This "Jeopardy!" Champion Presented the Opening Keynote at AIHce EXP 2017 in Seattle

By Kay Bechtold

Washington State Convention Center, Seattle, Wash. (June 5, 2017)—Author Ken Jennings, best known for his six-month, 74-game winning streak on the American game show “Jeopardy!”, kicked off AIHce EXP 2017 in Seattle, Wash., on Monday morning. The Seattle native presented the opening general session, “Life in the Form of a Question,” to a standing-room-only crowd 13 years to the week since his first appearance on the game show. Jennings wove anecdotes about his time on “Jeopardy!” into an engaging talk that covered the importance of learning and the need to understand the world—even though there’s more to know about today than at any point in human history.

At a young age, Jennings moved with his family to Seoul, South Korea, in the early 1980s. At that time, he explained, there was only one English-language channel available: Armed Forces Television. Jennings and his fourth-grade friends became “experts” on the show after racing home each day to watch it because there was “literally nothing else on.” They’d recap each episode on the playground the following day. And that’s how Jennings’ love for “Jeopardy!” began.

“What I loved about ‘Jeopardy!’ was that every night they managed to find three people who knew the answer to literally everything,” he said.

But being on the game show is not what most people would expect, Jennings explained.

“It’s not the sedate experience of watching it at home on television,” he said. “Being on ‘Jeopardy!’ is a very different and very intense experience.”

The “Jeopardy!” crew tapes five shows a day; as soon as one game ends, contestants are rushed back up on stage and another begins—but not before host Alex Trebek changes his coat and tie and introduces the new episode by recapping “yesterday’s show.”

According to Jennings, “knowing lots of weird stuff” can be rewarding in many more ways than just giving a person a better shot at winning a game show. A common argument against knowing things, he pointed out, is that anything you can know, you can just look up. Relying on computers and smartphones worries Jennings; he used to know things like all of his friends’ phone numbers, but now he puts them in his phone—much like everyone else. And now he feels like that part of his brain has shut down.

“What happens if we outsource all of our memory to our little glowing rectangles?” he asked. “Some stuff has to be in your mind or modernity doesn’t work.”

One example Jennings gave of “the power of the right fact at the right place at the right time” was the story of Tilly Smith, who at age 10 saved a beach full of tourists in Phuket, Thailand, when she correctly predicted that the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was about to hit. She’d learned about tsunamis at school two weeks before and warned her parents and the lifeguard when she recognized the warning sign of the tide quickly receding from shore. Perhaps there wouldn’t have been time to fact check or look it up in that situation, Jennings argued.

Another answer to the question “Why do I need to know stuff on the spur of the moment?” has a social aspect, Jennings continued.

“Facts have social currency,” he said. “When you meet someone for the first time, people love that you know something about what they do or where they work or live.

“The immediate bonding when people share a piece of knowledge in common is almost magic.”

Later in the morning, Jennings participated in a special Q&A session, fielding questions ranging from lighter inquiries such as “What’s Alex Trebek really like?” (a “surprisingly normal” guy) to deeper questions like “How do you entice people to be curious?”

“Often trivia itself can become a very good motivator,” Jennings answered. “It’s an accessible level of knowledge about everything.” Regarding topics that might sound lackluster, he encouraged others to “have faith that a thing could be interesting and give it a chance.”

Attendees also wanted to know: does Jennings still watch “Jeopardy!”?

“No,” he said, laughing. “‘Jeopardy!’ is not relaxing. I sort of lost the ability to sit and shout answers at the television.”

Kay Bechtold is assistant editor of The Synergist. She can be reached at (703) 846-0737.

View more Synergist coverage of the conference on the AIHce Daily page.