It didn't take long for Arthur Chu to become Public Game Show Enemy No. 1. Within days of his Jan. 28 debut on “Jeopardy!,” the 30-year-old Cleveland-area insurance analyst was making America very, very angry. “Arthur Chu is the worst jeopardy contestant of all time,” one viewer tweeted. “I can't wait until someone beats his joyless, smug [expletive],” seethed another. Even the JBoard, normally a collegial hangout for the top-rated quiz show's most dedicated ex-contestants and fans, got ugly. “There is no need to disrespect the game,” one poster scolded Chu.
This all took me back to the heady days of summer 2004, when I began my own run as a “Jeopardy!” contestant and fans soon tired of my presence behind the leftmost podium. In ESPN the Magazine, Bill Simmons called me “a smarmy know-it-all with the personality of a hall monitor.” (My company is, to this day, called Hall Monitor LLC.) On “Jeopardy!,” a rigidly formatted show in its 30th year, the only real breath of fresh air is the endless parade of new contestants. Familiarity, on the other hand, quickly breeds contempt.
There's an obvious racial angle to all the Chu-hate.
It's true that Arthur Chu is a buzzer-waver, a button-masher, a Trebek-interrupter. But between rounds of gameplay and in the many subsequent interviews he's done — Chu is clearly enjoying his 15 minutes — he comes across as perfectly pleasant, chatty and self-aware. Given the low bar of “Jeopardy!”-contestant charisma, he is a normal, likable guy. The sudden wave of Chu-mosity is largely just a symptom of our modern news cycle, where one spate of hostile tweets can spawn a million repetitive reaction pieces before the feedback loop dies.
There's an obvious racial angle as well. Chu, a bespectacled man with rumpled shirts and a bowl cut, plays into every terrible Asian-nerd stereotype you've ever seen in an '80s teen movie. Charmingly, he seems to enjoy the role of the scheming outsider. In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, he pitted his own eccentric genius against me, “the angelic blond boy next door, the central casting 'nice boy.' ”
But in fact, plenty of nice white boys on “Jeopardy!” have been pilloried by viewers for using Arthur Chu's signature technique: bopping around the game board seemingly at whim, rather than choosing the clues from top to bottom, as most contestants do. This is Chu's great crime, the kind of anarchy that hard-core “Jeopardy!” fans will not countenance. The technique was pioneered in 1985 by a five-time champ named Chuck Forrest, whose law school roommate suggested it. The “Forrest bounce,” as fans still call it, kept opponents off balance. He would know ahead of time where the next clue would pop up; they'd be a second slow.
More recently, skipping around the board has evolved into an art form. “Jeopardy!” luminaries like David Madden (19-game winning streak, 2005) and Roger Craig (Tournament of Champions winner and single-day winnings record holder, 2010-11) have used “the bounce” as a strategic way to hack an underappreciated key to Jeopardy! success: the Daily Double.
In any game of “Jeopardy!,” three clues have been secretly earmarked as Daily Doubles. The player who finds each one can bet any or all of her winnings on responding to it correctly. By and large, “Jeopardy!” players are a risk-averse bunch. Unless a player is in need of a big comeback, the Daily Double wager is usually a smallish one.
Strategically, this is crazy. Like a poker player trying to increase the size of the pot when he has a good hand, “Jeopardy!” contestants should maximize their upside when the odds are in their favor. Historically, the odds of getting a Daily Double correct are very good: Between 65 and 70 percent. Too many players instead let games come down to Final Jeopardy, where conversion is much less predictable. (Fewer than half of all Final Jeopardy responses are correct.) Finding the Daily Doubles becomes more important the stronger a player you are, since it lowers the influence of chance on the outcome. Crunching some numbers, I see that my own Daily Double conversion during my “Jeopardy!” run was about 83 percent. In hindsight, my wagers were almost always too small.
So when Arthur Chu bobs and weaves around the board, he's chasing those game-changing Daily Doubles. Arthur Chu has been lauded in headlines as the pioneer of “Jeopardy!” “game theory,” but Craig is the one who designed his own computer software from scratch to allow him to game “Jeopardy!” “moneyball”-style. Chu, by his own admission, just Googled “jeopardy strategy.” If he has seen more Daily Doubles than other men, it is because he stood on the shoulders of giants.
Arthur Chu is on the Jeopardy! bench for a couple of weeks while a college tournament airs, but he'll back on Feb. 24, and the Daily Double hunt will begin anew. In sports, players and fans love it when teams shake up the game with new techniques: the basketball jump shot in the 1950s, the split-finger fastball in the 1980s, four-down football today. Why should “Jeopardy!” be any different? Strategic play makes for a more complex, exciting show. Don't listen to the Internet kibitzers. Arthur Chu is playing the game right.
Jennings is a 74-time “Jeopardy!” winner and is the author of six books, most recently the“Junior Genius Guides.”