Arthur Chu Is Playing Jeopardy! the Right Way

He’s hunting Daily Doubles, which is exactly what every contestant should do.

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek and Arthur Chu

Arthur Chu isn’t breaking Jeopardy! He’s improving it.

Photo courtesy Jeopardy Productions

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 ass,” 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.

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. (Less 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. (The Jeopardy! contestant coordinators recommend playing the game in top-to-bottom order, mostly to make life easier on Alex Trebek and the techs who run the game board, but it’s not a requirement.) Hunting is possible because Daily Doubles may be hidden, but they’re not distributed randomly. For example, they’re much more likely to be in the fourth row of clues (36 percent of the time, in recent years) than the second row (just 10 percent). Roger Craig even discovered that Daily Doubles are distributed nonrandomly by column as well, and played accordingly. He put the 2011 Tournament of Champions away early with an incredibly ballsy pair of Daily Double bets that still makes my sphincters clench when I watch it today.

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.

I was converted to Daily Double hunting during my 2011 match against the IBM supercomputer Watson. During a practice round, Watson took the clues in order, like a good citizen; I won the game in a runaway. But during the televised match, Watson’s minders switched it into “game mode,” which of course involved smart strategies like hunting for Daily Doubles. This time, Watson roared into a huge lead. I had a chance to come back near the end of the match when I found the first Daily Double in the round—but my next clue selection wasn’t quite the optimal one, and Watson found the second Daily Double instead. Lights out.

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.