Play to Win the Game
02.24.14 10:45 AM ET
Inside the Misunderstood Mind of Jeopardy! Champ Arthur Chu, Who Is Not Ruining the Show
There were warning signs. A series of IQ tests in the second grade confirmed that Arthur Chu had a college-level vocabulary. His tiger mom and dad were told to raise him carefully because he could grow up to be a genius who would change the world—or be a serial killer. In his evangelical high school Spanish class, he wrote disturbing surrealist stories; in history class he reenacted the Russian Revolution as a parody of the song “American Pie.” After fleeing to Swarthmore, he wore t-shirts and shorts in the winter and was belligerent with professors who were probably not as smart as him. Today, he visits online forums and bombards them with dissertation-length comments.
Arthur Chu did not grow up to be a serial killer, but to a few racists spouting hate on Twitter, his crime might as well be just as bad. He’s charged with being a megalomaniac savant ruining Jeopardy! As one angry viewer tweeted, “This little shithead had better lose tomorrow. His board-hopping pisses me off. And he stole Kim Jong Un’s haircut. #Jeopardy.”
But, unlike what the headlines suggest, he’s not actually the unapologetic bad boy and rebel who’s using “game theory” to dominate. Instead the answer, not phrased in the form of a question, is that he’s just probably smarter than you are.
“It turned into a story with me as the protagonist defending myself against these hordes of attackers on Twitter, somehow that became a narrative,” Chu, a 30-year-old insurance analyst, says. “It feels kind of unfair to keep telling the story that it’s me vs. the Internet. A lot of the Internet has my back.”
Chu, who returns to television Monday after “The Battle of the Decades” tournament interrupted his four-game winning streak (worth $102,800), uses the a form of game theory coined the “Forrest Bounce” to hunt for the Daily Doubles by floating like a butterfly across the board and stinging like, as he says, a “rumpled-looking Asian guy with a weird stare.” He wagers enough in Final Jeopardy! so that the contestant in second place may tie him. He interrupts Alex Trebek—after correct responses, Trebek sometimes likes to add his own quip; for Chu, there is no time, and he immediately calls for the next clue. He’s a rapid-fire machine that throws other contestants off their game and into an anxiety-laden death-spiral.
74-time Jeopardy! winner Ken Jennings, who defends Chu as playing the game the right way, writes that “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.” Chuck Forrest, the ex-Jeopardy! champion who in 1985 pioneered the “Forrest Bounce” (which is named after him), likes the young man. “Arthur has captured the public imagination not just for his strategy, but because he has a strong personality and incredible self-confidence,” Forrest tells me. “Some people don’t like that, but I think he has made a great contribution to the game.”
Is Chu the Walter White of quiz shows? Chu likens himself to the child prodigy Ender, the title character of Ender’s Game, who is a master of virtual games but ends up waging actual war. “Ender breaks all the rules,” he says. “Because to him it’s just a game. And if you see it as a game, you start seeing logically what kind of strategies the rules imply. And you leave aside the social implications. And then you step back afterwards and you’re like ‘Ahh, so I just committed genocide.’ Hopefully what I’ve done is not equivalent to committing genocide.”
Chu’s wife Eliza Blair, a science fiction writer, is a bit less hyperbolic. “He brings stuff to the table like ‘incredible intelligence’ and ‘infinite trivia fire hose,’” she tells me. “And I bring stuff like ‘basic common sense’ and ‘awareness of my surroundings.’” She says that he has a tendency to leave his stinky gym socks in inappropriate places and that he sometimes ends up in a ditch when he drives in the snow—even just a day before his Jeopardy! debut. “But he’s really funny and cute and brilliant and I wouldn’t change a thing,” she adds.
Chu’s trivia prowess is not derived from cramming knowledge into his head, but instead from making it easy to access the facts that are already in his mind. “It takes so much brain power to win those buzzer races and to pull those answers out of your head that I can’t spare any brain cells for stuff like making decisions,” he says. It’s all scripted, a script he admits he found through Google. When Chu begins a game, he attacks the fourth row of the first column because statistically there’s a high probability he’ll find a Daily Double there. He doesn’t agonize over the little things. Chu knows exactly how much he’s going to bet on a Daily Double, based on his score relative to the other players, which is why he once wagered only $5 on a $1,000 sports clue. He doesn’t have a contingency plan in case he runs into a contestant who also uses the Forrest Bounce. “I’d keep doing what I was doing, and whoever won the game would come down to who was better,” he says.
Chu isn’t oblivious to the consequences. He knows that the way he’s playing Jeopardy! isn’t traditionally “fun” for viewers to watch. By refusing to start at the top of a category and work his way down, he’s stripping the game of the writer’s jokes and the familiar rhythm of the show. (To stop those from complaining, he has one change to the game: display the category as a sidebar over the clue on TV while it’s being read, so it mimics what the contestants see in the studio. Even this may be too drastic for traditionalists.)
But playing the way that’s universally accepted really just increases the probability that luck and buzzer speed will reward a random winner. In his typical way of making cold and calculated decisions, he’s choosing not to see Jeopardy! as a popularity contest. He wants to win.
“It’s ugly, it’s sweaty, it’s painful,” he says of the Forrest Bounce. “I was literally soaked in sweat because I had to be so on the ball, which is probably why I come off as a jerk on TV. I was using so much mental energy; I had no expression on my face. I was staring at the board like a crazy person. I wasn’t smiling or chitchatting.” All of which contributes to his lack of charisma in the 20-second interviews that Trebek has to conduct after the first commercial break—he can’t just break his focus to make small talk.
“But it worked. For thousands and thousands of dollars at stake, for me, that’s what I had to do,” Chu says.
Jennings writes that Jeopardy!’s “only real breath of fresh air is the endless parade of new contestants. Familiarity, on the other hand, quickly breeds contempt.” This is true for Chu, yet it’s exactly this novelty has made Chu an anomaly, and an asset to the show. He’s a Jeopardy! champion worth writing about, who comes around once in a blue moon. It explains why a trumped up story of online vitriol—we are, mind you, talking about Jeopardy!—was enough to unleash a swarm of think pieces about modern geekery, racism, and game theory, and anoint him the villain, the guy who broke Jeopardy! the bad boy, the rebel, the jerk, and the mad genius.
Is Arthur Chu any of that?
If you ask him, he’d say he’s the giant nerd from Cleveland who works a mundane desk job that lets him act and play games and get drunk and read Shakespeare with friends in his free time. His 15 minutes of infamy won’t last forever, but it’s worth it—as long as he keeps winning.