The question isn’t why Arthur Chu brought his peculiar, buzzer-smacking brand of game play to Jeopardy! The question is why, in 50 long years of the show’s history, more people haven’t done the same.
Chu, if you haven’t heard of him, is the Jeopardy! contestant nonchalantly bulldozing America’s collective nostalgic vision for how game shows should work, who cruised to his ninth straight victory on Friday. The 30-year-old insurance compliance technician from Ohio has used his renegade style to earn $261,000 in winnings to date. And it’s that style, not his success, that has inspired so much negative reaction.
Jeopardy! has almost always followed a simple pattern: Contestants pick a category; they progress through the category from top to bottom; they earn winnings when they, through their hard-earned and admirable intellect, get the questions right.
Chu has turned that protocol upside down. For one thing, he sometimes plays to tie, not win, thereby guaranteeing he brings a lesser competitor to challenge him the next day. He skips around the board looking for Daily Doubles, gobbling them up before competitors find them, in the process monopolizing all the high-value questions.
Most unforgivably to many, Chu tries to squeeze in the most questions per round by pounding the bejesus out of his buzzer and interrupting host Alex Trebek.
Chu’s strategy wasn’t part of some long-brewing master plan, but simply the result of some Googling. He did some searching and was inspired by what he discovered about Chuck Forrest, a 1985 contestant whose similar Daily Double hunting even earned a phrase to describe his method of play, the “Forrest Bounce.”
“There’s no logical reason to do what people normally do, which is to take one category at a time from the top down,” Chu told the Web site Mental Floss. “Your only point of control in the game is your ability, if you get the right answer to a question, to select the next question — and you give that power up if you make yourself predictable.”
What Chu is doing isn’t so different than the principles of Moneyball. In the book/film of that name, as in real-life, Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane took a much-romanticized process (picking players in major league baseball’s annual draft) and turned it into something stark and evidence-based (focusing on statistics and formulas instead of the traditional and more subjective scouting). In fact, when you zoom way out, Chu’s strategy seems to fit into a larger cultural pattern: now that everything can be measured, quantified, and reduced to statistical probabilities, there’s no space for romance or instinct anymore. A scientific formula predicts hit songs; Big Data determines who directs our favorite shows. And all of these approaches have been adopted because they work: As Chu earned another victory on Friday night, he became the show’s third-highest earner ever. (He has said he will donate some of his winnings to fibromyalgia research; his wife suffers from the condition.)
Chu, like Beane and Netflix and Warner Music Group, isn’t breaking any actual rules here. He’s just being ruthlessly, idol-killingly pragmatic, in a space where we don’t want pragmatism — we want pure genius! We want Ken Jennings!
Jennings, who set a Jeopardy! record with 74 consecutive victories while winning $2.5 million in 2004, thinks Chu is “playing the game right.”
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