Meet Jeopardy!'s new master--and his controversial strategy [Podcast interview]

Arthur Chu is mopping the floor at the American game show Jeopardy!, a program that combines trivial knowledge, speed on a signaling device, game strategy, a mind for wagering, and flopsweat. At this writing, he's won $261,000 across nine episodes of the show, which is celebrating its 30th season in its current incarnation with Alex Trebek as the host. He returns Monday, March 10, for his tenth outing.

Arthur and I recorded this podcast on March 5 about his run on the show, and focused especially on his game strategy. (See the notes below for links to several things we talked about.) While the program is syndicated and almost impossible to view most episodes outside of broadcast TV, someone has uploaded all of Arthur's episodes to YouTube, where (as long as Sony Pictures seemingly ignores it) you can watch his run to date.

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Arthur has been a surprising lightning rod for criticism. While other contestants have won games across two weeks, few have experienced the level of public criticism that he has. People on discussion forums and social networks accuse him of ruining the game by playing an effective strategy: he doesn't pick clues from top to bottom in each category. Rather, he hunts for the Daily Doubles: one square in the first round and two in the second which allow one to wager either up to one's entire current cash balance or the highest amount in the round, whichever is more. (That's $1,000 in the first round and $2,000 in Double Jeopardy.)

The Daily Doubles aren't randomly placed, but occur most frequently in certain columns and at certain values. By finding these squares, which do not contain clues harder than what would ordinarily be in that spot, a contestant can take control of the game long before the Final Jeopardy question in which all participants can answer.

By winning without "playing the game right," combined with a style of mashing the signaling device (it's not a buzzer!) and a seeming lack of enjoyment while he plays, he's apparently angered people who claim he is ruining Jeopardy! and that he should just give up and lose. The 30-year-old married man is certainly low-key on screen; his Twitter handle is @arthur_affect, which gives you a sense of his self-awareness and dry wit, too. He's been live tweeting the games Eastern Time (he lives in Ohio), and is generally a pretty hilarious fellow. (He's also a skilled voice-over artist.)

But there's more than a tinge of racism and neurotypical shaming to it, too: he's an Asian-American nerd, and somehow the combination of geek concentration (a slack face, which we all know too well from our own reflection) and his genetic origin seem to have cast him in the role of a villain in many people's eyes. You can easily find tweets that use racial epithets and stereotypes to mock him, although there's a lot of dislike for him being a nerd, too.

I don't think Arthur is ruining the game or playing it "wrong"—nor does Ken Jennings. I won two games of Jeopardy! in 2012, and wrote about it here at Boing Boing. Ken won 74 games and 2,520,700 in 2004, and wrote the book Brainiac, a combination of memoir of his time on the show and detailed research and reporting on trivia in history and the present day. (He's since written four more books.) He did a lovely interview with Arthur at Slate that covered a lot of the issues around becoming a lightning rod for people's attention.

Arthur plays the game masterfully, and dedicated a lot of his preparation time to determining a game strategy: which clues to go after, how to bet, and how to even slightly unnerve the competition by mixing things up. He's playing his own game, although he points out that two other high-dollar winners in the past, Dave Madden and Roger Craig, both played in equally idiosyncratic ways and didn't seem to affect most subsequent players.

But Arthur has dominated Twitter this time around as well as Jeopardy!, and received more press coverage online and in print than anyone since Ken. This extensive discussion about his new method of playing could bring in a new style, just as Moneyball's coverage of the effective use of statistics to find underpriced gems among players changed baseball forever.

Things we discussed in the podcast:

I wrote a few items for the Economist about my Jeopardy! run, and one of them involved an academic paper by one of the IBM teams that worked on Watson, the natural-language processing and answering system that beat Ken and Brad Rutter. (Brad won the most on the show when including tournaments.) The paper discussed Watson's wagering strategy, which closely conforms to how Arthur prepared.

We mentioned several other Jeopardy! winners, including Dave Madden, still in the No. 2 all-time regular season cash spot at this writing from his 2005 run of 19 days with $430,400; Tom Nissley ($235,405 in 2010) and Roger Craig ($230,200 that same year), both of whom Arthur bumped down as he took the No. 3 position at this writing. (Roger appeared on Ask Me Another, an NPR quiz show, and was taken down quickly!)

Let us never forget Sean Connery as played by Darrel Hammond on Saturday Night Live.

Bob Harris wrote a strategy book about his many appearances on the show that hides a wonderful memoir: Prisoner of Trebekistan. A somewhat older but still useful book, now out of print but available used, is Secrets of the Jeopardy Champions by Chuck Forrest and Mark Lowenthal.

The invaluable J-Archive, which contains every clue and answer and wager for nearly every episode, also has a glossary of the specialized terms people have come up with for strategies over the years. Arthur says Keith Williams "The Final Wager" site contains all the information you need about understanding how to bet in Final Jeopardy.