Louis Bayard
Louis Bayard
Louis Bayard Louis Bayard
Novels

Who is Louis Bayard?
Salon.com, September 22, 2006

I won on "Jeopardy." I lost on "Jeopardy." For consolation, I turned to the tart insights of 74-game champion and master-geek Ken Jennings.

Balmoral.

It's the name that will haunt me in every waking and dreaming moment. It will be my epigraph and epitaph. It will be my afternoon agony, my dying whisper. Balmoral will be my Waterloo, my Rosebud, my Stella, my Lowenstein.

For my friend Steve Norton, it's the Globe Theatre. For my friend Steve Latourette, it's James Bond. The names, finally, are just symbols for the moment in which a "Jeopardy" aspirant, in the space of one second, becomes a "Jeopardy" has-been. They are not just the questions we missed, they are the detritus of a dream, the nature of which we only imperfectly understand. They are the moments, impossible to revoke, in which the lacunas in our mental inventories stand starkly revealed.

Balmoral. Balmoral.

I still see the Final Jeopardy clue. The category was "Castles": "The name of this large home located in Aberdeenshire means 'the majestic dwelling' in Gaelic."

Until then, it had been a heady ride. I'd flown out to Los Angeles in early August, my garment bag seething with reference volumes. (Never too late to bone up on your world capitals.) I'd taken a shuttle bus to Sony Pictures Studios. Sat in a green room with 11 other men and women, good and true. (We were sequestered and herded exactly like a jury.) And when the time came, I walked onto the meat-locker-cold sound stage, stood behind my lectern, tested my buzzer, listened to Johnny Gilbert read my name—that's when you know it's real—and watched Alex stride out to the cadences of that unutterably familiar musical theme.

And so it began.

At least a minute passed before I was able to buzz in. My response: "Who is Gucci?" Correct. And with that, the terror began to subside into something terrifyingly pleasurable—and deeply personal. I was doing the thing I'd wanted to do since I was 6 years old. I was showing the world what I knew.

Of course, anyone who competes on "Jeopardy" today crouches under a shadow. The shadow of He Who Knew All. He Who Had No Balmorals. He Who Went for 74 Consecutive Games as an Untouchable Fount of Knowledge, in Both Its Useful and Useless Varieties.

And then something strange happened to Ken Jennings. He found his Balmoral. And how deceptively straightforward it was in its outlines: "Most of this firm's seventy thousand seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year." Ken's response: "What is FedEx?" The correct response, as light-penned by one Nancy Zerg (now a trivia question herself): "What is H&R Block?"

And with that, the cultural epiphenomenon that was Ken Jennings came to an end. Or, more accurately, morphed into something stranger, more diffuse and possibly richer. No longer content with being simply "that nerd from TV," Jennings, in his new book, "Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs," has realigned himself as America's preeminent trivia apologist, the defender of all things geekazoid. It's a message of salvation he brings us. By embracing our inner nerds, by stuffing ourselves like Strasbourg geese with facts and figures and long-dead arcana, we can find ourselves anew: as persons, as a people.

Salvation, we all know, begins at home, and so it did with Jennings. He was, by his own description, a mediocre Salt Lake City software engineer when he and his friend Earl drove out to Culver City, Calif., to audition for "Jeopardy." Ten months later, he was summoned to Sony Picture Studios. ("Jeopardy" is taped two days a week, five shows a day.) His first round was a squeaker, but as he grew in confidence, he began to pull away from the field, using his experience and buzzer prowess to lock up games before the Final Jeopardy round. His winnings soared to $1 million and beyond, and the show's ratings climbed 25 percent as, night after night, viewers tuned in to see if anyone could bring down the Mormon tabernacle of trivia.

"Here I stand," he recalls thinking, "doing something I'm good at for a change—and the rewards have been hundreds of times greater than those for any of the safe, practical, responsible choices I'd spent the rest of my life making. The magic bullet was, of all things, trivia, that seemingly most frivolous and least marketable of all possible pursuits. Who knew?"

I was one of the people who tuned out during Jennings' long run. Envy, surely, had a lot to do with it, but I just couldn't warm to this aw-shucks killer with his apricot sheen of confidence. He reflected light like a Pixar toy. He was unwholesomely wholesome, the kind of game-show winner who might have been engineered by Karl Rove. (Jennings himself says how nice it was "to have someone on TV for a few months who was openly religious.") I expected to have the same problem with Jennings' book, but "Brainiac" surprises on several fronts. To begin with, Jennings can write. And the persona he rather artfully presents here is quite at variance with the redheaded titan we remember from TV. This renovated Ken Jennings is secular, humble, self-deprecating (almost laboriously so), with a sharp and pleasingly tart perspective on popular culture and his own unstable place within it.

He can at times be too glib for his own good. ("Like the Terminator, Halley's comet, or genital herpes, trivia just keeps coming back." Tough questions "beat me like Ike Turner.") But "Brainiac" impresses with its diligence and its restless curiosity. Rather than simply spin out old "Jeopardy" war stories, Jennings turns the lens outward as much as possible. He showcases the lightning-fast reflexes of quiz-bowl striplings. He smuggles himself into a beer-fueled pub-trivia contest in Boston. He digs up obscure and poignant figures like Fred L. Worth, the obsessive fact compiler whose life's research was, without a word of thanks or a dime of compensation, appropriated by the inventors of Trivial Pursuit. (Worth went to court and lost.)

Maybe the most engaging chapter centers on "The World's Largest Trivia Contest," a weekend-long marathon in Stevens Point, Wis., and a slice of nutbird Americana: teams of the unwashed squatting in basements and towing garages with their file cabinets and decades-old piles of TV Guides, phoning in answers round the clock to the local radio station, where a man named "Oz" sits in godlike judgment. Jennings has an eye and a nose for these fungal niches and a generous spirit. If fate hadn't decreed otherwise, he might have made a fine feature writer, and in his breezy middlebrow fashion, he manages to raise some interesting questions about the stuff we put in our heads. He asks, in essence, what is more important, the knowledge or the knowing?

It may seem strange to hammer out larger issues of cognition within the context of television celebrity, but as it turns out, the show that made Ken Jennings famous is also a useful tool for examining our culture's fraught relationship with the intellect. "Jeopardy" was the creation of Merv Griffin and his then-wife Julann. It took to the air in 1964 and ran for 10 years with Art Fleming as its host. (I can still recall Fleming's sorrowing-cow response to incorrect responses: "Noooooo, sorry.") The current incarnation, with talc-dry Alex Trebek, has been on the air since 1984 and remains the nation's top-rated game show, attracting 10 million or so viewers a night.

In a country where half of all households don't buy books, why should this show continue to thrive? I think the secret lies in its original design. Like its sibling show, "Wheel of Fortune," "Jeopardy" is crafted to make viewers at home feel smarter than the contestants on the tube. Start with the game's rules, which require players to hold off on answering until Trebek has finished reading the question. (Ring in too early, you're blocked out for a precious half-second.) Viewers at home are under no such obligation. If they know the answers, they can shout them out well before their counterparts on the screen, and because they're not competing with anyone, they can cumulatively answer more questions than anyone on the show (except possibly Jennings). Watching "Jeopardy" confers, on a certain class of geek, a feeling of mastery. In our couch-potato hubris, we believe that, given a chance, we can sweep category after category, stunning our opponents into silence.

It is only in the course of actually playing the game on the show that the delusion begins to crack. It cracks, in fact, the moment you first try to ring in against two other people. "'Jeopardy' skill is largely buzzer technique," Jennings notes, "and the buzzer is a cruel and fickle mistress." Not for me: The buzzer was pure stranger. Whole categories would roll by as I madly pounded my signal button ("like a Wal-Mart associate counting customers on the day after Thanksgiving," a friend later told me) waiting, waiting for the light to flare above my name. Weeks later, watching myself on TV, I could see my face actually contorting with the effort of remaining silent while voices around me sang out the answers—my answers!

It's an entirely American contradiction. A show that celebrates the intellect ("You don't have to eat bugs here," one of the contestant coordinators reassured us) really comes down to speed and muscular coordination. Brain to thumb to mouth. From that neural pathway, Jennings cleared every last obstruction and became virtually unstoppable. He is well aware that he benefited from the producers' decision to eliminate the five-day limit on champions. ("Jeopardy" freaks like to ponder how long the great victors of yore might have lasted under the new rules, which were established in 2003 to commemorate the show's 20th season.) A long-running champion, it turned out, had advantages that nobody bargained for: "well-honed buzzer timing, comfort behind the lectern, intimidation of the two challengers. By the law of averages, I'm sure that over the last few months I've defeated quite a few players who knew more answers than I did, but just lacked game-day experience."

"Jeopardy" rewards knowledge, yes, but good American show that it is, it rewards winning even more—and all the skills and cunning and drive that go into winning. By that yardstick, Jennings surpassed all expectation. He parlayed his game-show run into multimillion-dollar endorsements, a stint on "Sesame Street," even a berth in Barbara Walters' Ten Most Fascinating People of 2004. (Not everyone was enraptured. The New York Times called him "the most annoying man in game show history.") Today, we find him inventing trivia games ("Quizzology," "Can You Beat Ken?"), lecturing at college campuses and corporate events, and penning a column for Mental Floss magazine in which readers challenge him to "link two virtually unrelated people, places, or things via a chain of six odd trivia factoids." He is, in short, extending the franchise that "Jeopardy" began—and, in the course of "Brainiac," trying to reposition his once and future career as a philanthropic gateway to a more civic society.

Jennings is properly cautious in the claims he makes on trivia's behalf. He recognizes that the ability to recall facts is not the same as intelligence. (Albert Einstein failed the trivia examination that Thomas Edison used to administer to job applicants.) But in the framework of Jennings' salvation theology, brainiacs become something more than smart people. They become repositories for the common cultural heritage that modern technology is eroding. "Facts about history, geography, books, movies, music," Jennings writes, "this is the stuff that used to be called good old-fashioned 'general knowledge' ... If more of us enjoyed 'trivia'—that is, knowing a little bit about everything—we would know more about one another, and therefore might get along better."

Even as utopian visions go, that's awfully mushy, and in fact, Jennings' own experiences give it the lie. Real trivia mavens don't want to "know more about one another," they want to know more than anyone else. Their very sense of themselves depends on being a minority of one. (I once shared a North Side Chicago sublet with one such man. His compulsive need to unspool every last thread of knowledge from his mind's bobbin literally drove me to another apartment. Within two years, he was a five-time 'Jeopardy' champion.)

If these mandarins of trivia are, in Jennings' formulation, "America's last meritocracy," then it's a decidedly curious republic they've built. One that treats the human brain as a Google search engine, that privileges "Sid Caesar over Julius Caesar, and Doctor Kildare over Doctor Faustus." Or, at the very least, equates them—which, in effect, renders any differences between them null and void.

The content of any given piece of knowledge is not necessarily what drives your average brainiac. He doesn't learn the name of Superman's father or the capital of Somalia or the author of "Daniel Deronda" because he wants to read George Eliot or fly to Mogadishu or ponder the implications of extraterrestrial life. He is acquiring facts in roughly the same way that Wilt Chamberlain acquired sex partners—and from roughly the same pleasure principle. Jennings speaks of "the endorphin rush, the I'm-smart feeling we get from unexpectedly producing an answer we had no idea we knew." I remember the giddiness that shook my frame when I dredged up the name "Olof Palme" from deep in the well of my cultural memory. In moments like these, the knowledge is nowhere near as important as the sensation of knowing: the buzzing of axons and dendrites as they carry their precious cargo to its docking station.

That's what makes "Jeopardy" so seductive to many of us (even when it's kicking our ass). Not because it makes us better citizens but because, even within the constraints imposed by our culture, it affords our play the purest possible form. For someone like me, who had memorized every major-category Oscar winner by the age of 8, who had transcribed the lyrics of two dozen Broadway shows by the age of 10, who had passed my loneliest hours reading the World Book, "Jeopardy" was sport. And, yes, salvation—but of a uniquely personal nature. One day, I would stand before my fellow countrymen and, in the glow of the TV lights, all the freakish knowledge amassed over my many years would magically find its proper channel.

When I flew out to Sony Pictures Studios last August for my taping, I told virtually no one. (One of the friends I did tell asked me why I didn't just apply for an NEA grant.) My only goal, I vowed, was to reach the Final Jeopardy round. I didn't want to be one of the wretches who have to be ushered off before the last question because they've finished in the red.

But after winning my first game—and $17,800—I realized pretty quickly that I wanted more. And just as quickly, I learned there would be no more. "You only get one shot at 'Jeopardy'," says Ken Jennings. And when the end comes—as it did for me after two games, as it did for him after 74—it comes summarily. You sign papers. You are gently asked if you want a cab. You quit the refrigerated bubble of Sony Pictures Studios for the filtered sunshine of Culver City. You phone the news home. You pack your bags.

You raise not a word of protest the whole time—you're a good sport—but something rankles. Not the money lost: That was never a consideration. Not the fame forfeited. You're sad because the game has ended, because something that formerly had no real-life value once again has no real-life value. You are a museum that no one will visit anymore. And no amount of wishful thinking by you or Ken Jennings can change it.

I won. I lost. And in the end, all that mattered was that I couldn't stay in the game. "Not yet," I remember thinking. "I want to keep playing."



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Louis Bayard