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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

‘Jeopardy Villain’ Explains How He Keeps Winning

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek and contestant Arthur Chu pose for a photo. (Facebook)

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek and contestant Arthur Chu pose for a photo. (Facebook)

He’s being called the “Jeopardy villain,” but Arthur Chu of Broadview Heights, Ohio, considers himself more of a “mad genius.” The 30-year-old insurance analyst and voiceover artist has won three times since he came on the show last week.

Some say Chu is taking all the fun out of the game. He goes for the hardest questions first, slams down his buzzer incessantly and tries to get the host to speed up. It’s all part of his strategy inspired by game theory — a model of strategic, mathematical decision making.

Chu joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss his strategy and how he keeps winning. They’re also joined by Keith Williams, who won the “Jeopardy!” College Championship in 2003. Williams’ blog “The Final Wager” is aimed at making game theory “accessible to people who are scared of math.”

Interview Highlights

Arthur Chu on preparing his Jeopardy! strategy

“A month isn’t a lot of time to learn new information, other than some basic things you can memorize, so what I focused on was learning the strategy of the game and what past champions had done. Unlike other game shows, Jeopardy! has been around for 30 years in its current form under Alex Trebek, and its got a huge community of people who have watched it for years and have analyzed every facet of it. So all I had to do was literally Google ‘Jeopardy strategy’ and see what came up. That’s how I discovered the theory of how you can leverage your advantages in Jeopardy!, even if you’re not necessarily the person who knows the most trivia, or if you’re about evenly matched with your opponents, how can you increase your chance of winning. It turns out there’s a lot of things you can do that most people don’t do for whatever reason.”

Keith Williams on Chu’s strategy

“There are two different aspects of the game. There’s the viewer experience at home and then there’s actually playing the game itself. If you’re watching the game at home, it’s more comfortable if someone goes from the top down because you get the swing of the category, you figure out what the category’s about. When you’re on the show, it’s less about the viewer experience and more about using strategy to maximize your chance of winning, which is exactly what Arthur is doing. So it’s a little jarring to viewers at home when someone’s jumping between categories and starting at the bottom of the board with the tougher questions. Arthur has determined that that’s his best chance of winning.”

Chu on his poker mindset while playing Jeopardy!

“The best combination of traits in a poker player is tight and aggressive — that you don’t play that many hands, but the hands that you do play you go as big as you can on it. There’s no reason to bet a moderate amount on it if you’re not sure how good you are at it. Either you commit to making the big bet or if you know you’re not going to get something, you commit to making the smallest bet you can get away with. That way, if I’m not wasting money on things I don’t know, I preserve my lead so I can go big on things that I’m pretty sure I do know.”

Williams on buzzer strategy

“A lot of people aren’t clear on how the buzzer actually works, so this is probably the deciding skill of the game, honestly. You have to wait until Alex is done talking and a light comes on on the game board that signals you are allowed to buzz in. And at that point, the first person to buzz in gets the chance to answer the question. The thing is, if you buzz a little bit early, even a tiny bit, you get locked out for some period of time, about half a second, before your buzzer becomes active again. So that’s to discourage you from buzzing in all the time. But what that means is — and this is something we were explicitly told in contestant orientation — if you buzz and you don’t get it, it might be because you were too early, so when you start buzzing, you need to keep on buzzing, so as soon as your lock out expires, you hit the buzzer and buzz back in.”

Watch Chu in the Jan. 30 Jeopardy! episode

Guest

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

And it's probably the most fascinating thing to happen on "Jeopardy!" since that computer, Watson, was on the show. But it's not a computer this time. It is Arthur Chu.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

ALEX TREBEK: Arthur?

ARTHUR CHU: What's white noise?

TREBEK: Yes.

CHU: Black and white and red, 800.

TREBEK: Answer, daily double.

HOBSON: A 30-year-old insurance analyst from Ohio has won four times since he came on last week, and he's doing it with game theory. Arthur Chu joins us from WCPN in Cleveland. Welcome.

CHU: Thanks.

HOBSON: And we're also joined by former "Jeopardy!" winner, Keith Williams, who writes the Final Wager blog about "Jeopardy!" He is with us from NPR New York. Welcome to you, Keith.

KEITH WILLIAMS: Thank you very much.

HOBSON: Well, let me ask you about, first of all, you, Arthur, your experience. When you found out that you are going to be on "Jeopardy!," instead of going out and trying to bone up on all kinds of trivia that you didn't already know, you did what?

CHU: What I asked myself was, how can I maximize my chance of doing well with the trivia that I know? A month isn't a lot of time to learn new information other than some basic things that you can memorize. So what I focused on was learning the strategy of the game and what past champions had done. Unlike other game shows, "Jeopardy!" has been around for 30 years in its current form under Alex Trebek, and it's got a huge community of people who watched it for years and have analyzed every facet of it.

So all I had to do literally was Google "Jeopardy!" strategy and see what came up. That's how I discovered stuff like the theory of how you can leverage your advantages in "Jeopardy!" even if you're not necessarily the person who knows the most trivia. Or if you're about evenly matched with your opponents, how can you increase your chance of winning? And it turns out there's a lot of things you can do that most people don't do for whatever reason. That's not part of their preparations.

And I think success in a lot of things isn't about innovation or originality, really. It's about really understanding what the experts have something to say. Finding out who the experts are and learning what they're saying and really committing to, you know, sometimes radically changing your own strategy to fit what people know, what is known about whatever field you're in so.

HOBSON: Well, it appears one of the things that you learned in that research is that you should go right for the daily doubles, which is what you have been doing. We've got some sound of you searching out the daily doubles. Let's listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

CHU: Kings of England not born in England, 1,600.

TREBEK: Uncork a bottle of claret for King Richard II, born in this French wine region in 1367. Arthur?

CHU: What is Bordeaux?

TREBEK: Yes.

CHU: Inventors and inventions, 1,600.

TREBEK: William Painter invented the leak-proof bottle cap in 1891 lined with a disc of this. Today, plastic is typically used. Arthur?

CHU: What is cork?

TREBEK: Cork is right.

CHU: Math problem, 1,600.

TREBEK: After spending $200...

HOBSON: Now, people may have noticed that what you're doing there is very unusual. You are going from 1,600 to 1,600 to 1,600 rather than doing what most people do on "Jeopardy!," which is to start at the lowest level of each category and move your way up. You're going - searching for those daily doubles, which it appears you have found often exists in the last two levels of each category.

CHU: Right. That's actually something that's been analyzed. There was actually - I mean, I didn't do much research. I found an article on Slate, actually, from 2011, that just literally talks about the statistically daily doubles are far more likely to be in the bottom two rows of the board, than at the top three. And that statistically, they're most likely to be on the left-most column, fourth one down, you know? So that's where I would often originally start my search.

And I wasn't the first one to do it. You know, when they wrote articles about Watson, the computer, the scientists who programmed Watson also did this research, also tried to find out what the best strategy was to make sure Watson have the maximum chance. And Watson would go hunting for the daily doubles the exact same way. So if a machine can do it, I can do it.

And the main thing is if you get the daily doubles early, there's - those are the points in the game where the game can swing really heavily one way or another. Getting the daily double is so important because it's not just a chance for you to double up the money that you have. If you don't know the daily double, it's a chance for you to bet small and take away an opponent's chance to double up their money. It's to take that random factor out of the game and make sure it goes into your favor.

HOBSON: Take it off the board?

CHU: Yeah, yeah.

HOBSON: Well, Keith, what about that strategy? And why don't more people do it if it's the right thing to be doing?

WILLIAMS: Well, there are two different aspects of the game. There's the viewer experience at home, and then there's actually playing the game itself. So if you're watching the game at home, it's more comfortable if someone goes from the top down because you get the swing of the category and you figure out what the category's about. When you're on the show, it's less about the viewer experience and more about using strategy to maximize your chance of winning, which is exactly what Arthur is doing. So it's a little jarring to viewers at home when someone's jumping between categories and starting at the bottom of the board with the tougher questions. But Arthur has determined that that's his best chance of winning, is to do it that way.

HOBSON: Well - and let's listen to what happened when he actually got a Daily Double. Here he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: Arthur, back to you.

CHU: Pay-Pal 16.

TREBEK: Answer: Daily Double. You have a big lead.

CHU: Just 3,000.

TREBEK: OK. Here is the clue. This U.S. church is in communion with the Sea(ph) of Canterbury.

CHU: What is the Episcopal Church?

TREBEK: That's it. That's the pal.

HOBSON: So you knew the answer to that Daily Double, although you didn't know the answer to every one that you got, at least in the episodes that have aired so far. There was one about sports, you only wagered $5, Arthur, because you knew you weren't going to get that one.

CHU: Yeah. That's something that I've said a lot is - I've mentioned I - to other people that I have friends who play poker, and they say the best combination of traits in a poker player is tight and aggressive, that you don't play that many hands, but the hands that you do play, you go as big as you can on.

There's no reason to bet a moderate amount on something if you're not sure how good you are at it. Either you commit to making the big bet, or if you know you're not going to get something, you commit to making the smallest bet you can get away with. That way, if I'm not wasting money on things that I don't know, I preserve my lead so that I can go big on things that I'm pretty sure I will know.

And on that one, in particular, it wasn't just that it was a sports category. There had already been two clues that came out from that category - higher rows, like lower-value clues - and I hadn't had any chance of figuring those out. I looked at them and blanked on them. So when I got that Daily Double and was at the bottom, I was like the chance of this being something I can get based on what I know is very low. And so no reason to lose any more money on this than I absolutely have to, and no reason to waste any more time on it.

You know, time is money in "Jeopardy!." That's the other factor. If I were to spend a lot of time on that Daily Double, that's other clues on the board I might not be able to get to before we hit the commercial break. So it was a pretty strategic thing. It also appears to have been a polarizing thing. Like, emotionally, some people thought that was an awesome moment. Other people thought I was being really rude by not at least trying.

But for me it was - almost 100 percent of everything I did on the show was with the idea of how much real money can I win. I keep saying to people we're playing for money up there. That's real money.

HOBSON: And there are a lot of critics of that strategy. We are talking with Arthur Chu, current "Jeopardy!" champion, and Keith Williams, who writes the blog The Final Wager. You're listening to HERE AND NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: Arthur Chu couldn't be caught. He played the game magnificently again. And he wrote down an incorrect response. So what is he going to lose off that 20,000? 2,000 only. That gives him 18,800 today and a three-day total of 82,800.

HOBSON: "Jeopardy's" Alex Trebek talking there about the show's reigning champ, Arthur Chu. After a final round of "Jeopardy!" last week, Arthur won, even though he had the wrong answer. And as we've been discussing, his success is due in large part to his unusual game theory strategy that is making a lot of viewers very angry. We're talking with Arthur Chu and Keith Williams, a former "Jeopardy!" champ who writes the blog The Final Wager.

And Keith, what do make of that criticism, that Arthur plays very quickly, he bounces around from category to category, searching for those Daily Doubles, but it's harder for viewers to play along, and it's not as much fun to watch.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. But Arthur is the one playing the game, and he's the one who has tens of thousands of dollars riding on each victory. So I understand that it can be troubling. And I - when I played, I actually tried to bounce around between categories and found it very hard to do. So - that Arthur is able to pull it off is just a real testament to his strength as a player and as a person who uses strategy to win the game.

HOBSON: One of the other things that he's been doing that people - some people don't like, and you can actually hear it in the clips that we played, is he has been just tapping that buzzer like crazy, which I've often heard from people who played "Jeopardy!" that it's - you got to get that buzzer in right away. And it doesn't always work for Arthur, but tell us about that, that the buzzer is very important in that game.

CHU: Right. A lot of people aren't clear on how the buzzer actually works. So this is actually probably the deciding skill of the game, honestly, that you have to wait until Alex is done talking and a light comes on on the game board that signals that you're allowed to buzz in. And at that point the first person to buzz in gets the chance to answer the question.

The thing is, if you buzz a little bit early, even a tiny bit, then you get locked out for some period of time, about half a second, before your buzzer becomes active again. And so that's to discourage you from just buzzing the whole time. But what that means is - and this is explicitly something that we were told in contestant orientation - if you buzz and you don't get it, it might be because you were too early.

So when you start buzzing, you need to keep on buzzing so that as soon as your lockout expires, you hit the buzzer and you buzz back in. If you buzz in once, or even if you like hit it like two or three times and you don't get in and you stop, then you're taking the chance that you're still locked out and someone else will beat you to it.

And some people are self-conscious about that, and so they are good on the buzzer but they'll like hide the buzzer behind their back or they'll hold it under the level of the podium so you can't see them doing it. I just was, like, I'm going to have the buzzer right here in my right hand supported by my left hand. That means a lot of times it's visible and it's audible and it's right there. And yeah, I kind of understand people finding it annoying when they're watching it.

I think in general, I come off as someone who's really intense about playing and winning this game, which I can see how that could be off-putting at the same time. I keep coming back to this fact, like real money. Like every time I win the game, that's tens of thousands of dollars, that's money that I can use to pay for my kids' college fund, that's something real at stake.

HOBSON: All right. There was another unusual tactic that not many players do. Arthur was in the lead when he entered final "Jeopardy!" last Wednesday, and he intentionally wagered to tie with one of his opponents. Let's listen to Alex Trebek when he noticed how unusual this was the following day.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: Now, yesterday Arthur could have risked a dollar more to be a sole returning champion today, but I guess he enjoyed competing against her because the two of them tied. Maura, you're...

HOBSON: Arthur, why did you do that?

CHU: If you were paying attention in the previous game where I was playing against returning champion Julie, I also bet so that - I was in the lead. I bet that I would tie her if she went all in and got it right. And I think I've done it again since then. That's something that Keith talks about on his blog. And it gets a little math-y to try to explain it, but essentially it's one of two things. One thing is that any extra dollar that I bet - assuming we both get it right, then, yes, spending that extra dollar gives me the lead and then I win outright.

But if we both get it wrong, and supposing that the second place player hasn't gone all in, they've made a smaller, more conservative bet, and specifically they've anticipated that I would bet to try to shut them out, and they bet the minimum amount necessary to win if I got it wrong - if we both got it wrong, that extra dollar is going to put me $1 below them.

Maybe that's not coming across when I say it, but if you watch "Jeopardy!", you see this happen, you see - people know that's the bet you're, like quote-unquote, supposed to make. The second place player plans for that, then it turns out to be a really hard question. Everyone gets it wrong. And the first place player loses by that extra dollar.

HOBSON: Arthur, is it difficult to think about all the strategy while you're also trying to get the answers right? Because, we should say, none of this means anything if you get the answers wrong.

CHU: No, absolutely it's hard to think about it when you get the answers right. That's why you have a playbook. That's why I made these commitments about what my plan was going to be before I even started playing. You have a limited amount of time to think once you're actually playing. And so you can get caught up in the excitement of it. You can get caught up in the nervousness of it.

A lot of people make strategically bad wagers on Daily Doubles or on Final Jeopardy, because when you're in the moment and you're stressed out, you talk yourself into things. And Alex, you know, to his credit as a game show host, his job is to make the game interesting. He likes to encourage people to take wild chances, to - he likes to point out the possibility of something really exciting happening if you make a really big bet, even if it's not what you should be doing at that moment.

And so for me it was very much like if I commit to making the right decision - what I think is the right decision before I go in, I don't have to think about it anymore. Like the Daily Double hunting, I told myself, you know, if the game is close, you bet big. You know, if the game is not close, you bet small. I made a little set of like simple rules in my head, rules of thumb. And as long as I'm following those rules, the game part of the game is almost on automatic, and you can see that, that I play really fast. And that means because I'm not using that part of my brain to think about strategy, because I've already planned my strategy, I can use it all for trying to get the questions right.

HOBSON: Keith, do you think that more people are going to start to play this game like Arthur now that he has shown you can be very successful doing it that way?

WILLIAMS: I don't know. We have seen players do this in the past, and it never really caught on. But now that we have Twitter and now that we have all this media paying attention to what Arthur is doing, maybe it will catch on.

HOBSON: And Arthur, we should say that you're going to be donating your winnings to fibromyalgia research, something that your wife suffers from, correct?

CHU: Right. I didn't say I was going to donate all my winnings. There are things that - there are things of a selfish nature or of a practical nature that I would like to save some money for. But...

HOBSON: See, I was giving you an opportunity to have a very likeable moment with the audience, and you pulled it back.

CHU: No. Then someone's going to track down my financial records - he lied. I am going to donate a chunk of it to charity. And one of the causes that I care about is fibromyalgia research because my wife suffers from fibromyalgia, and it's a disease that there's a lot of misunderstandings about, not enough awareness about.

But as you can probably tell the kind of person I am, I do a lot of research before I commit to doing anything. So one of the things that I've done since being on "Jeopardy!" is do a ton of research, and I'm still doing a research to try to figure out where the best place to put my money is if I want to make a difference in the world. And that's a whole other - I could talk for hours about that.

HOBSON: Arthur Chu is the current "Jeopardy!" champ. He's been using game theory in part, as well as a lot of knowledge about a lot of things to win the game. And we've also been joined by Keith Williams, who writes a blog about game theory. He's also a former "Jeopardy!" champ. He was with us from New York. Thanks to both of you.

CHU: Thank you.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

HOBSON: And Robin, Arthur is already getting some flak also for his shirts, which are not always ironed on the show. He said he was focused so much on his strategy that he didn't even think about his clothes.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

Why should he think about his shirts or his strategy? He's winning.

HOBSON: Right.

YOUNG: Emma Lou Schwichtenberg Cousens wrote us: What each player brings to the game only adds to the challenge. But Carla Riganti Russell says: It drives me crazy that he goes right for the $800 clue. Your thoughts - go to facebook.com/hereandnowradio.

Jeremy, this story is already one of the most popular at hereandnow.org. You know, we cover wars, the economy, but "Jeopardy!" is touching a nerve.

HOBSON: It's a show that everyone knows, and it's such an interesting idea to play it in such a different way than it has been played for a decade.

YOUNG: I have no idea what you've all been talking about.

HOBSON: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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