It's hard to argue that Ken Jennings is not the best "Jeopardy!" player ever. The seemingly unbeatable trivia whiz has defeated more than 50 contestants, appeared in a record-breaking 29 straight episodes and could top the $1 million mark Tuesday night.
On Monday, he tied his own record again for the one-day total of $52,000, a record-high set last year by another contestant. His 29-day winnings now total $72,960.
"I guess if you've been watching the show, I've been trying intentionally not to pass that record," he tells The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith. "It belonged to a great player who played on 'Jeopardy!' last season, who didn't have the benefit of unlimited games like I do," Jennings says. "I thought it would be a jerk move to beat him by one dollar, just to beat him, you know. There are plenty of records for everybody."
To mark the start of its 20th season last September, the quiz show lifted its five-game limit for winners and allowed them to keep going until they lose. So now Jennings is becoming as much a "Jeopardy!" fixture as host Trebek. He even was invited to read David Letterman's Top Ten List Monday night on The Late Show: 10 Ways To Irritate Alex Trebek.
For the Utah software engineer, there also aparently is plenty of money to be had. Since his run started airing June 2, whenever he bets, it comes out in even numbers.
"People have been asking me if I have OCD or something, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder," Jennings says. "I just started doing it in one of the first shows and it works out. I don't want to change something at this point."
Jennings notes he got only a month's notice before he was to appear on the show, which did not leave him much time to squeeze in a lot of studying. So what is his secret to success?
"The reflexes help, because there's a buzzer involved," he says. You can't be too soon or too late. I tend to remember stuff that interests me and I'm interested in lots of stuff. So it has paid off. You got to be able to recall it quickly, too. It's not good to stand there and be like, 'Oh, yeah, this was in 9th grade chemistry, good.' You don't have time for that."
To prepare, he enlisted the help of his wife to make flash cards to cover a variety of subjects. A teetotaler from the Church of the Latter Day Saints, Jennings read up on alcoholic drinks in anticipation of the "potent potables" category that can, and did, come up.
"They ask about that all the time," Jennings says. "My wife and I made flash cards with the names of cocktails on the front and ingredients on the back. We'd be driving around town and she'd go, Harvey Wall Banger, and I'd go vodka and orange juice."
His love for the game started when he was 10 years old, says the Seattle native who grew up in South Korea, where his father works for an international law firm in Seoul.
"The current version came on the air in 1984," he recalls. "They played it on the Armed Forces TV in South Korea and I'd come home after school every day and watch 'Jeopardy!' I've loved it ever since."
Now that he is 30, he is glad he took the chance to drive to L.A. and audition for the show.
"I've always liked game shows and thought wouldn't it be great if I could be on a show like this," he says. "I played some quiz bowls when I was in college, sort of competitive quiz-tournament type things." Jennings was a member of Brigham Young University's College Bowl team in the 1990s.
He notes, "There are similar quiz tournaments that universities play. I'd be seeing people I knew show up on 'Millionaire' and shows like this, and they were paying off their student loans so I thought it was great."
Jennings, however, is not saying how long he is going to continue his winning streak. The show, which is taped in advance, crams five shows (a week's worth) into one day of production.
But he expects to invest what he's won for wife Mindy and their 1 1/2-year-old son, Dylan. There also will be a splurge or two, probably on a trip to Europe.