The eclectically nerdy and enthusiastic community of Jeopardy! veterans and hopefuls is in the midst of a minor convulsion over the tactics of the show’s current champion and the reaction of the media to his success. Arthur Chu, a compliance analyst and voiceover artist from Broadview Heights, Ohio, has so far won seven games, $180,000, and the attention of Twitterers, newspapers, cable news shows, and pundits everywhere.
He plays Jeopardy! with a singular focus on monetary success, racing hastily and erratically around the game board to amass big dollar totals while disorienting his opponents, most of whom entered the studio expecting a more leisurely, ordered contest. He has explained publicly that, once he found he was going to be on the show, he realized it might be his once-in-a-lifetime chance to amass thousands of dollars in just a few hours’ work, and, in that spirit, he prepared for the opportunity by Googling “Jeopardy strategy” and focusing entirely on putting what he found into practice on the show. Chu has no time for breezy chit-chat with Alex Trebek, and he doesn’t see the point of ironing the clothes he wears onstage; none of that is going to help him rack up big money. In the muggle world, where Jeopardy! is merely an entertaining diversion, Chu’s gameplay tactics and perceived disregard for the niceties are generating a lot of buzz, with some commentators hailing his “mad genius” and others condemning him for ruining the show.
Meanwhile, in the primary online Jeopardy! community, where the show is more of a hallowed institution, and of which I have been part since before my own appearances on the show in 2005 and in the 2006 Tournament of Champions, discussion has hinged not just on Chu’s success but on the bewildering reaction of the rest of the world to it. Chu is certainly a good player, but there are good players every year. He uses tactics that are somewhat unorthodox, but by no means original; in fact, he has been very open, in the dozens of online (Mental Floss, etc.), newspaper (Wall Street Journal, etc.), and television (CNN, etc.) interviews he has given, about having borrowed them from successful players from the past, like Chuck Forrest, David Madden, and Roger Craig. So why is he being treated like some kind of wunderkind, either benign or satanic? Why all the attention when inarguably better players win more money but barely merit more than a couple of column inches anywhere?
Clearly, for past players at least, there is a certain amount of competitive pride at play here. But even accounting for that, there is still room for genuine puzzlement. What makes Arthur Chu special? Why does he get all the attention?
As with any media storm, it is hard to identify all the contributing factors. There have been suggestions that Sony, who produces the show, has been coordinating the media campaign, to help promote the show during its big 30th season, thereby drumming up additional interest in its big “Tournament of the Decades” setting past champions against each other. (Not including me, alas.) Some people wonder if Chu would be getting this kind of attention – much of it portraying him as a “villain” – if he were a well-dressed white gentleman instead of a rumpled Asian dude. It’s hard to say how big a part those kinds of factors play. However, Beth Morgan has written an impressive analysis of what happened in the media world in the first few days of Chu’s appearances on Jeopardy!, and she concludes that, while there was a certain amount of luck involved – Chu rubbed a couple of influential people the wrong way, a couple the right way, and in the process mentioned Mental Floss as correct response to a Jeopardy! clue, “which couldn’t have hurt Arthur’s chances of scoring a write-up” – and while our “click-bait world” is primed to generate media storms like this, one of the most important factors was the work done by Arthur Chu himself.
Just as Chu recognized and capitalized upon the rare opportunity to win lots of money playing Jeopardy!, so too did he recognize and capitalize upon the rare opportunity to generate publicity being seen playing Jeopardy!. Remember, Chu is a voice-over artist, and he also performs as a comedian. He cannily saw that the publicity that might be generated by his long appearance on the show could be worth more in the long term than the cash he takes home from it. Jeopardy! tapes multiple shows at a time, weeks in advance of broadcast; by the time Chu’s first episode was broadcast, he already knew he was going to be revealed as a multi-game winner, and he took spirited steps to take advantage of that. He live-Tweeted during his broadcasts, often responding directly to some of the comments that other people in the Twitterverse were making about him in real time. He made himself available for, and in some cases solicited himself, interviews with various news and chat outlets. There was no guarantee at the start that his efforts were going to pay off, to be sure; but it is very, very likely that, had he not made those efforts, he would have registered no more than the faintest blip on our cultural radar, even with seven or more wins.
And even now, having made such a big splash, there is no guarantee that this publicity will translate to the kind of performance work that Chu is seeking. (I hope he does; he has a great voice and he is thoughtful and clever, like so many successful Jeopardy! champions are.) But that kind of success is a lot more likely for him now than it was for him before. Indeed, it is probably more likely for him now than any other past player except for the legendary Ken Jennings, and that is largely due to Chu himself. We have no way of knowing if he loses his next game or goes on to play for weeks and weeks, but for now, I salute Arthur Chu, not so much for his victories and fame, but for having the sense to recognize career opportunities when they arose, and the spirit to pursue them unconventionally even with no guarantee of success.