6 Elements of Arthur Chu's Jeopardy! Strategy

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Jeopardy! / Photographed By Chris Higgins on His Couch

Arthur Chu has made waves the last three nights by employing excellent strategy on Jeopardy! He won first on Tuesday, tied to win on Wednesday, and won decisively on Thursday. Here's a rundown of what makes his play so special.

UPDATE: Chu won again on Friday. Check out our in-depth interview, conducted right before his fourth win aired.

1. Playing to Tie

Chu's most interesting move so far was on Wednesday's show, when he entered Final Jeopardy in the lead...and intentionally wagered so that he might tie with another player, Carolyn Collins.

Chu faced the same problem confronting every dollar leader heading into Final Jeopardy—he wanted to stay in the game, returning the next day to win more dough—but unlike most, he did not bet to win. Instead, he assumed that Collins would bet everything. He proceeded to calibrate his wager so that if Collins bet everything, and answered correctly, and Chu answered correctly too, they'd end up in a rare tie, with both Chu and Collins moving on to compete again the next day.

But this was not the first time Chu had wagered to tie! The night before, on Tuesday, Chu had bet $17,200 in a bid to tie with the returning champion on that show (he had only a slight lead heading into Final Jeopardy). The reason there weren't dual winners on Tuesday is that only Chu responded correctly to the Final Jeopardy clue.

Now, the big question here is why would you play to tie, instead of playing to win? It turns out, in short, "Because game theory suggests that this is smart." A longer analysis comes to us from Keith Williams at The Final Wager, a blog analyzing Jeopardy! wagers. Chu is a fan of the blog, and used the techniques outlined by Williams when planning his tied game. I won't steal his thunder; here's Williams analyzing the tied Chu game (warning—there's some light math in here):

Neat, huh? For much, much more on game theory as it applies to Jeopardy!, check out The Final Wager. (Note that Williams also broke down the wagers in the third game, which wasn't as exciting because Chu went into Final Jeopardy with nearly three times the dough of his nearest competitor.)

2. Knowing His Weakness

In Chu's second game, he scoured the board for Daily Doubles. When he hit one in the $1000 slot of the category IN THE SPORT'S HALL OF FAME, he immediately admitted that he knew very little about sports, and wagered only $5. When the clue was read ("Eddie Giacomin,
Herb Brooks, Conn Smythe"), Chu promptly said, "I don't know," and lost the five bucks as he smiled and the audience chuckled.

This performance is important for several reasons. First, Chu lost hardly any money on the Daily Double; a more aggressive player might have bet a few hundred bucks just because it felt like an opportunity (especially because heading into this Daily Double, Chu was $400 behind the other two players, who were tied for first!). Chu knew the potential for loss in the arena of Sports Trivia outweighed the possibility of gain, and he chose to keep the game moving. The other benefit to this move (attributable to his Daily Double-searching strategy in general) was that he prevented the other players from accessing that Daily Double—they may well have known the answer. (For the record, it was: "What is hockey?")

While some would argue that Chu should have thrown out some random sport's name just for kicks (in the hope he'd win $5), I think his move here was gutsy. Hey, if I got a sports Daily Double, I'd bet almost nothing too, and keep the game moving so there was time to clear the board—and find the remaining Daily Doubles.

(An aside on math: in the third game, there was a whole category devoted to math word problems, and it was poorly received by everyone, Chu included. Chu tweeted, "As this game demonstrated doing actual math is too hard when you're playing." Fortunately, when he had a moment to do his ciphering, namely for his wagers, Chu was just fine.)

3. Mastering Daily Doubles...Mostly

In his first game, Chu wasn't afraid to go for a "True Daily Double," meaning a wager that would double his current winnings if he got it right—which he did. This smart move catapulted him into the lead halfway through Double Jeopardy, which helped set him up for the win.

His performance with Daily Doubles in the second game was mixed; he made a blunder with a clue about paint types and lost his second attempt at a True Daily Double (!). At that point he wagered $4,195, the amusingly specific number left over after his aforementioned loss of five bucks on hockey. But by scouring the bottom of the Double Jeopardy board, Chu quickly racked up another $10,000 and wagered half of that (successfully) on the final Daily Double of his second game—again, very gutsy and in the end, it worked out.

4. Taking Advantage of Others' Mistakes

In his first game, Chu spotted a mistake made by fellow contestant Cesar Perez-Gonzalez. Trying to identify an antelope shown in a video, Perez-Gonzalez said "prog-horn," causing Trebek to take a tiny pause and say, "Oh gosh, no." Chu buzzed in immediately with the correct response, "What is a prong-horn?" That response pushed Chu to $20,000, again in the lead. Whether Chu simply knew the correct answer, or recognized Trebek's implication that "prog-horn" was close to correct is for Chu to explain. But he was fast on the buzzer when Perez-Gonzalez barely missed that one.

5. Talking About His Wife with Trebek

During the interview segments with Alex Trebek, Chu repeatedly mentions his wife Eliza Blair, relating a story about buying her a meteorite, and working to support fibromyalgia research. After Chu's appearances on the show, Blair began retweeting troll comments about her husband, gleefully fanning the flames as Chu lovers and haters sparred online. The most notable exchange is when Blair tweeted a photo of pizza boxes in bed, referring to Kevin Clancy's comment. (If you ready the Clancy/Chu/Blair exchanges, they're actually delightful, although often profane.)

6. Knowing His mental_floss Trivia

Okay, we're biased here, but this was a big moment for the mental_floss crew. The $1000 clue in "THE 'RENT' IS DUE" on Wednesday was: "The Mental Floss History of the World" is this kind of "romp through civilization's best bits." Chu rang in quickly, correctly answering, "What is irreverent?" We salute you, Mr. Chu!

(For the record, that clue refers to this lovely book we put out in 2008.)

Note: We interviewed Arthur on Friday. Look for that over the weekend.

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January 31, 2014 - 9:00am
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