In praise of Arthur Chu, the game-theory nerd who broke “Jeopardy!”

Arthur Chu hacked "Jeopardy!" So why do people say he's boring? He's the exact opposite

Topics: Jeopardy!, arthur chu, Editor's Picks,

In praise of Arthur Chu, the game-theory nerd who broke "Jeopardy!" Arthur Chu on "Jeopardy"

Arthur Chu is making a lot of people angry just by being very good at what he does — but then, the greatest geniuses were never understood in their own time.

The “Jeopardy!” champion has upended the unwritten rules of the game by an unconventional picking strategy. Traditionally, players move through categories from lowest to highest dollar value before moving on to the next category. Chu, instead, skitters throughout the highest-dollar-value clues at the bottom of the board, as that’s where the Daily Doubles are. He then wagers either everything or next to nothing (in one instance, $5) merely to remove the possibility that others might get the opportunity to use the game-changer. In one instance, he rigged his Final Jeopardy wager so that he ended up in an exact tie with a contestant lagging far behind, ensuring that the lesser competitor would be taking up one of the seats next to him on the next episode, during which she seemed psyched out, and lost.

How is Chu different from, say, Ken Jennings, the greatest “Jeopardy!” champ ever? Well, first, he isn’t even close to Jennings’s 74-game winning streak. But Jennings’ success was due to mastering the meat-and-potatoes skills of “Jeopardy!” — buzzing in more quickly than opponents, consistently knowing the answers to the Daily Doubles when he found them. Chu’s game, though well within the rules of “Jeopardy!” (contestants are, speaking from personal experience, given no guidance from producers as to how to select clues), is far from ordinary — indeed, it conceals seeming flaws in his game. He’s biffed more than his share of Daily Doubles — but he’s kept others from getting them, more important.

Chu’s enemies out there have criticized him for making the show “boring” or hard to follow — Chu himself has said the strategy makes the show “less pleasant to watch.” And Chu himself is sort of hard to like: low on affect and charisma in his contestant interview, spilling his guts about strategy on Twitter in a way that feels like a Bond villain describing his plot right before the movie’s denouement. But “Jeopardy!,” a show that’s undeniably gotten easier over the past several years, shouldn’t simply be soothing and easygoing. (We have “Wheel of Fortune” for that!) Chu has injected the show with an off-kilter sense that anything could happen — that, eventually, a fellow contestant could wake up to his strategy and use it along with him, racing him to find the Daily Double. What more could an aging franchise that has, for so long, thrived on sameness ask for?

The contestant is going off-air for several weeks — he won’t be back until Feb. 24, as “Jeopardy!” airs a tournament of past masters called “Battle of the Decades.” What “Jeopardy!” fans want and what they ought to want couldn’t be more starkly divided. You have, keeping Chu off-air for a time, a group of people who won the game by sticking to a script that’s, now, been proven inferior. And you have in the person of Chu a revolutionary. The best reality shows, like “Survivor,” have featured contestants hacking the game and working around challenges placed in their way by producers; the challenges Chu’s overcoming are only placed there by decades of fixed ideas about how it’s “more fun” to follow the category on Potent Potables from $200 to $1,000. Chu is an idea whose time has come.

Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_

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