Jeopardy's New Game-Theory Devotee Is One to Keep an Eye On

Meet Arthur, Jeopardy's latest and greatest star, who has used game-show sabermetrics and live-tweeting irreverence to make the smart man's game show must-see TV. And he's picked up plenty of fans (and enemies) along the way.

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Meet Arthur Chu, Jeopardy's latest and greatest star, who has used Jeopardy game theory to become nightly must-see TV. But his unorthodox methods — though correct by the numbers — have made him a polarizing figure in the Jeopardy community. (Read our interview with Chu here.)

Arthur first appeared on the show on Tuesday, and has gone on a nice run of three straight wins. Thus far, he's been quick and confident with his answers and has a good brain on his shoulders. But the story is firmly on how he's playing, as his game theory strategies have made for a frustrating television experience for viewers. Those methods have calling him a "hero," Mental Floss breaking down the source of his success, and Bar Stool anointing him a "mad genius." Of course, others haven't taken his strategies so kindly, with a mix of real and faux outrage directed at Arthur (guilty!).

So what's the controversy all about?

Daily Double Searching

Arthur's Daily Double-searching strategy targets the
last three rows (Sharon Buck via YouTube).

It's Arthur's in-game strategy of searching for the Daily Double that has made him such a target. Typically, contestants choose a single category and progressively move from the lowest amount up to the highest, giving viewers an easy-to-understand escalation of difficulty. But Arthur has his sights solely set on finding those hidden Daily Doubles, which are usually located on the three highest-paying rungs in the categories (the category itself is random). That means, rather than building up in difficulty, he begins at the most difficult questions. Once the two most difficult questions have been taken off the board in one column, he quickly jumps to another category. It's a grating experience for the viewer, who isn't given enough to time to get in a rhythm or fully comprehend the new subject area. And it makes for ugly, scattered boards, like above.

However, Wednesday's game showed the benefits of that strategy. Arthur's searching was rewarded with all three of the game's Daily Doubles. Arthur was particularly fond of the "true" Daily Double, wagering all his money the first time (he lost it all) but quickly recovering with a massive wager later on another Daily Double. While most contestants are hesitant to go all-or-nothing, Arthur is happily taking those calculated risks.

One Daily Double, in which he wagered just $5, was particularly strange. Arthur's searching landed him a Daily Double in a sports category, a topic he knew nothing about. (Ever the joker, he tweeted he'd rather have sex with his wife than learn about sports). Most contestants will avoid their topics of weakness, but not Arthur. Instead, he wagered just $5 on the sports question, effectively making its specifics irrelevant. Trebek and the audience giggled, and when the question came, Arthur immediately blurted out "I dont know." But that wasn't a waste of a Daily Double, as he kept that question out of the hands of the other contestants. Winning in Jeopardy just means beating the other two, and this strategy made that possible.

Aggressive Buzzing

Some of the dislike for Arthur is a matter of personal style. Arthur is an incessant buzzer-clicker, who emphatically presses his answering button like there's no tomorrow. Given that he knows almost every answer, he's perpetually smacking on that buzzer in public view. It's pretty annoying, as the Vine to the right shows.

He also plays a furiously quick pace, often bowling over Alex Trebek's words to get to the next question. This is also a matter of strategy—the more questions he can get to before the time runs out, the more money he can win—but it isn't the most endearing style of play.

Playing for the Tie

Due to Arthur's newfangled shenanigans, Wednesday's Jeopardy ended in a rare tie. In Final Jeopardy, the leading contestant typically wagers $1 more than double of the 2nd place contestant. If both answer correctly, then the person in the lead wins by that extra buck. But Arthur did not add the $1, wagering enough so that if he and Carolyn both answered correctly, they would tie. And that's exactly what happened, as both moved on to the next round. He made the same move on Tuesday, as well, though he was the only contestant to answer correctly. "Interesting wager," host Alex Trebek condescended, after the tie.

While it seems strange, it's actually the correct move to make, says The Final Wager blog, the brainchild of former Jeopardy winner Keith Williams that breaks down the proper mathematical wagering. Basically, the whole point of the game is to move on to the next round. Whether or not someone joins you is largely irrelevant. In addition, there's a certain mind-game tactic that can make the trailing contestant bet an irrational number. While the numbers stand behind these ideas, Tuesday's tie-targeting move was the first to do so all season, Williams said. "It's really cool to see this happen," he said. In fact, Arthur admitted to Williams that he got the idea from his videos.

It's only been three episodes, of course, so it's too early to declare Arthur the next Ken Jennings, who won 74 (!) straight games in 2004. But in terms of influence on the game, Arthur looks like a trendsetter of things to come. Hopefully that has more to do with his game theory than with his aggressive button-pressing.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.