Watching the indomitable Ken Jennings virtually run away last week with the coveted title of “Greatest of All Time” on the Greatest Game Show of All Time, Jeopardy, got me to asking myself some questions. 

Answer: He’s gone deep his whole life. 

Question: How does Ken Jennings store so much knowledge about so many things in his head?

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But first, let’s look at a snapshot of how his Mensa-like mind works. For this viewer, and for others as well, from what I’ve gleaned online, the Trivia Titan’s most dazzling display during the tournament of thinking-on-your-feet was his seemingly matter-of-fact mastery of the brain twister category “Triple Rhyme Time.” 

I’m a sucker for wordplay, as my vocation would suggest, so I licked my chops over playing this category at home. Alas, I was outclassed, instantly, and thoroughly.

How Does He Do It?

As soon as Alex Trebek read the clue, “A flexible and enormous customer,” Johnny-on-the-Spot Jennings slapped his buzzer, blurting out, “What is a Pliant Giant Client?” 

Wow, I thought, how does he do that? Then I reconsidered--maybe it’s a fluke. He was lucky on that one, right? Yeah, right. Next clue...

Alex: “Sacred place for your most exceptional bottle of Bordeaux.” 

Once again, Mr, Jennings was on it like white on rice: “What is a Fine Wine Shrine?”

Oh, man, I said to myself. This guy is not for real. He’s like a magician performing tricks. How does he do it?

My mind then turned to a book I’ve been engrossed in, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport (Grand Central Publishing 2016).

Internet Brain Drain

The author makes the inarguable point that “most people have lost the ability to go deep--spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media.” 

The title of another book I’ve been paging through sounds like it’s meant to be an ironic companion piece to Newport’s tome, but it’s not. That one is The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr (W. W. Norton & Co. 2010). 

“We are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection.” 

Ya think?! All any of us need do to confirm that sorry state of affairs we’ve visited on ourselves is randomly scan almost any social media post or thread espousing a political point of view, regardless of which side it’s on. 

Rhapsody of Road Rage

What we’ll invariably find is a lot of coarse noise in the extreme, at the expense of granular nuance in the name of moderation.

Sadly, the middle of the road is paved with roadkill. The left and right lanes? They’re at a standstill, honking horns and fuming at each other in a dissonant rhapsody of road rage. It’s exhausting.

Answer: Plenty. 

Question: What does any of this have to do with Ken Jennings? 

There is something somewhat magical, and disarming, about the nonchalant, self-deprecating way he delivers the correct “questions” time after time, conquering even the most daunting clues. 

But don’t let his crazy command of trivia fool you. While surrounding yourself with random and obscure facts may seem a distraction in the kaleidoscope of shallow content we spend hours a day grazing over on screens, it takes an enormous amount of intensely disciplined, deep preparation -- a lifetime’s worth, really -- to sow and reap that much disparate knowledge under the pressure of a televised game show, flanked by two other all-time champions breathing down your neck.

Curiosity Won the Contest

Here’s how Ken Jennings himself explains his prodigal success on Jeopardy: “Mostly, it comes down to curiosity. I think I’m a pretty inquisitive person about the world around me, so as a result I find myself learning new stuff no matter what I’m doing: watching an old movie on TV or doing a crossword puzzle or reading the back of a cereal box. There’s information all around us, if we’d only pay attention to it. It’s a state of mind more than anything else.”

In other words, the secret to his success is that Ken Jennings not only goes wide in the breadth of information he consumes.

Even more important, he goes deep.

Postscript: My wounded pride in falling flat on my face with the “Triple Rhyme Time” category was somewhat salved by the Final Jeopardy clue in one of the G.O.A.T. episodes. 

Alex:  “These 2 foreign-born directors have each won 2 Best Director Oscars, but none of their films has won Best Picture.”

Bruce: “Alfonso Cuaron is one.” (I blanked on the second, Ang Lee.)

How did the three G.O.A.T. contestants do? 

They all came up empty on both answers. Ha!