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Ken Jennings Explained How ‘Jeopardy!’ Has Changed Trivia For The Better

Ken Jennings may be the best person to talk to about trivia in America, and how the show that made him famous has made its mark on the genre. The Jeopardy! GOAT won a million dollars earlier in 2020 by knocking off James Holzhauer and Brad Rutter in the Greatest Of All Time Tournament and has spent the months since putting the finishing touches on his new trivia board game, Half Truth.

Inevitably, Jennings is forever tied to the syndicated trivia game show that made him a household name in 2004 when he won 74 straight episodes and first set the record for the most earnings in show history. Last week, Jeopardy! aired his first appearance on the show in an attempt to bridge the gap between reruns now that the show is unable to tape. It’s a fun bit of nostalgia, but one that Jennings hopes does not need to cover the entirety of his run on regular Jeopardy!

“I hope that the shutdown does not last 74 more weeknights, that would really be terrible if they had time to do my whole run,” Jennings said in March. “I’d hope for America’s sake it does not come to that.”

The rest of the week featured replays of the GOAT tournament which Jennings joked was the last good thing to happen in 2020. But the trivia ace had plenty to say about how trivia has changed in the better because of Jeopardy! In writing questions for Half Truth, for example, Jennings had the difficult task of figuring out what questions are hard and what things most people know.

“I write for high school and college quiz bowl events, and you have to have a sense of what these kids already know, what they knew last time and if you do enough of it,” Jennings said. “You start to see the outlines of it like ‘this one’s hard but fair, this one’s just going to annoy people because they’ve never heard of it.’”

Quiz bowl is one thing, Jennings said, that because of its structure allows a question-maker a general framework for the content that people may already know. Writing Half Truth was a challenge because that structure wasn’t there, but knowing how those traditional formats impact what people know is an important part of the process.

“You have to have an idea in your head of not only what you know, you have to have a separate sense of what the culture’s trivia canon is,” he said. “In the same sense that a college course would have a philosophy canon. Or a poetry canon. We have to have some baseline trivia canon. And if you write a lot in this field, which I do, you do have a sense of it.”

Aside from Half Truth, Jennings has a quiz email he writes and has books about the genre as well, one of which actually inspired Magic the Gathering creator and board game designer Richard Garfield to reach out and pitch what became Half Truth. But Jennings said he owes Jeopardy! a great deal, starting with his notoriety but also what it’s done to trivia in general and what it’s changed about what people more commonly know.

Jeopardy! has really shaped what Americans know, and it’s kind of self-perpetuating thing,” he said. “If Jeopardy! asks too much about Opera or the bible or whatever, that stuff stays in the trivia canon longer than it would otherwise.”

In creating Half Truth he spoke fondly of the trivia revival he grew up during — the return of Jeopardy! to syndication and the boom of trivia board games — and how that that influenced the many other versions of trivia that have come in the decades since.

“If you were an 80s kid, that mid-80s period where Jeopardy! came back on the air and then everyone got Trivial Pursuit for Christmas — that was huge for a kind of a geeky 10-year-old boy like me,” Jennings said.

Whether Half Truth can do the same to the genre right now remains unknown, but it’s clear the thought behind its creation will keep it interesting for trivia fans looking for that attention to detail.