidden behind his grin and polite manner.
It made many of the games boring. But "Jeopardy!" executives aren't complaining; ratings were up 22 percent over the same period last time.
Jennings said he'd been thinking about walking away after some future milestone — 100 wins, perhaps, or $3 million or $4 million in winnings. He said there were about a dozen games where one reply made the difference between winning and losing.
"The fact that they had all fallen my way was beginning to worry me," he said, "because at some point the law of averages was going to kick in."
He wasn't prepared for how much he'd miss the daily competition, though.
"It didn't really hit me that was going to be the hard part," he said. "I thought the hard part would be the loss."
The loss is actually a distant memory and not really a secret: The show was taped in early September and news leaked right away. Video clips of his loss appeared Monday on the Internet.
Neither Jennings nor Zerg expect the record will be broken.
"It's not because things fell the right way," she said. "It's because he's that good."
Jennings, a Mormon, will donate 10 percent of his winnings to his church — and a European vacation is planned, "probably a really nice one." He'll hardly slip back into anonymity; he's visiting David Letterman and Regis Philbin this week, has a book deal and is open to any commercial sponsorship opportunities.
He's in a new tax bracket now, and H&R Block is making sure he'll always remember the company for other reasons: It has offered him free tax preparation for life.