New Brain on the Block

Jeopardy! genius Ken Jennings moves to the smartest city in America: Seattle.

THE BUZZ WENT through Seattle Weekly's offices soon after the elevator binged open. Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings was in the house! What's he doing here? everyone asked. To me, on one level, it wasn't such a big deal—here's a first-time author, who just moved to the Northwest this July, visiting to talk about his book, Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs (Villard, $24.95; see review below). On another, I recognized, he was a TV icon for his 2004 winning streak of 74 matches, which supplies the narrative outline for Brainiac's historical and biographical components. Only problem: I never saw him on Jeopardy!, don't own a TV, didn't have the same psychic investment that many of my colleagues—and millions of viewers—evidently have in the guy. Resentment, awe, inferiority . . . I can only guess, but in person, he's as bright, affable, and unpretentious as people tell me he seems on TV.

Yet his Jeopardy! days likely ended with a tournament of champions round last year. "I think that might be it for me," says Jennings. "It would be a bit anticlimactic to keep hauling me back on." Instead, newly transplanted just north of the city line into 425-land, a second child about to join his family, Jennings is setting himself up as a trivia entrepreneur in the land of his youth. He grew up in View Ridge until about age 6, returned to attend the U-Dub for a year, and still has family in the Northwest. Though we commiserate about our local real-estate prices, his TV winnings ($2.5 million in '04) and endorsement deals (FedEx, Microsoft) have given him the freedom to relocate here and run a kind of one-man trivia conglomerate.

So now are Seattle trivia gunslingers aiming to take Jennings down every time he stands in line at the supermarket? "I get that sort of thing sometimes," he says, though less often than in his old Salt Lake City home. "People apparently carry around some kind of very hard kind of trivia question, just in case they see me." He cites a guy who recently ambushed him about the apartment building where TV's Superman used to reside. "Frankly, I usually try to get it wrong, because it's easier for me and more fun for them."

Of course, one way to get away from your adoring/annoying public is to hole up at home and write a book. "This had been with me for a long time," he explains of Brainiac, which delves into the history of the dog-eared reference books he once kept on his boyhood nightstand. "I was really a big fan of the book Word Freak [about Scrabble enthusiasts], and I thought, 'Where's that book about trivia nerds?'" Meanwhile, Jennings has also extended his brainy brand to his own Web site (www.ken-jennings.com) and games like Can You Beat Ken? and Quizzology.

SO KEN IS IN the air, in a variety of media, but that ether itself carries countless megabytes of data. This is the information age, after all, which is one reason viewers responded so strongly to Jennings—he showed a mastery of facts and their retrieval, like a walking, talking Google. How much of our daily lives is now spent trying to find stuff on our computers or on the Internet? Human memory is a microcosm for all that—the original search engine.

Jennings sees the same info-centric social forces at work today: "It's like a nerd renaissance. Every answer is 10 keystrokes away. I assume that's changing the way we think. Maybe that does make us more interested in question-and-answer-type games. It's a sport for a lot of people who'll never throw a touchdown pass.

"Trivia is so omnipresent now. You've got Joe Sixpack buying the DVD with three hours of bonus features and behind-the-scenes trivia. If you're a fan of a movie or band or something now, you can buy shelves full of books. That kind of knowledge we didn't have before. After Elvis hit it big, it was like 10 years before the first Elvis book came out. Now the culture's so trivia-oriented that we're all trivia geeks about our own area of expertise."

Indeed, the very word "trivia" is something of a misnomer. Are the contacts in your BlackBerry trivial? The code in your computer? The genetic test results for your new baby? The SAT scores for your kid or ARM on your house? There's never been more stuff to remember than there is today. Once upon a time, a medieval monk might memorize long passages of scripture, but outside the village—there was nothing to know. Today, valuable information is more granular.

Jennings agrees: "I think there is some utility to [trivia], beyond just as a fun way of passing the evening at the pub. What used to be called trivia is now just the information density of everything around us. I think when we call it 'trivia,' we trivialize it."

Yet at the same time, there's the very important human social aspect—quite apart from work—of sharing information, using your memory to delight and impress. "That's the thrill of it. The idea that there's something in there [in one's head] and I haven't used it for years. And, ah! here it is. Everybody has all this stuff. We love those moments where we get to show, 'Here's what I remember about I Dream of Jeannie or the 1979 Boston Red Sox.' Trivia alone is pretty boring. That's why you've got people going to the bars, people setting up the card tables to play the board games. People who watch Jeopardy!—it's college students getting together to yell out answers at the screen. Even the knowledge you get from knowing that kind of stuff ties you to other people."

And, Jennings argues, everyone has their own kind of expertise. "They wouldn't say, 'I'm a trivia fan.' They'd say, 'I'm a Red Sox fan' or 'I'm a Stephen Sondheim fan.' Everybody is a trivia nut—just about their own thing."

So now, as an expert on expertise, planning to write his next book on memory, does Jennings relax at home by shouting out the answers at Jeopardy! on TV? "I actually can't enjoy it the way I used to," he admits. "I was a daily Jeopardy! watcher when I was a kid. Now it's like a Vietnam vet hearing the helicopters going overhead. I hear the music, and I tense up."

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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