Arthur Chu, a 30-year-old insurance compliance analyst and voiceover artist and the reigning Jeopardy! champion, jostled the internet last week with strong but offbeat performances in four straight wins on the game show.
Using strategy based on game theory, Chu spent the first two rounds of his wins jumping around between categories for clues, both in search of Daily Doubles and to keep his opponents out of rhythm. In Final Jeopardy, while in the lead, he has — flying in the face of Jeopardy! tradition — bet enough to let the second-place contestant tie with a correct response and a maximum bet.
The strategies have earned Chu plenty of praise from outlets like Grantland and Mashable. But baffling backlash to Chu's success has earned him some criticism — as if he's somehow cheating, not just playing the game to his best advantage and well within its rules. He even appeared on FOX News to defend his play.
Seasoned Jeopardy! fans know that bouncing around the board in the first two rounds is hardly a new strategy, but way fewer contestants bet for the tie in Final Jeopardy. I emailed Chu to ask why he did, and he pointed me to a video from former college champion Keith Williams at his Jeopardy! analysis site, The Final Wager. Chu agreed to answer For the Win's questions about his strategy and his new-found fame.
FTW:To what extent do you rely on Keith's site for strategy?
Chu: Pretty much entirely. Though it's not accurate to exactly say "Keith's site", since although Keith is a very smart man all he's doing on that site is rehashing the endless jargon-laden discussions the hardcore Jeopardy strategy fandom (and yes, such a thing exists) has been discussing and debating for years on end. His innovation wasn't the theory itself but being able to describe the theory in a clear, cogent way so tha
t even a Jeopardy beginner like me could follow it.
Before I stumbled on Keith's site, I found the J! Archive, a website for Jeopardy fans where much of this is discussed, but the use of random neologisms ("crush", "lock", "Shoretegy", "Faith Love scenario") made my eyes glaze over and my head spin. I was despairing of ever actually understanding the concepts behind all this wagering strategy until Keith started doing his videos — which he literally started just a week before I started studying — and I found his walk-throughs invaluable in my preparation.
Also, there are some active disputes going on among the Jeopardy strategy geeks including the big dispute over whether it's worth it to "bet for the tie" rather than "bet for the win", and I've pretty much been indisputably converted to Keith's side of the fence that "bet for the tie" is the strategically stronger choice (though I don't think he was the one to invent that either).
FTW:In the first two rounds, is there anything that makes your strategy different than those of other contestants who jump around the board and fish for Daily Doubles? Roger Craig comes to mind, but I've seen it a handful of times now.
Chu: I guess the biggest thing is that while "jumping around" isn't new and "Daily Double hunting" isn't new, I come out swinging for the fences doing the Bounce from the beginning — others who have done the Bounce have tended to save it as a strategy for when they started getting desperate and really need to lock up the lead or when they're up against a tough player and feel intimidated.
I'm the most aggressive bouncer (what a hilarious mental image that conjures) since Craig, and I think I decided early on that if I can build an edge by throwing other players off their game then there's no reason not to do that from the second play starts. The analogy I've made before is that it's like running a full-court press in basketball — it's grueling and exhausting and a lot of people say it makes the game "unbeautiful," but if you can run a full-court press constantly and keep it up and not run out your gas tank doing it, you can make yourself really hard to beat.
fTW:As for betting to tie, even if the decision to do it is pure strategy, have you considered at all the inherent human decency? To me, I'd rather have a worthy competitor get that money than have it stay in Jeopardy's coffers. It honestly seems kind of punk rock.
Chu: Yeah, I mean, my decisions were motivated by the desire to win — I don't think I need to apologize for that, that's a lot of real money at stake with every game — but the other side of that is that the main thing I cared about was making my money and coming back to play again. There's no reason to take money AWAY from other players unnecessarily, and that's why I was puzzled that my bet for the tie somehow got everyone riled up, as though I'd somehow done something wrong.
It does make me feel good that Carolyn, who is a strong player whom I respect, went home with over $20k rather than with the $2k she would've ended up with had I bet the extra dollar. Or, for that matter, that Erik, who was also a great player in our game, took home $2k for second instead of $1k for first.
Some people who are really devoted to hating me have called me a [expletive] for betting for that tie because it meant one of the alternates in our contestant cohort got "bumped" and couldn't play that day. But Jeopardy plans ahead and gets alternates who are locals and don't need to fly in for exactly that reason, and even if I was a [expletive] to that guy, I'd think Carolyn getting $20k rather than $2k is a pretty good deal for her.
So, again, I don't quite see what I have to apologize for.
FTW:How and when did you get into voiceover work? Is it what you'd like to do as a primary career?
I'm blessed and cursed with this "announcer voice" — people have constantly joked that I sound like the "voice of God" or like "a computer" or like "the narrator voice inside my head". When I was in college my sister got me some books about how to actually break into the voiceover industry, and I decided to try to give it a shot. I took a class with Nancy Wolfson, an awesome coach in LA, and she really helped me break down where my strengths and weaknesses lay with VO as a performance format and how to leverage my natural strengths and shore up my weaknesses.
I've had more success landing gigs than I thought I would when I saw VO as just an expensive hobby, but I'm still nowhere near being able to make a full-time job out of it. Maybe the money I win and the notoriety I seem to be getting will help with that, who knows.
I'll be transparent about it and say that even though part of me thinks all this hype is kind of silly — Jeopardy is, in the end, just a game show and I'm just a guy winning money on a game show — I do selfishly hope to get some opportunities and get my name and my demo in front of some people through all this media coverage. (Though I hasten to add that I don't actually expect this and that I think I have been rewarded more than enough for my Jeopardy experience with the money I won and have nothing to complain about if it ends there.)