by Eric Sandy
"I mean, I was always a huge nerd," he says. "In lieu of having actual interesting things to say about my own life, I would usually drop random factoids into conversations, and people would always say, 'You should be on Jeopardy!'" That's the short version of the story that brought the Broadview Heights resident to the beloved trivia game show.
The slightly longer version involves the actual process: an online test, an in-person audition, a written test, and, lastly, a mock game show — "Just to make sure that you're not completely insane, that they can deal with you on camera," Chu says.
He filmed the episodes back in November; his appearances began airing Jan. 28.
And just that short time, Chu has become a three-day victor on the show (he'll return tonight at 7:30 p.m. to defend the title), as well as a bit of a controversial figure.
Here's one headline immediately dredged up by a Google search for "Arthur Chu" today: "'Jeopardy!' tie game makes Arthur Chu a hero?" Oddly, that story is running on Philly.com, which goes to show the breadth of Chu's influence on pop culture this week.
Chu began live-tweeting his appearances on the show, bringing him (and his wife) face-to-face with a fairly robust audience of supporters and critics. "My wife kinda egged me on. She began retweeting the most complimentary and the most insulting tweets. I felt compelled to respond, and it turned into a dialogue. It's been a crazy ride," he says.
Here's the thing: Even a cursory viewing of the past three nights of Jeopardy! reveals a contestant who means business. Chu answers with authority and rapidity. There's no hesitation — the kind of thing that sometimes trips up other contestants. When Chu began entertaining thoughts of being on the game show, he studied up on the mechanics of it all. Turns out there's a huge subculture of fans who analyze the show's workings - the wagers, the topics, the very meaning of the Daily Double. Chu did his homework, and that much is clear.
"I decided pretty early on, you know, I'm not going to be able to learn all the things I don't know in terms of actual knowledge," he says. "You only get a month between when they call you and when you have to go out for the show. So I said, 'What's the strategy that'll serve me best on the show?' It seems that people don't actually think about the strategy of the game itself as much as they do about the knowledge."
Two elements of Chu's play have really stood out: his process of jumping around the game board (choosing high-stakes questions first, rather than, say, the $200 small-ball echelon) and, more specifically, his Wednesday night Final Jeopardy! wager that forced a tie.
"There's no logical reason for most people to play the game the way they do it - start at the top of one category and then go all the way down until you finish it," Chu says. "The only control you have in the game is the ability to pick where the next question is gonna be. If you have that advantage and you jump around the board, you can put the other players off their game. That's your advantage, and you don't just want to give that up for nothing." Chu says that that idea actually goes back to 1985, when Chuck Forrest garnered national acclaim for his style of Jeopardy! play. It's called the "Forrest Bounce." And it's nothing new, of course, but there always seems to be some sort of startling element that galvanizes the fan base - or social media in general.
"I wasn't expecting people to feel so strongly. I didn't expect it to get so big," Chu says. He says that Wednesday night's game even elicited audible gasps from the studio audience, referencing "tornadic" moments in the game. (Chu lost all his money at one point after a botched Daily Double, then climbed back to the top. It was nuts.)
Then, yes, there was the now-infamous forced tie that night. And, whoo-ee, did that cause a stir.
"There are people who have spent years of their lives to figure out what the optimal wager in Jeopardy! is," Chu says.
Now, since his move the other night, the Internet has collectively glommed onto his wager, propelling it into contemporary myth. I mean, there are buskers down on Euclid Avenue this very moment singing songs about what Chu did.
"I've said this so many times this week, I'm not even sure I understand it anymore," Chu begins with a light-hearted sigh. "This is something that's been talked about on the Jeopardy! board a lot." He references a blog run by former champ Keith Williams, who details these sorts of Prisoner's Dilemma wagers.
Here are the mechanics: If you're in the lead and you consider betting an "extra dollar" - you know, in such a way that if you get the answer right you're guaranteed to maintain a $1 lead over any opponents who bet all-in and get the answer right - well, that opponent might factor that into their own wagering decisions. "They can bet the amount that, if you both get it wrong, you'll go down below them by that extra dollar," Chu says. Again, everyone's playing with self-interest in mind, and there's quite a bit of math that can do into those final wagers. Chu didn't want to fall prey to that line of thinking. Plus, those final questions can be damn tricky, and it's fairly common for one or more players to miss it.
So on Wednesday night, Chu bet for the tie. His opponent, Carolyn Collins went all-in, betting $13,400 on an answer she knew was right. Chu also had the right answer, but bet $8,600 to match her winnings and bring both of them back for Thursday night's episode.
"The most important thing is that you come back. People talk about having home-field advantage — if you're the only person coming back. But that's less important than ensuring that you do come back, in my calculations."
And come back he did. His now stint on the show offers him the sort of behind-the-scenes look that differs wildly from what viewers catch on TV. Players get the chance to chat with host Alex Trebek now and then and get a generally more intimate view of this most hallowed television realm.
"As I understand it, they have a pretty short filming season. It goes from September to February or something, and they only film two days out of the week," Chu says. "So they film a whole week's worth of shows in a day. You get two weeks done, you know, on Tuesday and Wednesday of one week, and I guess Alex Trebek has the rest of the week off.
"Alex Trebek is a really funny guy," Chu says. "He has a lot more personality... I think he actually talked about how when he was interviewed once, and he was asked what his favorite color was. He said, 'Gray. Like my personality.'" And doesn't Trebek just seem like the most drolly pleasant guy in the world? "When he talks to the audience, you can really see him come alive. He's a really avuncular old man. He has all these old stories from all his adventures in the past. He's got kind of a wicked sense of humor."
Chu trails off at this point and mentions that, maybe, after all, the good folks behind Jeopardy! wouldn't want many of those off-camera antics getting out. He references an ill-timed joke that Trebek cracked about a student shooting up his school after his teacher gave him a measly 98-percent on a test.
For all of Chu's supposed controversy, he maintains that - listen - he's playing for real money here. Yes, it's a game show, but Chu's participation back in November gave him a shot at winning a sizable cash payout. He's up $82,800 going into tonight's game.
During Thursday night's episode, Chu mentioned that he plans on using some of his winnings to benefit research into cures for fibromyaglia. His wife suffers from the disease, which Chu says remains largely misunderstood by much of the population.
"It's impacted her life greatly," he explains. "It's impacted her ability to work. Not that she can't work, she held down a job for a long time while I was unemployed. But one of the things that people don't realize... We all have a limited amount of what we can do in a day, and some people have conditions that just cut down on what they can do. When you talk about earning a living and pursuing your passions on the side, she couldn't do that. She couldn't earn a living or pursue her passions. So I felt like I wanted to be able to give her the opportunity to do what she really wanted to do, which is write rather than work in an office job for the rest of her life."
Here's just a quick rundown of common fibromyalgia symptoms, to elaborate on what Chu is describing:
...chronic widespread pain...heightened and painful response to pressure...debilitating fatigue, sleep disturbance, and joint stiffness...difficulty with swallowing...bowel and bladder abnormalities, numbness and tingling, and cognitive dysfunction....
All of which is to say that Chu's role on Jeopardy! extends far beyond the realm of trivia. He and his wife don't (yet) have children, but the twin notions of looking forward and building a happy family certainly helped guide Chu through the process of getting on the show and succeeding thus far.
But then, as the lights flash and Trebek introduces another night of answers in the form of questions, we return to the heart of the matter. And Chu, at the very least, lends the show its patented je ne sais quoi that has made it so goddam interesting all these years. We watch Jeopardy! not necessarily for the trivia, but for the humanity that blossoms beyond the buzzer.
"I think people who might lead more balanced lives than I do or have more active social lives or more complex careers... they probably didn't prepare to that extreme of a degree," Chu says. "If I feel uncertain, like I have to make a decision on the fly, I freeze up. So I try to overcompensate for that by rehearsing as much as I can before doing something that has high stakes."
Next week, by the way, Jeopardy! takes a brief hiatus to air its tournament. Look for Chu tonight.
He can't say publicly what future episodes hold, but his storyline is one you'll want to watch.
#TeamArthur is now.