So the Ken Jennings era in our national life is over. After 74 victories, the Jeopardy! champ came up against two Daily Doubles and a Final Jeopardy with his name on them. He now returns to normal life with no consolation beyond $2.5 million, a book deal, fame galore, a loving family, and a whole lot of other stuff.
It's probably hard for Ken to appreciate this, but a loss was the only fitting end to what he did. I don't say that because I wished him ill. To all appearances, Ken's a terrific guy. He's handled his odd, 15-minutes-that-turned-into-six-months of fame with grace and humility.
My point is also not that Jeopardy! would be better with a limit of, oh, something fewer than 74 games. (Until a year ago, five wins was the maximum.) It's true that most of Ken's wins were blowouts. Some viewers would rather see a triple-overtime nail-biter, and Ken didn't provide many of those. The debate over Jeopardy! limits is one of those titanic conflicts that will rage on, dividing even families, until people completely forget about it this weekend.
And I'm not saying it's good that he lost because I feel sorry for the 148 opponents Ken vanquished . . . though I do. Of course, 148 people were going to lose those games anyway. But to get the coveted Call and then have to face Ken-what a tough break. We'll never know how many could have been big winners; quite a few, I believe.
My point is that we had to see Ken's human fallibility in order to fully appreciate his accomplishment. In the middle of the streak he seemed to be on cruise control. The nightly victories seemed routine. But none were. That game is hard. It's easy to appreciate a masterpiece, or maybe a few of them. But when one happens every night, we devalue them.
In watching Ken's final game, though, we could see how easy it is to lose, how many ways even the best player is vulnerable.Getting on the show in the first place is an accomplishment, let alone winning even once. To win once, then again, then again, 74 times . . . it's a wonder. I hope you saw a game or two because there won't be another Ken Jennings.
-Tom Walsh, of Washington, D.C., won seven games on Jeopardy! in January 2004