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?”
[This post has been updated to reflect the results of Thursday’s show.]