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How Arthur Chu got so famous, so fast


What always interested me most about Arthur Chu is how he got to be so famous in the first place.

As many of us know, the techniques he used aren't new. And as we also know, it is also not unusual for unpopular contestants to win lots of games.

But for some reason, Chu was getting national media attention before he'd even won five games, and once he started getting some traction, he became Jeopardy's biggest star since Ken Jennings.

Mean tweets from Game One

Chu had always had an active Twitter presence and started live tweeting during his first appearance on the show. But since Twitter is the bridge under which trolls live, a lot of the other people live tweeting the show picked up on everything from Chu's haircut, to the aggressive way he played, to the way his nerves and focus translated into a lack of social grace.

"I packed a whole bunch of clothes and they weren't ironed and I got there all disheveled and flustered," Chu says. "I was really freaking out about the buzzer because I had heard so many horror stories about people who knew a lot but could never buzz in so I was like really hammering that thing."

The difference, however is that Chu not only replied, humorously, the Twitter abuse, but also retweeted some of the worst things people were saying about him. This was not only a classy thing to do, but it also fanned the flames of all things Arthur Chu.

(From this point, I'm indebted to Beth Morgan who wrote a fascinating item on Medium about how Chu became a viral sensation. )

The fame storm gathers

On his first night, Chu also caught the attention of Kevin Clancy, who blogs at Barstool Sports. Clancy also posted some nasty stuff, calling Chu "one of the most smug motherfuckers you'll ever meet" and adding that he "has no clue how to iron his shirt or button his collar."

For Chu, however, his mission wasn't to be a pleasant TV star. His mission was to win a life-changing amount of money.

Clancy has 80,000 Twitter followers and they started spreading the word. Combined with Chu's own intensive Twitter activities, he was starting to become a Twitter celebrity. Chu was developing a reputation as an anti-hero, to put it diplomatically. "The Jeopardy Facebook page was alive with that hostility. Every time I went on there were people saying, 'Get him off the show' There's a certain baseline level of unkindness on the internet. I know that. I still feel like I'm not out of bounds to say that the hostility was disproportionate."

Much of this initial hostility was, clearly, racist. "Maybe if I were the nicest, most bubbly and cheerful person in the world, they would have then attached the robotic, Asian nerd stereotype to me but I did come off as kind of a robotic nerd and my being Asian sort of amplified that."

Mental Floss jumps on

In his second appearance, there was a Jeopardy question about Mental Floss. This bit of happenstance was a likely a crucial coincidence in the Legend of Arthur Chu.

The next morning, the Mental Floss website ran an item on Chu. Critically, the article looked at his strategy, and left many readers with the impression that Chu had personally worked out the secret to winning the game.

(This isn't entirely true: The article did mention in passing that Chu's betting strategy was heavily influenced by Keith Williams and his blog, called The Final Wager. We'll come back to this. But for now, it's worth noting that Chu credited Williams, and Chuck Forrest, whom we mention below, in almost every interview he did.)

That day, an item appears on The Wirethat looks in particular at Chu's use of the Forrest Bounce, which involves jumping around the lower rungs of the board looking for Daily Doubles. Again, this is not new either. In fact, it is called the Forrest Bounce because one of Jeopardy's earliest legends, Chuck Forrest, used it extensively. That piece was picked up by Business Insider, which has nearly half a million Twitter followers. Now everybody was talking about the "nerd" whom everybody supposedly hated for having invented new ways to "break" Jeopardy.

What it's like to be the Jeopardy bad boy

As the media interviews piled up, Chu also began playing into the interviewers' perception of him as the Jeopardy arch-villain, an "evil nerd" who was the flip side of the white, blond, cheerful Ken Jennings. "I enjoyed it. You either roll with it or you have to valiantly struggle against it and that alternative is just not interesting. I think the part of me that is a little bit mercenary about it always saw this is what makes the story. If there's no controversy, there's no story."

But even so, Chu had a lot of fans, particularly among the serious Jeopardy watchers who realized that he was simply applying the kind of strategies that statistically win games. And everyday fans rallied around him as well.

"I think a normal person's reaction is, 'Why the hell would you abuse somebody for winning a lot of money in a game show?' And so most of the backlash to the backlash was much bigger than the initial backlash. The people that came in on my side outnumbered them and really it was more heartening to see that support than the initial backlash was disheartening."

The Arthur Chu strategy (or, the section you can probably skip)

So, what was Chu doing that was getting under people's skin?

First, as we mentioned above, he was hunting for the Daily Doubles. Rather than start at the top, with the lowest value clue, and work down, he would not only move further down, but he would jump to a different category.

There are some sound reasons for this. First, statistically, the Daily Doubles are almost always in the bottom three rows. (In fact, they are also more likely to be in certain columns: if you watch carefully, you'll notice that certain types of categories tend to inhabit certain columns. One analysis even discovered a particular box that was mostly likely to have a Daily Double: fourth from the top, far left, which has seen 8% of the DDs.)

The other reason for jumping categories is that it is slightly disorienting for the other players, who have to keep up. It is also disorienting for viewers at home, which is why lots of them hate it.

"It's a very, very high stress, high focus kind of thing for the players and it's a very kind of low stress, low focus thing for all the people watching," says Chu. "That's why there's a kind of big disconnect, between how the fans perceive the show and how people who have been on the show perceive the show."

Second, he essentially bet all or nothing on Daily Doubles. This is a player's best opportunity to take charge of the game and a big win demoralizes other players.

Moreover, statistically, unless it is a category you are weak in, the odds are in your favor in terms of answering Daily Doubles. (Again, though, this is not new: Roger Craigwas the master of aggressive Daily Double betting.)

Knowing how he was going to approach the game helped enormously. "Rehearsed plays take your mind off having to make decisions, so that, as much as you can, you can can just focus on execution."

Why Chu offered Final Jeopardy ties

The other element of Chu's strategy was "offering" a tie in Final Jeopardy. The game theory here is complicated, so let's use an example from one of the first times Chu offered a tie. Going into Final Jeopardy, he had $18,200 and Carolyn Collins had $13,400. A third contestant had $8,400.

The traditional strategy would have been for Chu to wager $8,601. This is enough to defeat Collins if she bet everything and got it right, but not so much that he would lose if either Collins also got it wrong, or if Contestant #3 got it right but Chu did not.

Instead, Chu bet $8,600. If both Chu and Collins got it right, they would tie and both would play tomorrow.

The reason Chu did this is because the contestant in second should never bet everything on Final Jeopardy, and many of them don't. This is because the odds of winning from second place are quite poor if the person in the lead gets the answer right. Your best route to a victory is a wrong answer from Chu, and if that happens, Chu's score will go down anyway.

Since you know Chu has to bet at least $8,600, the only reason you need to bet any money at all is to cover an all-in bet from Contestant #3.

This is bad news if you're Chu. If, however, you have a reputation for offering ties, then your opponent's betting strategy becomes different. If there is a chance that both of you can get it right and advance, then you suddenly have a motive to make a suicidal all-in bet on Final Jeopardy.

When you run the numbers in this scenario (something Keith Williams has done), Chu's odds improve significantly. He wins if he gets it right, and he also wins now if both he and his opponent get it wrong.

Chu certainly appreciates the shortcut Williams provided. "There are tons of ridiculous jargon that the Jeopardy fans invented. You have to know what Shore's Conjecture is. You have to know what a lock tie scenario is. So for just laying out the basic principles like that was very helpful."

The tricky part about this as a strategy, however, was that it depended on contestants noticing that he always offered a tie, since Jeopardy contestants are forbidding from "collusion" on betting strategy, and Chu was unwilling to risk testing waters by discussing betting with the other players.

There were different schools of thought on ties. Many viewers saw it as chivalrous and sporting. Others saw it as depriving somebody in the green room of a chance to be on the show. (I was in the latter camp: this is how I connected with Chu in the first place.)

But as far as Chu is concerned, what viewers think of his strategy is not important. "If you don't like it then ask them to change the rules, don't blame the individual players."

He sometimes compares himself to Ender, the young hero of the science fiction novel Ender's Game, who masters an artificial game environment by exploiting the logical loopholes inherent in the rules. The key difference being that "the external consequences of that for me was like a negative reaction from people watching TV, which is not as bad as killing a whole planet full of aliens."

For Chu, the style of play implicit in the game makes Jeopardy more interesting, not less. "I like Moneyball Jeopardy, I like people treating Jeopardy like a real high-stakes sport."

After Jeopardy

Chu is also a comedian and writer and his notoriety on the show has helped him land gigs as a writer.

"A lot of the people I talked to afterwards were trying to tell me how to leverage my brand and they had this very narrow idea that it should be about Jeopardy and about my persona from Jeopardy."

Mental Floss was a natural fit, but the person Chu was when he appeared on Jeopardy was a particularly focused version of himself, and as he puts it "not necessarily my favorite part of myself," so he began looking for another niche.

"Sujay Kumar, the editor for the Daily Beast, interviewed me when I was in New York doing like Good Morning America and the whole media tour. He invited me to the Daily Beast building in New York and we hung out and I actually got a chance to talk about stuff with him and he said he was interested in hearing more from me because he liked my voice."

In particular, he has developed a niche looking at misogyny in nerd culture, a subject that later became white hot in the so-called Gamergate controversy.

"I told Sujay that this was an angle I was most comfortable with, since I was kind of a nerd icon for the Jeopardy thing. We're in this weird place now where the stuff that we used to defiantly celebrate as being unpopular, like comic books and computers, are now at the center of the economy."

One of the ways Chu has changed Jeopardy, meanwhile, is that he has alerted it to the value of social media. He suspects that other contestants have been encouraged to live tweet their games, for example. "They want to reach out to a younger demographic, since their core demographic is aging a lot, so I've heard they are trying to beef up their social media presence, the so called second screen stuff."

November 2014

(This interview was conducted before the 2014 Tournament of Champions,)