Editor’s note: On Saturday, Ringer senior staff writer Jonathan Tjarks passed away. You can find information about how to support Jonathan’s family here.
On Monday night, Ken Jennings—the winningest contestant in Jeopardy! history—will finally step behind the lectern of the Alex Trebek Stage as an official permanent host. Through a season filling in part time with actress Mayim Bialik, he has served as a comforting bridge to the quiz show’s glory days for viewers and contestants alike.
That is, most contestants. Before Jennings became a benevolent Jeopardy! statesman destined to hand out congratulations and good for yous to untold hundreds, perhaps thousands, of quizzing obsessives for years to come, he was something else: a ruthless shatterer of dreams.
To be a Jeopardy! champion, after all, is to send two other players packing. To be the winningest champion of all time is to have ended more Jeopardy! careers than anyone else ever has—148 in his storied 74-game winning streak, to be exact, 147 of whom were booted from the stage just 30 minutes after arriving, never to return, with a consolation prize of either $1,000 or $2,000 depending on just how badly things went.
For six months in 2004, Jennings lay waste to the nation’s nerds on national television, at a time when the previous streak record was just seven games. In 65 of his 74 winning contests, he entered Final Jeopardy! with a runaway score, meaning that 88 percent of the players he faced were fully boxed out from even the possibility of victory. Once, he sent an opponent—Michael Cudahy, a musician from Los Angeles—home with a losing score of $44,400, which at the time would have been the sixth-highest score ever. (Instead, Jennings’s total of $48,801 became the fifth highest.) He toyed with records, for a time openly refusing to surpass Brian Weikle’s one-day record of $52,000, knowing that it was his bridge to cross when he wanted; his eventual $75,000 mark would stand for years. Jennings, who will continue to share hosting duties with Bialik going forward, didn’t just beat people. More often than not, he pulverized them.
These people have a name: the KJL, or Ken Jennings Losers. (They were originally the KJR, for Ken Jennings Roadkill, before the latter nickname was deemed overly violent.) The KJL have gone so far as to number themselves, from the second-place contestant in Jennings’s first victory—Julia Lazarus, dubbed KJL 1, who was just $1,400 behind Jennings going into Final Jeopardy! and nearly put a stop to his streak before it could begin—to the third-place contestant in Jennings’s final win, Kathi Fry, KJL 148.
It is a nickname born out of, if not magnanimity, then at least begrudging acceptance. “You have to have some way of turning a negative into a positive,” says Jeff Suchard, a.k.a. KJL 97. “I guess it’s not exactly like AA, but it’s a way to commiserate and to appreciate other people who went through the same kind of thing.”
Still, as Jennings prepares to become the face of the franchise nearly two decades later, not everyone is over it.
“When he was starting as host, my mother about lost her mind,” says Merritt Hamilton Allen, KJL 122, thanks to a third-place finish in the new cohost’s 61st game. “My mother never got over her rage.”
It was a dark and stormy night, most KJL tales begin. Or, at any rate, they often feel like they ought to. Instead, it tended to be a bright and sunny Culver City morning, with all the optimism that a lifetime of rapid-fire synapses, picture-perfect test scores, and the promise of a place on a favorite game show could bring. And then, there he was, a polite, 30-year-old software engineer from Salt Lake City.
Allen, who owns a public relations firm outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, first spied Jennings on the shuttle to the studio, where he sat placidly awaiting yet another drop-off. “It was like he was taking the bus to work,” she says.
For Suchard, his first glimpse of Jennings came in the studio in April 2004, as his taping cohort arrived to record the final five games before the show’s annual summer hiatus. The group had the misfortune of being the last to encounter Jennings before his episodes—and, for contestants, his reign of terror—began to air that June; his presence there, let alone his streak-in-progress, was a surprise to all.
All except for Suchard, anyway. After getting the invite from Jeopardy! to play a month earlier, Suchard, a physician in Irvine, California, had posted on social media about the good news.
“One of my cousins wrote back to me through Facebook and said, ‘Hey, I was just a contestant on Jeopardy!’” Suchard says. “‘There’s this young guy there who plowed through everybody there. You better hope that he’s gone when you get on the show.’”
As his group assembled that spring morning, Suchard studied the crowd. “We’re all holding a couple of extra changes of clothes,” Suchard says. “It’s super-duper awkward. And then Ken arrives, and, oh, look, it’s a young guy and he looks like he has some confidence.”
Sure enough, it was the one Suchard’s cousin had warned him about. “I said, ‘Hey, Ken, how many games have you won?’ And then he said 43. Everybody else just started laughing like it was the funniest joke in the world, because who could possibly win 43 games?”
Then, Suchard says, Jennings added: “No, no, it’s real.” Indeed, the resident Utahn had racked up nearly $1.5 million and counting. Before the day was out, he would add five more victories to his crusade, not to mention 10 more KJLs; Suchard, as a local, was bumped to the following taping, knowing exactly who would be waiting for him when he returned. By the time that next taping rolled around, members of the new group spent the time before their own ill-fated games asking Jennings for autographs.
Jennings’s streak was not without controversy. In its early seasons, Jeopardy! capped champions at five straight wins, at which point they were sent home with their cash total and a car. The five-day limit was lifted just a year before Jennings arrived, and some contestants—including more than a few five-day champs who were certain they could have gone on longer—cried foul. The New York Times declared Jennings “the most annoying man in game show history” and insisted he was holding poor Jeopardy! hostage, but it made no difference: On he went.
On any given night, the odds are good that all three contenders are lifelong Jeopardy! fanatics who have dreamed of competing since childhood. Though competition was less fierce in 2004 than it is today, when some 150,000 would-be contestants apply for the 400-odd spots for new players each season, many spend years moving through a cycle of applying, studying, and auditioning before finally getting tapped to play.
“As soon as I turned 13, I started sending in those postcards to get on the Teen Tournament,” says David Hankins, a New York City–based psychiatrist. “And then once I got to college, I started sending in postcards for the college tournament. And then finally I was like, well, I’m over 18, so I guess I can just try to do the adult show even though I’m still in college.”
He did what the show urged would-be contestants not to, and flew to Los Angeles on his own dime to audition in the Jeopardy! studio the summer before his senior year. (The application process has since moved fully online.) His gamble paid off when he soon got the call to come back to play—or so he thought until he settled back into the studio as he waited for his game. “I think we didn’t really know the extent of it until we heard Johnny Gilbert say, ‘A 73-day returning champion!’” he says.
Sure enough, Jennings won the first game that day, just as he had on so many others. And then Hankins heard his name being called to play in match no. 2, along with a real estate agent from Ventura, California, named Nancy Zerg.
Theirs was a slugfest—one that Hankins found himself mostly locked out of. “Most of the time, most of the players are buzzing in on all of the questions,” Hankins says of Jeopardy!; who gets through often depends on who has the best buzzer timing. Facing a historic champ and a newcomer good enough to put Jennings on his back foot, Hankins says he decided to ring in on just about everything—even the clues he wasn’t sure about. “I was like, you don’t beat a 74-day champion by playing conservatively.” But by the time Final Jeopardy! rolled around in his game, he was in the red, meaning he watched Zerg and Jennings play the last round from a director’s chair just offstage.
As the game’s last clue was read—“Most of this firm’s 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only 4 months a year”—Hankins watched as Zerg was asked for her response: “What is H&R Block?” Her score zoomed ahead of Jennings’s, who went next—and incorrectly guessed FedEx. Zerg won; Jennings and Hankins could be considered NZL 1 and 2.
The studio audience, a mix of visitors who nabbed tickets, contestants and their guests, and show staff, gasped. “I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about it,” Hankins says.
News, and eventually audio, of the moment leaked shortly afterward, first appearing on kottke.org (to the significant displeasure of Sony suits). “My 20-year-old brain was like, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to think that I leaked it and come after me legally or something,’” Hankins says. “I have no idea why I had that idea. I was completely terrified.”
But on a nascent internet with only the barest framework of social media, Zerg’s conquest remained mostly obscure until the episode aired two months later. Except, of course, for those most carefully studying Jennings’s fate: the KJL, who promptly got wind that their number would be sealed at 148.
“I definitely struggled for a while after taping with the cosmic bad luck of not only going up against Ken Jennings, but the person who was good enough to beat Ken Jennings after having tried for so long to get on the show,” Hankins says. “It just felt like, wow, there really was almost no worse date ever to be on Jeopardy!”
But in the years since, he’s come to see his rotten luck differently. “Would it have been better to be up against random people and maybe win an episode or two, versus doing horribly in this episode? I think that second thing is probably better in the grand scheme of things because it’s kind of a fun thing.” Not everyone can say they were a part of Jeopardy! history.
Such a feeling of Zen was not so readily shared by everyone Jennings toppled. Upon hearing of his imminent demise, Allen, then living in Washington, D.C., knew exactly what to do: throw a party. On November 30, 2004, a dozen KJLs gathered around the TVs at a pizzeria in Arlington, Virginia, to watch Goliath fall at last. Jennings might have been a nice guy, Allen says, but that doesn’t mean Team KJL wasn’t still bitter. “For me, for sure,” she says. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have had a watch party to watch the guy lose.” When Zerg at last sealed the deal, the group cheered.
For his part, Suchard has one idea for what Jennings should do with his newfound hosting powers. “What I’m really hoping for is Ken to host a ‘Ken Jennings Losers [KJL] Tournament’ on Jeopardy!, where they invite back the one or two dozen of his defeated opponents who really looked like they might have had a chance against him.”
Jennings, Suchard says, should host.