The notion of a computer trying to buzz in and answer questions before Jennings has already been Gawkered — "But what if they only ask abstract, soul-searching questions?" Levity aside, there is a serious issue about how well the computer will handle any sports question.
The sports trivia nut is a breed apart from one of your church-picnic trivia buffs, but not a superior breed. It is a joy for them to meet up with one of the similarly afflicted who gets why your PIN for your bank card is 4256 or understands why Bob Costas once left a $3.31 tip when he ate at St. Louis restaurant owned by baseball legend Stan Musial.
However, the kicker is that it takes no ability or creativity to be sports trivia nut, just a real good memory. They can't forget this stuff even if they tried, so there is no pride in knowing it, and no desire to share that gift/curse with the world, since it is the only thing people will associate with you for the rest of your days (especially if you show up for an event that's for teams of four with only three people and still win going away, like someone associated with this site most definitely did not do at The Toucan in Kingston one night in late 2002).
This sense of shame can manifest itself in jealously lashing out at Ken Jennings, as it did back in the wild and nutty days of late 2004. Read on.
JENNINGS A GENIUS? ASK HIM A SPORTS QUESTION
(Simcoe Reformer, Dec. 3, 2004)
(Simcoe Reformer, Dec. 3, 2004)
This soft-spoken software engineer pulled off one of the most overrated feats in recent memory.(Writing this today, mocking Ken Jennings' wardrobe would be out of bounds. Other than that, every single word stands.)
Who is Ken Jennings?
As you probably heard, Jennings' record run of 74 days as Jeopardy! champion ended Tuesday. By all indications, Jennings captured the public imagination. Ratings for Jeopardy! were up. As the wins mounted, rumours and reports percolated across the Internet about when Jennings would be defeated. On Wednesday, Jennings was the top Hot Search on Netscape, a pretty impressive feat for someone who has never publicly exposed a nipple.
Yes, Kenny is a smart cookie, if not a smart dresser. Before he came along, who knew there were so many possible bland shirt-and-tie combos?
But as a 19th-century British prime minister — who was Benjamin Disraeli? — said, there are three types of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.
So what if Ken Jennings was on Jeopardy! for 74 days? Until recently, the show limited contestants to five appearances. Given the chance, wouldn't a few of those know-it-alls and lucky guessers have kept winning and winning?
Sure, he won $2.5 million. That's a lot of cabbage, even after the IRS takes its half out of the middle.
Of course, Jeopardy! doubled the dollar values for each question a while back. Does anyone claim Mike Weir is a better golfer than Jack Nicklaus since Weir is 15th on the PGA's all-time money list and Nicklaus isn't in the top 100?
The most damning indictment against Ken Jennings, though, is that he handled sports questions like a live cobra. Around Day 25 or 30, Alex Trebek lobbed up this softball: "This team won four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1980 to 1983."
You could hear crickets chirping as the contestants groped for an answer.
Jennings: "Who is New York?"
Trebek: "Be more specific."
Jennings: "The Rangers?"
If that's correct, what were the decades of "Nineteen-forty!" chants and the guy back in 1994 waving the "Now I can die in peace" sign about?
Thus the curtain was pulled back, revealing the wizard was just a man. Jennings had a lot going for him, namely his DSL-fast buzzer-thumb and producers who fed him cupcake contestants to keep the streak going. By Day 60, some of his opponents seemed straight from Saturday Night Live's Celebrity Jeopardy sketch.
He knew his potent potables, but on all things sporting, Jennings didn't know his elbow from second base. Put in a room full of sports nuts who can rhyme off Ernie Whitt's birthdate (June 13, 1952), jersey number (12), given name (Leo), the year he played in the All-Star Game (1985) and his career high in RBI (75), the dude would have been eaten alive.
Many of these same sports nuts can't pick their member of Parliament out of a police lineup, but that's neither here nor there.
Is Jennings the genius he was hyped up to be? No, he's just a guy who cashed in on his knack for buzzing in quickly on questions which aren't all that hard.
Those of us who are steeped in sports and other essentially unhistoric trivia — like knowing the same guy played the sportswriter in Slapshot and the diving coach in Back To School — knew it all along. (Who is M. Emmet Walsh?)
Collectively, we're on guard to keep the word "genius" from being abused. As ESPN's Joe Theismann once said, "The word genius isn't applicable in football. A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein."
The story behind Theismann's oft-quoted malaprop is the ex-Washington QB had a high school classmate named Norman Einstein.
If you actually knew that, chances are you might end up on Jeopardy! as the answer to this:
"Who needs to get a life?"
Jeopardy! Smackdown (The Atlantic)
A Computer That Answers Questions! What Will They Think of Next? (Gawker)