Friday, February 28, 2014

Jeopardy! Strategy & Competitor Backlash

Why We’re Actually Mad At Ruthless ‘Jeopardy!’ Contestant Arthur Chu
(By Caitlin Dewey, Washington Post, 27 February 2014)
Chu with Alex Trebek (Courtesy of Jeopardy Productions, Inc.)
The question isn’t why Arthur Chu brought his peculiar, buzzer-smacking brand of game play to “Jeopardy.” The question is why, in 50 long years of the show’s history, more people haven’t done the same.  Chu, if you haven’t heard of him, is the “Jeopardy” contestant nonchalantly bulldozing America’s collective nostalgic vision for how game shows should work, who cruised to his eighth straight victory on Thursday night. The insurance compliance technician from Ohio who is  is also a “stand-up  comedian, Shakespearean actor, improviser, tour guide, genius and, most importantly, voiceover artist,” according to his Web site- has used his renegade style to earn $238,200 in winnings to date. And it’s that style, not his success, that has inspired so much negative reaction.

Since time immemorial- read: at least September 1984, when the Alex Trebek-hosted daily syndicated version of the show launched- “Jeopardy” has almost always followed a simple pattern: Contestants pick a category; they progress through the category from top to bottom; they earn winnings when they, through their hard-earned and admirable knowledge, get the questions right.  Chu, who has turned 30 since the current episodes were taped, has flipped that protocol upside down … and shaken the change out of its pockets. For one thing, he sometimes plays to tie, not win, thereby guaranteeing he brings a lesser competitor to challenge him the next day. He skips around the board looking for Daily Doubles, gobbling them up before competitors find them, in the process monopolizing all the high-value questions.
Most unforgivably to many, Chu tries to squeeze in the most questions per round by pounding the bejesus out of his buzzer and interrupting Alex Trebek. This is Alex Trebek, North American icon (he’s Canadian by birth), we’re talking about here.  Chu’s strategy wasn’t part of some long-brewing master plan, but simply the result of some Googling. He did some searching once he found out he would appear on the show and was inspired by what discovered about Chuck Forrest, a 1985 contestant whose similar Daily Double hunting even earned a phrase to describe his method of play, the “Forrest Bounce.”  “There’s no logical reason to do what people normally do, which is to take one category at a time from the top down,” Chu told the Web site Mental Floss. “Your only point of control in the game is your ability, if you get the right answer to a question, to select the next question — and you give that power up if you make yourself predictable.”  In 1985, of course, angry viewers didn’t have the option to take to social media to complain about an un­or­tho­dox contestant who disrupted a beloved and orderly daily routine. Chu’s secret weapon may be the fact that he can look past the show’s iconography and decades of sentimental baggage and see it for what it is: a game. And the purpose of playing a game is to try to win, generally through some combination of skill and strategy, regardless of whatever arbitrary etiquette is attached to it.

In that way, what Chu is doing isn’t so different than the principles of “Moneyball.” In the book/film of that name, as in real-life, Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane took a much-romanticized process (picking players in major league baseball’s annual draft) and turned it into something stark and evidence-based (focusing on statistics and formulas instead of the traditional and more subjective scouting). In fact, when you zoom way out, Chu’s strategy seems to fit into a larger cultural pattern: Now that everything can be measured, quantified and reduced to statistical probabilities, there’s no space for romance or instinct anymore. A scientific formula predicts hit songs; Big Data determines who directs our favorite shows. And all of these approaches have been adopted because they work: As Chu earned another victory on Thursday night, he became the show’s third-highest earner ever. (He has said he will donate some of his winnings to fibromyalgia research; his wife suffers from the condition.)

Chu, like Beane and Netflix and Warner Music Group, isn’t breaking any actual rules here. He’s just being ruthlessly, idol-killingly pragmatic, in a space where we don’t want pragmatism — we want pure genius!  We want Ken Jennings!  Jennings, who set a “Jeopardy” record with 74 consecutive victories while winning $2.5 million in 2004, thinks Chu is “playing the game right.”  “In sports, players and fans love it when teams shake up the game with new techniques: the basketball jump shot in the 1950s, the split-finger fastball in the 1980s, four-down football today,” he wrote over at Slate. “Why should Jeopardy be any different?”


Arthur Chu Is Playing Jeopardy! the Right Way
(By Ken Jennings,, 10 February 2014)
Ken Jennings is a 74-time Jeopardy! winner and is the author of six books.

It didn’t take long for Arthur Chu to become Public Game Show Enemy No. 1. Within days of his Jan. 28 debut on Jeopardy!, the 30-year-old Cleveland-area insurance analyst was making America very, very angry. “Arthur Chu is the worst jeopardy contestant of all time,” one viewer tweeted. “I can’t wait until someone beats his joyless, smug ass,” seethed another. Even the JBoard, normally a collegial hangout for the top-rated quiz show’s most dedicated ex-contestants and fans, got ugly. “There is no need to disrespect the game,” one poster scolded Chu.  This all took me back to the heady days of summer 2004, when I began my own run as a Jeopardy! contestant and fans soon tired of my presence behind the leftmost podium. In ESPN the Magazine, Bill Simmons called me “a smarmy know-it-all with the personality of a hall monitor.” (My company is, to this day, called Hall Monitor LLC.)  On Jeopardy!, a rigidly formatted show in its 30th year, the only real breath of fresh air is the endless parade of new contestants. Familiarity, on the other hand, quickly breeds contempt.
It’s true that Arthur Chu is a buzzer-waver, a button-masher, a Trebek-interrupter. But between rounds of gameplay and in the many subsequent interviews he’s done—Chu is clearly enjoying his 15 minutes—he comes across as perfectly pleasant, chatty, and self-aware. Given the low bar of Jeopardy!-contestant charisma, he is a normal, likable guy.  The sudden wave of Chu-mosity is largely just a symptom of our modern news cycle, where one spate of hostile tweets can spawn a million repetitive reaction pieces before the feedback loop dies.  There’s an obvious racial angle as well. Chu, a bespectacled man with rumpled shirts and a bowl cut, plays into every terrible Asian-nerd stereotype you’ve ever seen in an ’80s teen movie. Charmingly, he seems to enjoy the role of the scheming outsider. Ina recent Wall Street Journal interview, he pitted his own eccentric genius against me, “the angelic blond boy next door, the central casting ‘nice boy.’ ”

But in fact, plenty of nice white boys on Jeopardy! have been pilloried by viewers for using Arthur Chu’s signature technique: bopping around the game board seemingly at whim, rather than choosing the clues from top to bottom, as most contestants do. This is Chu’s great crime, the kind of anarchy that hard core Jeopardy! fans will not countenance. The technique was pioneered in 1985 by a five-time champ named Chuck Forrest, whose law school roommate suggested it. The “Forrest bounce,” as fans still call it, kept opponents off balance. He would know ahead of time where the next clue would pop up; they’d be a second slow. 
More recently, skipping around the board has evolved into an art form. Jeopardy! luminaries like David Madden (19-game winning streak, 2005) and Roger Craig (Tournament of Champions winner and single-day winnings record holder, 2010–11) have used “the bounce” as a strategic way to hack an underappreciated key to Jeopardy! success: the Daily Double.  In any game of Jeopardy!, three clues have been secretly earmarked as Daily Doubles.  The player who finds each one can bet any or all of her winnings on responding to it correctly. By and large, Jeopardy! players are a risk-averse bunch. Unless a player is in need of a big comeback, the Daily Double wager is usually a smallish one.

Strategically, this is crazy. Like a poker player trying to increase the size of the pot when he has a good hand, Jeopardy! contestants should maximize their upside when the odds are in their favor. Historically, the odds of getting a Daily Double correct are very good: Between 65 and 70 percent. Too many players instead let games come down to Final Jeopardy, where conversion is much less predictable. (Less than half of all Final Jeopardy responses are correct.) Finding the Daily Doubles becomes more important the stronger a player you are, since it lowers the influence of chance on the outcome.  Crunching some numbers, I see that my own Daily Double conversion during my Jeopardy! run was about 83 percent. In hindsight, my wagers were almost always too small. 
So when Arthur Chu bobs and weaves around the board, he’s chasing those game-changing Daily Doubles. (The Jeopardy! contestant coordinators recommend playing the game in top-to-bottom order, mostly to make life easier on Alex Trebek and the techs who run the game board, but it’s not a requirement.) Hunting is possible because Daily Doubles may be hidden, but they’re not distributed randomly. For example, they’re much more likely to be in the fourth row of clues (36 percent of the time, in recent years) than the second row (just 10 percent). Roger Craig even discovered that Daily Doubles are distributed non-randomly by column as well, and played accordingly. He put the 2011 Tournament of Champions away early with an incredibly ballsy pair of Daily Double bets that still makes my sphincters clench when I watch it today.

Arthur Chu has been lauded in headlines as the pioneer of Jeopardy! “game theory,” but Craig is the one who designed his own computer software from scratch to allow him to game Jeopardy! “moneyball”-style. Chu, by his own admission, just Googled “jeopardy strategy.” If he has seen more Daily Doubles than other men, it is because he stood on the shoulders of giants.  I was converted to Daily Double hunting during my 2011 match against the IBM supercomputer Watson. During a practice round, Watson took the clues in order, like a good citizen; I won the game in a runaway. But during the televised match, Watson’s minders switched it into “game mode,” which of course involved smart strategies like hunting for Daily Doubles. This time, Watson roared into a huge lead. I had a chance to come back near the end of the match when I found the first Daily Double in the round—but my next clue selection wasn’t quite the optimal one, and Watson found the second Daily Double instead. Lights out.
Arthur Chu is on the Jeopardy! bench for a couple of weeks while a college tournament airs, but he’ll back on Feb. 24, and the Daily Double hunt will begin anew. In sports, players and fans love it when teams shake up the game with new techniques: the basketball jump shot in the 1950s, the split-finger fastball in the 1980s,four-down football today. Why should Jeopardy! be any different? Strategic play makes for a more complex, exciting show. Don’t listen to the Internet kibitzers. Arthur Chu is playing the game right.

Every Single Question Arthur Chu Got Wrong On Tonight’s ‘Jeopardy!’
(By Caitlin Dewey, Washington Post, 12 March 2014)
The astonishingly polarizing Arthur Chu- who reinvented, and maybe ruined, the way “Jeopardy!” is played - ended his winning streak tonight after stumbling on a question about the British monarchy.  This might mark the royalty’s biggest contribution to public life since spawning Prince George. But it wasn’t just the monarchy that brought Chu down! In fact, the so-called “Jeopardy hacker” stumbled and stalled constantly on tonight’s show, with him even entering the big-question Final Jeopardy in last place.  Here, for reference/gloating, is every single question Chu got wrong or ceded to another player (the exact phrasing is approximate — Trebek talks fast!):
FINAL JEOPARDY: He was the last male monarch who had not previously been Prince of Wales. (Who is George VI.)
With 40,000 cases in 2011, Australia was hit by an epidemic of this respiratory ailment that can be fatal in babies. (What is whooping cough.)
You with your cute hat, you’re just troppo! (What is “too much.”)
Don’t bother me, I’m affacentato. (What is “busy.”)
The H pylori bacterium causes this type of ulcer, from the Greek word for “digestive.” (What is peptic.)
Coveted by every speechwriter-turned-columnist, this is an award named for the woman seen here. (What is “The Peggy.”)
Philosophers distinguish between two kinds of knowledge: “a priori,” from thinking, and this — from experience. (What is empirical or “a posteriori.”)
Taza, son of this chief, tried to honor his father’s peace agreement with the army, but couldn’t unite the Apache bands. (Who is Cochise.)
Antisthenes began this “ism” with the view that self-interest is the primary motive of human behavior. (What is cynicism.)
This Ottawa chief’s drive to capture Fort Detroit might’ve been successful if he hadn’t been betrayed. (Who is Pontiac.)
Pass the lasagna, I’m affamato. (What is hungry.)
This people’s old Oraibi pueblo in Arizona may be the oldest inhabited village in the U.S. (What is Hopi.)
This principality in southwest Europe is roughly 370 acres. (What is Monaco.)
You want to buy my truck for $100? What am I, pazzo? (What is crazy.)
We were lucky to catch the bus back to Rome, it was the ultimo. (What is last.)
This viral disease that causes inflammation of the liver has A, B, C, D and E types. (What is hepatitis.)
This Dane proposed that people go through three stages: aesthetic, ethical, religious. (Who is Kierkegaard.)
This word, originally meaning shaman or medicine man, now means a council or meeting. (What is powwow.)
Mr. Gilliam or Mr. Jones inspired this award for a British comedy troupe member. (What is “The Terry” or “The Monty.”)
The title of this 1979 No. 1 hit by the Eagles warned of one of these tonight. (What is heartache.)
In this 1984 Prince song, things were so sad these title birds were crying. (What are doves.)
Solid Mr. Walesa. (Who is Lech.)
Last name of Lorenzo who, on January 5, 1537, decided the Duke of Florence needed to breath a lot less. (Who is Medici.)
“Dust to Dust” is a 2013 song by this country-folk duo, whose name suggests the discord that broke them up. (Who are the Civil Wars.)
Find the queen, find the nice lady in this street gambling game with a trio of face-down options. Sorry, try again! (What is three-card Monte.)
Fred Smith, of this company, took $25.3 million — not bad for an overnight delivery boy. (What is FedEx.)
Bet Mr. Schultz’s employees in this company spell “Howard” correctly on cups. (What is Starbucks.)
The commissioner of Scotland Yard resigned in 1888, the day before the final murder attributed to this man. (Who is Jack the Ripper.)
“Hell,” in polite company. (What is heck.)
St. Francis Cathedral was built by the St. Francis who became the model for a character in this book. (What is “Death Comes for the Archbishop.”)
Annie Fitzgerald Stephens was the model for this Southern belle. (Who is Scarlett O’Hara.)
This character is Charles Dickens’ most autobiographical. His initials are the reverse of the author’s. (Who is David Copperfield.)
Mrs. Honeychurch in his “Room With a View” was based on his grandmother. (Who is E.M. Forster.)
This Kurt Weill musical drama was called “Die Dreigroschenoper” when it debuted in 1928. (What is “The Threepenny Opera.”)
Middle-class pretensions! Despair! You want them, you got them in this Chekhov play. (What is “Three Sisters.”)
Fifty percent of the core melted down in this U.S. facility. (What is Three Mile Island.)
“2 Broke Girls” helped this network earn several million dollars. (What is CBS.)
Not Marco, but certainly Polo: He wore it well, drawing $60 million. (Who is Lauren.)
And here are the ones Chu got right:
The same virus that causes chickenpox in kids might reemerge in adulthood as this. (What is shingles.)
It’s the capital of Maharashtra, a state on the Deccan Plateau. (What is Mumbai.)
The largest national lake in South America, this is an inlet of the Caribbean Sea. (What is Maracaibo.)
Fleetwood Mac’s Ms. Nicks gave the name to this award for most diaphanous dress. (Who is Stevie.)
Her descendants through her son Thomas Rolfe number in the tens of thousands. (Who is Pocahontas.)
The name of this philosophy that began in Russia in the 1850s is derived from the Latin noun for nothing. (What is nihilism.)
This island is separated from the coast of Africa by the Mozambique Channel. (What is Madagascar.)
The award for best sister in a comic strip gets its name from her. (What is Sally.)
Given for the cutest boy in an ad, it’s named for the 4-year-old in a Life cereal commercial. (What is Mikey.)
In this 1988 hit, Poison lamented that every rose has one of these. (What are thorns.)
A unit of dry volume equal to a quart. (What is a peck.)
Holy Shatner, Jeff Boyd got a great deal for this .com at $5o million. (What is Priceline.)
A tanker on the rocks. (What is wreck.)
After a 2013 chemical attack near Damascus, the French president called this man a war criminal. (Who is Assad.)
In her No. 1 hit “Someone Like You,” she thought you’d see my face and be reminded that for me, it isn’t over. (Who is Adele.)
F. Scott Fitzgerald probably drew on the bootlegger Max Gerlach for this title character. (Who is the Great Gatsby.)
On July 26, 1794, this Frenchmen called for an end to violence, though he’d killed so many already. (Who is Robespierre.)
The tenure of this first Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition saw 2,000 stake burnings. (Who is Torquemada.)
A body block on ice. (What is check.)
In 1938, this trio made the short film “Healthy, Wealthy and Dumb.” (Who are the Three Stooges.)
Chu hasn’t fared so badly, though. At the end of his 11-episode winning streak, he departs with $297,200 in winnings — the third-highest of all time, and qualifies for the show’s Tournament of Champions. He also knew he had it coming; the episode was recorded back in November.

Meanwhile, Diana Peloquin can look forward to some unexpected, and much-deserved, fame. The grad student (and synchronized swimmer!) correctly answered the last question, keeping her first-place spot and booting Chu in the process. By some accounts, she’s practically a national hero.



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