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Game-Show Stud 

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In times as dark as these, people need answers. Never mind that the questions are hardly profound, or that you need to put your finger on the buzzer to get in on the action. After winning 39 straight games and adding $1,331,661 in Jeopardy! booty to his name, this much is clear: Salt Lake City software engineer Ken Jennings, 30, is a game-show animal and cannot be stopped. Just get used to the fact that host Alex Trebek will be looking at Jenning’s perfectly combed coif every season until the show runs out of topics. “Sex Lives of Insects” for $1,000? You know the frighteningly knowledgeable Mormon we know and love knows the answer.

Humanity is, as George Carlin would say, “circling the drain.” Illinois Republican Senate candidate Alan Keyes is attacking Vice President Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter as a sinner and “selfish hedonist.” Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised a scorched-earth policy in Chechnya following the tragedy in Beslan. The U.S. troop death toll in Iraq passed the 1,000 mark, and congressional analysts say the nation’s budget deficit will swell to $2.9 trillion within a decade, never mind our national debt of $7.384 trillion.

But even as more Americans drop below the poverty line, we should take heart that Jennings isn’t one of them. Where else in the world is someone going to win thousands of dollars blazing through categories such as “Hold the Mayo Clinic” or “Potent Potables” (He is LDS, remember)? Only in America.

Behold all the discourse, passion and wrath this nondescript looking BYU graduate has brought. Thanks to Jennings, we’ve read newspaper articles about the nature of the IQ. Thanks to Jennings, we know he isn’t perfect. He should have known that the answer to last night’s Final Jeopardy question was “Classic Comics.” Duh! But, thanks to Jennings, we know it was Christopher Marlowe who was employed by Elizabeth I’s secretary to uncover Catholic plots against her. What kind of dolt answers John Donne instead?

Jennings’ detractors, a sour bunch if ever there was one, love pointing out that our hero couldn’t have gotten this far if producers hadn’t first scrapped the show’s five-game limit on winning contestants. They complain that he looks like “a cross between Howdy Doody and Frankenstein’s monster.” What they’re really jealous of is the vast resource of his brain. Don’t even step to him, dawg.

As for his looks, sexy nerdettes know that score. “You say he’s already married? He’s Mormon! He can have more than just one wife, and I love him so much that I could learn to understand him and even share him if he would have me,” one Website fawns.

People sometimes dismiss trivia buffs as the dilettantes of the intellectual world. They know only a little about a lot, the complaint goes. But when someone as wide-ranging as Jennings comes along, which is once in a lifetime, you sense that his multitude of correct answers is the tip of a very large iceberg, a regiment of knowledge that he could command and synthesize at will. Here’s a tip for Salt Lake City officials looking for a new symbol: Put Jennings on the city flag, before the inevitable backlash begins.

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