Jeopardy! / Photographed By Chris Higgins on His Couch
Jeopardy! / Photographed By Chris Higgins on His Couch

6 Elements of Arthur Chu's Jeopardy! Strategy

Jeopardy! / Photographed By Chris Higgins on His Couch
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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Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images
Want to Live as Long as an Olympian? Become a Chess Grandmaster
Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images
Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images

It’s well known that physical fitness can help prolong your life, so it’s not surprising that elite athletes, like Olympians, tend to have longer lifespans than your average couch potato. But it seems that “mind sports” can help keep you alive longer, too. According to BPS Research Digest, a recent study suggests that international chess grandmasters have lifespans comparable to Olympic athletes.

The study, published in PLOS ONE, examined the survival rates of 1208 mostly male chess grandmasters and 15,157 Olympic medalists from 28 countries, and analyzed their life expectancy at 30 years and 60 years after they attained their grandmaster titles. They found that both grandmasters and Olympic medalists exhibited significant lifespan advantages over the general population. In fact, there was no statistical difference between the relative survival rates of chess champions and athletic champions.

There are several variables that the study couldn’t take into account that may be linked to chess players’ long lifespans, though. Grandmasters often employ nutritionists and physical trainers to keep them at their best, according to the researchers, and exercise regularly. Economic and social status can also influence lifespans, and becoming a world-champion chess player likely results in a boost in both areas.

Some research has shown that keeping your mind sharp can help you in old age. Certain kinds of brain training might lower the risk of developing dementia, and one study found that board game players in particular have slightly lower rates of dementia.

If keeping the mind sharp with chess really does extend lifespans, the same effect might apply as well to elite players of other “mind sports,” like Go, poker, or competitive video games. We’ll need more research to find out.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
David Franzen, Library of Congress
You Can Thank 1950s Suburban Architecture for ‘The Floor Is Lava’
David Franzen, Library of Congress
David Franzen, Library of Congress

No one knows who, exactly, was the first kid to play "The Floor Is Lava," the simple childhood game that has only one rule: You can’t touch the floor. But as Quartz reports, a new paper contends that the game wouldn't have come about if it weren’t for the rise of American suburbs.

Published in the Social Science Research Network, the analysis by Tim Hwang of the MIT Media Laboratory argues that architecture was a vital factor in the spread of the folk game.

In the new suburban housing developments of postwar America, builders began to market the relatively new idea of the family room, an informal room designed for the social needs of the whole family. This room was separate from the formal living room and dining room, both of which were more likely to contain the inhabitants’ good furniture and fancy china. In building plans popular in the 1950s and 1960s, they were also set apart from the kitchen. One 1965 poll found that seven of 10 new houses built that year contained a family room.

And these factors, Hwang argues, are integral to playing The Floor is Lava. Family rooms provide big couches, coffee tables, and other furniture that kids can move around, climb on, and use as props for the game. Bedrooms would be too small, and formal living and dining rooms too full of potentially fragile items that Mom and Dad would be livid to find disturbed. And kitchens were seen as a mother’s domain, meaning that she would likely be there to put a stop to any shenanigans.

"What is unique about the family room space is both the quantity of space and permission that it affords to the play of The Floor is Lava,” Hwang writes.

However, this is just a hypothesis, and no one can really identify who started playing the game first. Kids in urban apartments can also theoretically jump all over their parents’ living room furniture, if allowed. During my childhood, the game typically took place on a playground rather than inside, requiring players to avoid the ground rather than the family room floor. There are games that originated elsewhere in the world that also revolve around avoiding the floor—Hwang notes examples from Kenya and the UK. But given how the spread of suburbs in the U.S. during the postwar period affected home design, it makes sense that a game might arise from the new spaces children lived in. We may never truly know how The Floor Is Lava was invented, but architecture seems like a good clue.

[h/t Quartz]

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