Thursday, March 6, 2014

Gaming The System--Jeopardy! And Champion Arthur Chu

Okay, as a former Jeopardy! contestant, and a two-day champion, I figure I’m as much of an expert on playing the game as anyone out there. 

So I’m going to throw in my two cents (I still have some of my winnings left, so I can afford it) on Jeopardy! dynamo Arthur Chu. He’s winning games left and right--nine so far and it’s possible he may have surpassed nice guy Ken Jennings’s record of 74 wins. 

As you all know, the games are filmed in advance. When Alex Trebek wished my husband and me a happy anniversary on April 13, 2012, it was actually the middle of December, 2011. So whatever happens when regular Jeopardy! returns after the Decades Tournament, actually took place months ago. Quite possibly the person who bested Chu is waiting patiently to see his or her own victory against this behemoth.

Chu employs Game Theory when he plays. He racks up the wins by starting at the bottom of the board with the higher value questions. He’s quick with the buzzer and takes the big money early. When the others get a chance to ring in, they’re getting the $200 and $400 questions, not nearly enough to beat Chu’s lead.

What he’s doing is not against the rules. In fact, it’s not even new. Although most contestants like to start at the first clue and work down, a fair number (usually determined, humorless geeky guys) will do what is known as the Forest Bounce. It’s named for Chuck Forrest who went hunting for the Daily Double during his games in 1985 and won a five day total of $72,800. 

That was back when the show had a five win limit. You took the money, left undefeated and returned later for the Tournament of Champions.

Personally, I wish they’d never gotten rid of that rule. I think five wins in a row is enough for anyone.

In my first game, at the break, the returning champion had $6000 compared to my $600 and the other challenger’s $400. I remember thinking “Hey, I’m in second place. I may be able to pull this one out after all.” And I did, because of a rally in Double Jeopardy! and the returning champion not knowing his Shakespeare in Final Jeopardy!.

And that’s why I like watching Jeopardy!. The underdog can pull it out. You can have a negative score at the break but hear Alex declare you the champion at the end. In most games all three contestants have a pretty good chance of winning.

As Chu has made abundantly clear, strategy plays a part in successful play. Quick reflexes help too. The buzzer is the hardest thing about the game. You have to time it just right--too soon and you cut yourself out. Too late and the other guy rings in. We’re talking hundredths of a second. 

But you have to know the answers. And no one, not even Arthur Chu, can know the answer to every Jeopardy! clue. Sooner or later, there will be a Daily Double where he bets too much on a question that stumps him, followed by a Final Jeopardy! clue that he doesn't know, but the challenger does.

Unless his strategy works so well and he proves unbeatable. I’m not sure how that situation will be handled. Can you imagine tuning into Jeopardy! to hear Johnny Gilbert say, “And here’s our returning champion, Arthur Chu whose 471 day winnings now total the gross national product of New Zealand?”

Would people stop watching? Maybe. Like me, I believe most Jeopardy! fans prefer evenly matched games where anyone can win. On the other hand, we all might start watching every night just to see the game where Chu loses.

That fateful day when Arthur Chu cries all the way to the bank.

Then again, there is no crying in Jeopardy!

Judy Nichols is the author of several books available on Amazon

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