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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

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