Swarthmore grad cleans up on 'Jeopardy!'

Swarthmore graduate Arthur Chu (right) with Alex Trebek, the host of "Jeopardy!" Chu is third on the show's all-time list of money winners, not counting those who won special tournaments.
Swarthmore graduate Arthur Chu (right) with Alex Trebek, the host of "Jeopardy!" Chu is third on the show's all-time list of money winners, not counting those who won special tournaments. (Jeopardy Productions Inc.)
Posted: March 05, 2014

He has been called a villain. Robotic. A mad genius. A hero.

This for an even-tempered Swarthmore College graduate who was perhaps most known on campus for wearing shorts in the dead of winter?

One point is not in dispute about Arthur Chu, 30. He is very, very good at the game show Jeopardy!

After winning just nine games, he is already third on the show's all-time list of money winners, not counting those who have won special tournaments. With his win in the show that aired at 7 p.m. Friday on 6ABC, his total now stands at $261,000, thanks in part to an attacking style that can throw competitors off-balance.

Chu, an insurance company compliance analyst who now lives near Cleveland, also employs strategy from the academic discipline called game theory. His tactics have drawn fire from some quarters, but also plenty of admiration.

"He's all business," said Maura McKenna, 41, of West Philadelphia, who lost to Chu in the show that aired Jan. 30. "You can't argue with results."

At the moment, Chu's winnings stand more than $2 million behind those of Ken Jennings, the all-time leader in earnings from non-tournament episodes of the show.

But Jennings is already squarely on the side of the newcomer. In an interview he conducted with Chu for Slate.com, Jennings proposed a term for what Chu fans are experiencing: Chu-phoria.

So why the detractors? A Jan. 30 tweet from a Boston-area Twitter user is typical: "you destroyed jeopardy, used to be a gentleman's game, just awful now."

What seems to rankle most is Chu's strategy of bouncing around the board to pick from various categories, rather than methodically answering everythign in a category in order.

Whichever contestant answers a question correctly - or, in Jeopardy! terms, asks the correct question for the answer displayed on the board - gets to pick the category and dollar value for the next question. So as long as Chu keeps getting it right, he can keep switching categories.

Chu said he skips around in part to stay a split-second ahead of the competition. If he were to pick questions about, say, U.S. presidents five times in a row, the other two contestants would know what was coming.

Instead, he switches from "U.S. Presidents" to another subject and then to something else again, so long as he keeps getting the answers right.

"It means that you maintain a slight advantage over everyone else when it comes to reaction time," Chu said. "It's not really so much about whether or not you know it. It's about being able to jump on it and buzz in before everyone else."

Then there are the faceless online critics who fault his clothes and haircut, or those who label him a nerd.

Chu has already beaten them to it. He tried out for the reality show King of the Nerds a while back, and posted a video of himself solving Rubik's Cube and showing off the Star Wars light saber he got for his girlfriend when he proposed.

"As well as a ring, not instead of a ring," he says drily in the video.

Signs of academic prowess came at an early age for the Albany, N.Y., native. Chu said his parents took him for an IQ test in second grade and he scored off the charts. He said they refused to tell him his score - over 180 - until many years later.

Chu majored in history at Swarthmore, where he started with the Class of 2006. He did not graduate until 2008 because he started a job and needed extra time to finish his thesis, on the history of advertising in the 20th century. He said he did "OK" in his classes but declined to elaborate.

Some of his former teachers are following his success with pride.

"I assume the development office will be hitting him up for a donation," joked history department chair Timothy J. Burke.

Chu counts U.S. history and TV among his stronger subject areas on the show, and acknowledges his sports knowledge is fairly weak. He said he went online to learn which topics recur on the show most frequently and studied those, plus he studied strategy on a blog called the Final Wager, written by former contestant Keith Williams.

That's where the game theory came from. Here's an example.

Chu has been in the lead every day so far when entering the game-ending round, Final Jeopardy. A couple of times, Chu has wagered just enough money to tie his next-closest competitor, assuming that that person will bet it all - rather than betting $1 more to give himself a chance of beating the person outright.

That's because if both answer the question correctly and the final result is a tie, both get to come back for another game.

Of course, if Chu answers incorrectly, that extra dollar could put him in second place, depending on what the competitor has wagered. Game over.

In addition to his day job with the insurance company, Chu said he is a freelance voice-over artist, and an aspiring actor and comic. His father is a chemist and his mother a biochemist-turned-teacher.

Chu's next show airs Monday, as the regular version of the show is on hold for a week for the duration of a tournament that brings back contestants from the 1990s.

Among those rooting for Chu is McKenna, the Philadelphia resident who lost to him in his third game.

"The more people he beats," she said, "the less bad I feel about myself."


'Jeopardy!' Machine

Some questions that Arthur Chu has answered correctly in his run of success on the game show Jeopardy! (as host Alex Trebek often reminds viewers, contestants must phrase the answers in the form of a question):

Clue: In information technology, breaking up a message to transmit it more efficiently is this type of switching.

Answer: What is packet-switching?

Clue: Texas adopted this mimic as its state bird in 1927; Tennessee mimicked the pick in 1933.

Answer: What is the mockingbird?

And one that Chu, a history major at Swarthmore, could not answer:

Clue: It's the process by which a congressional committee debates and amends a bill, and maybe increases its price.

Answer: What is markup?

SOURCE: Fan site www.j-archive.com


tavril@phillynews.com

215-854-2430

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