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‘Jeopardy’ streak comes to end

Ken Jennings, a softward engineer from Salt Lake City who won $2.5 million on the game show, reported loses after 74 straight victories.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Following his remarkable run as the “Jeopardy!” whiz, Ken Jennings is famous enough to be trailed by a fan in the subway, is penning a book and, of course, has $2,520,700 in winnings to decide how to spend.

What he doesn’t have anymore, after his 74-game winning streak came to an end in an episode televised Tuesday, is a chance to play his favorite game.

“I miss it quite a bit,” Jennings told The Associated Press. “It didn’t really hit me that that was going to be the hard part. I thought the hard part would be the loss.”

He seemed so invincible that when California real estate agent Nancy Zerg beat him, there was an audible gasp from the audience.

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.

Zerg had the correct reply: “What is H&R Block?” But Jennings guessed Federal Express, and he was a “Jeopardy!” loser for the first time.

The final score was 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 cost him nearly $10,000.

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.

“It was a big relief to me that I lost to someone who played a better game than me,” said Jennings, a computer software engineer from Salt Lake City. “There were no recriminations or remorse.”

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.”’

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.

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 season.

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, and he figured his luck would end soon.

“I’m actually cheering for somebody to beat my record,” he said. “How cool would that be? But, realistically, I don’t think there’s much of a chance ... So many lucky things had to happen. Everything had to fall the right way.”

Zerg, who found the whole experience of winning “surreal,” scoffed at the false modesty.

“It’s not because things fell the right way,” she said. “It’s because he’s that good.”

The most rewarding part of his experience, Jennings said, is the number of times he’s been approached by young children.

“Maybe it’s because they’re most awed by disposable celebrity,” he said. “But I think there are some kids who got the idea that it may be a little cooler to know stuff and to read and to learn. If watching me on TV convinces some kid that they’ve got some future in knowledge, that would be very rewarding to me.”

Meanwhile, Kansas City, Mo.-based H&R Block Inc. capitalized on the chance for a little publicity by offering him free tax and financial services for life, which Jennings accepted.

“If he had to lose, it was nice that he lost to us and we could offer him something,” David Byers, senior vice president for tax operations, said Tuesday.

Jennings will probably owe about $1.04 million in federal and Utah taxes on the winnings, Byers said, citing preliminary calculations by H&R Block.