Ken Jennings Talks to Arthur Chu About Mastering Jeopardy! and Facing the Haters

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 28 2014 8:31 AM

Ken Jennings Talks to Arthur Chu About the Life of a Jeopardy! Master

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek and Arthur Chu
Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek and polarizing champ Arthur Chu.

Photo courtesy Jeopardy Productions

Earlier this month, 74-time Jeopardy! winner Ken Jennings reached out to reigning champ Arthur Chu to ask him about his polarizing win streak (which Jennings also defended in Slate). Now that Chu is back this week and extending his run, Jennings dug up the interview for his personal blog, and we’ve reprinted the conversation below. Jennings adds, “It’s been lightly edited for coherence—mostly mine.”

So have you been watching your games? Anything you’d do differently now having seen them? I definitely have some goofy mannerisms I’d take back …

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I have—in fact, I think all this hoopla started because of my impulsive decision to “live-tweet” all my games as I watched them from home. This was mainly because I wanted to have a really big watch-party with all my friends but lots of them ended up not being able to come because the Tuesday on which my first game ran was also a day with severe weather warnings all through Cleveland (not uncommon in these parts).

So I started live-tweeting my reactions to the first episode on Tuesday, and I guess this isn’t that common a thing for people to do because all of a sudden I started getting followers and mentions and people saying “The middle guy is live-tweeting!” And that’s when I started seeing the negative tweets—which my wife oh-so-helpfully and supportively retweeted, thus goading me into responding to them and getting this whole ball rolling.

I think there isn’t much I would change if I could go back—I mean, the very fact that the “haters” are the reason for me to, bizarrely, become a national celebrity means that if anything I owe the haters a favor for broadcasting their negative impression of me.

That said, I would probably buy new clothes and get better at tying a tie—you can probably tell how often I dress up to Jeopardy!’s “business-casual” standards in real life by how adept I was at making sure everything was pressed and straight when I was on TV. Either that or try to negotiate with the producers to dress in something closer to my usual style rather than trying and failing to rock the clean-cut look—only after I was on the show did I find out their “rules” requiring jackets and ties for men are more like “suggestions” and that guys have gone on before wearing sweatshirts and the like.

And yes, I’m aware that I come off as kind of robot, flat-affect and hyper-intense about the game on Jeopardy! It’s not something I can really help, or at least not something I would be able to help without a degree of concentration that would throw me off my game (the game that I keep reminding everybody we’re playing for thousands and thousands of dollars). It’s the same thing that got me so mad about the hate-train on Colby Burnett for being “arrogant” or “smug”—you absolutely can’t judge what someone’s real personality is like based on playing a game show like Jeopardy!. It’s the most unnatural, contrived, high-stress situation imaginable. The fact that Colby involuntarily gives a huge pleased grin after he gets an answer right doesn’t prove that he’s a “cocky arrogant person” and the fact that I bite off the answer really fast and then jump right back into spitting out clues for categories doesn’t mean that in real life I’m an abrupt, callous person with nothing but contempt for my surroundings.

The one thing I do think is a negative thing where I wish I hadn’t done it was “cutting off Alex,” which is what I think gets people most riled up—but of course that’s what you’re likely to do when you’re in the zone and already thinking about jumping to the next clue. Problem is Alex kind of chooses the points at which he makes a little comment or joke about a question at semi-random, sparse intervals so it’s hard to predict when he’s going to do it— people accidentally “cut him off” on the show even when they aren’t all hyped-up and intense like I was. It’s something I would be more careful about if I could do it again, though, because I do think interrupting/talking over someone truly is rude in a way that just being intense and abrupt isn’t.

I feel like I’ve now read more secondhand reports about you being hated than actual instances of people hating on you. What have I missed? What terrible things are people saying? The more appalling, the better.

At this point it almost is a fake controversy—the comments on nearly every single article about how I’m a “hated villain” on Jeopardy! are 99.9999 percent people supporting me, defending me and calling out the “haters” for being jerks and hypocrites.

I say “almost” because I among all others probably know best how this hoopla started because at the beginning there really was a huge anti-Chu backlash and how the reason people latched onto it was my wife’s and my openly responding to the backlash.

There’s a blogger, Kevin Clancy, who writes for a kind of crude sports fandom blog, Barstool Sports, who kind of wears it as a badge of pride that he stirs the pot with “controversies” especially involving Jeopardy!. He was the one to start trolling the Colby Burnett haters last year, get them to come out of the woodwork and turn that into a phenomenon, and I suppose I have to give him credit for doing the same for me.

The reason this appears asymmetrical is that the haters obviously aren’t as public about their hate as the fans are about their fandom and a ton of them actually recanted, deleted their tweets or otherwise disappeared when I started getting into conversations with them. But the sheer volume of anti-me tweets on that first night was crazy, and the best place to see it is Kevin Clancy’s blog post about it.

(My sister, who takes these things more personally than I, said she found the “penis pump” girl’s Facebook, LinkedIn, home phone, work phone and address before she realized she was going off the deep end and backed down.)

Here are some others, many of which I responded to. (Ed.: Clicking on the timestamps to see Arthur’s responses will be worth your while.)

That should be enough to give you an idea, lest you think I’m obsessed or anything.

I’m pretty sure that the haters are still out there, just careful not to openly mention me on Twitter because they know I’ll descend on them bringing the #ChuChuTrain with me.

That said, there probably are other pockets of commentary out there, not obviously publicly viewable, where there’s people mad at me. I have to say the stuff about me being a “bad sport” or being an unpleasant, dickish person definitely bugs me way more than the obviously ad hominem stuff about my appearance or nerdiness or whatever.

For examples, here’s a dude on Reddit:

It seems that you do not feel any pressure to be telegenic or charming. Is there anyone at Jeopardy who tries to encourage that kind of likeability?

And here’s a huge discussion ripping into me on Television Without Pity. I used to enjoy the “snarky” tone of that site, but I’ve been really turned off on it now that I realize they consider it their sacred right to speculate about and tear into random people on shows like Jeopardy! in order to get their jollies. It starts here and goes downhill from there.

And yeah, one of the things that embitters me is that the entire Television Without Pity “brand” is now tarnished for me. I got especially incensed when they started ripping into my story about buying my wife the meteorite, and referenced it in a post on the JBoard here. And I guess that’s all I’ll really say about that.

I remember being surprised at how wounded I got with random drive-by Internet abuse when I was on Jeopardy!. Like, it shouldn’t hurt to have StewieGriffinFan46 say “This guy on Jeopardy IS THE WORST” … but somehow it does.

It’s natural and human to care what other people think about you. If I’d not been playing for enormously high stakes on Jeopardy! my natural instincts to try to be nice and make a good impression probably would’ve taken over, I’d've been shy and reticent and afraid to speak up, and as a result I would’ve lost horribly in my first game. As it was a ton of my “training” was just getting myself into the head-space where winning the game and taking home lots of money mattered more to me than what people might think seeing me on TV.

So on the one hand I was kind of expecting it and shouldn’t complain. But on the other hand, yeah, it’s really hard to see someone disrespect you like that and not react to it. To the extent that real celebrities have been exposed enough to it that they become numbed to it I imagine it’s a bad, dehumanizing experience for the celebrities involved—it’s a good thing about our nature that whenever there’s another person in front of us our instinct is to empathize with them, get along with them, apologize for offending them.

I have to give my wife credit for this because she’s a strong believer that dragging trolls into the sunlight to name and shame them is better than ignoring them, and the way she was kind of goading me by retweeting all the offensive tweets and getting me to reply to them got me to see that there were two choices—retreat behind a rock and wait for the trolling to blow over, or consciously engage the trolls, take control of the conversation and own my image as a nerdy rumpled “Jeopardy! jerk” and embrace it. And the latter has turned out to be a lot of fun—and in the end generated a lot more positivity than negativity, though it would’ve been hard to believe that’s how it would’ve ended up that first night of angry people calling me out.

Probably the only piece of your gameplay I would quibble with is “bet for the tie.” I’ve heard people defend this as a “bring back a player I know I outplayed once” strategy, or a “encourage big bets from trailing contestants in future” strategy. Can you talk about why you like the tie bet?

I dunno if you’ve seen Keith Williams’ discussion of this but I more or less agree with his math. The first and most important point is that the “bet for the tie + $1″ wager makes it possible to lose by that $1—it’s actually happened multiple times on the show that someone’s gone below their opponent by that $1 because the opponent anticipated exactly that bet and made the Maximum Safe Bet. Rani Peffer almost lost that way (and was saved because she got the question right and her opponent got it wrong) just before I went on.

The most important concept in Final Jeopardy is the Maximum Safe Bet, and the really key thing to get is that the “shutout bet” is not the Maximum Safe Bet—it is the Maximum Safe Bet plus one and therefore means that among rational wagerers you will lose if you and the 2nd-place player both get the question wrong.

So it’s not just “betting for the tie” on a double-get but also “betting for the tie” on a double-miss. And that’s the other part of it—because I’m making a pattern of betting for the tie on a double-get I make going all-in on a tempting category a potentially rational choice for a 2nd-place trailer, whereas if it’s known I always go for the shutout and therefore no second-place trailer can possibly beat me if I get the question right then planning for a double-get as opposed to a double-miss is a pure waste of time. And that means that if 2nd place happens to be confident on the category, I’ve just guaranteed myself a win if it turns out they’re overconfident and we both get the question wrong.

That’s it, really. The most important thing is ensuring that you do come back the next day. Questions about who you’d rather face after you come back, a new challenger or a known quantity, are, as Keith put it on the JBoard, figuring out whether you’re in the end zone before you’ve caught the ball.

That said, I wasn’t relying purely on “buzzer mojo” the way some people do and the idea that my overwhelming advantage came purely from not being new to the buzzer never really dominated my thoughts. It seemed to me that my primary advantage came from the Forrest Bounce strategy and from aggressively strategic Daily Double wagering, neither of which my opponents were prepared for—and Carolyn, while not a “weak” player in terms of actual knowledge and of buzzer technique, definitely wasn’t prepared to match me in terms of aggressively hunting DDs [Daily Doubles] and category bouncing.

So yes, I was fairly confident that having her come back wouldn’t be a horrible disadvantage for me. The only time I’d consider betting for the win would be if I were facing someone who really was a lot better than average—I’d peg Julie Singer from my first game as an example of this—and we were facing an FJ [Final Jeopardy!] category that felt like a “gimme” (like I commented “Capital Cities” felt like, since it’s a finite category of things you can and probably should memorize with flashcards before coming on Jeopardy).

In that situation I’d be so confident of getting the question right that the question of what happens after I get it right—do I bring my opponent back with me or not?—becomes relevant. But going for the shutout—which entails basically planning that you will get the question right, period—is pure hubris unless you can justify exactly why that category is an “easy” one. Capital Cities is easy because I had literally memorized all the world capitals—Comedic Actresses was not “easy” even though I know a lot about TV because it has the potential for surprises, as we saw happened with the actual Comedic Actresses category.

Yeah, I know Keith Williams’ thinking about the tie. I don’t like the end zone analogy because his tie strategy also involves thinking about the next game, i.e. creating a pattern of behavior that may (in a not-super-likely set of circumstances) lead to a future wagering advantage. But in the process, you’re getting rid of the returning champ’s No. 1 advantage: Playing someone who’s never held a live buzzer before. If we’re already thinking about the next game, I’d take the second advantage over the first every time. I guess I could be convinced if Keith’s scenario started to happen in actual games more than zero times.

How do you explain the fact that dozens of “game theory” types, like David Madden and Roger Craig, have plied their strategies unnoticed, only to have you become Public Enemy No. 1 for doing the same thing over fewer games?

Madden and Craig actually were hated in their time, is the thing. I was somewhat prepared for this because when I was obsessively Googling Jeopardy! history I found that there was a gigantic hate-on for Dave Madden at Television Without Pity for precisely the same reasons—they found him unsportsmanlike, they found him unpleasant to watch, he ruined the experience of “playing along” with the game …

If anything it was this conversation that cemented my desire to follow in Madden and Craig’s footsteps, because I was just overwhelmed at how amazingly crazy it was that people actually were mad at a guy for winning lots and lots and lots of money by playing within the rules of the game because they were so completely focused on their own pleasure watching it.

And yeah, I am a little weirded out by this becoming a meme now, since it mainly shows what a short memory America has. It’s not like Madden’s achievement becoming the No. 2 regular-season player of all time (after, of course, your most esteemed self) wasn’t big news, though it was before social media really took off.

But then you have the fact that Craig made an embarrassingly huge pile of news stories talking about his “computerized algorithm” for studying for Jeopardy! and proclaiming him the “game theorist who solved Jeopardy!”  and all that nonsense once he broke the one-day winnings record. And that was only a couple years ago.

So what probably explains it is that even though a lot of people hated on Craig and Madden for being “nerds”, and a lot of people were in fact offended at people “breaking the purity of the game,” the world has become even more interconnected through social media than it was even in Craig’s era a few years ago and I, unlike Craig, was sitting in front of the TV with my iPhone live-tweeting at the same moment that millions of Americans were seeing me on TV.

“Viral” stories usually have to do with a feeling of interactivity and mass participation in a story, and the fact that I was right there, on Twitter, willing to be talked about and willing to talk back is what caused this to turn from just people griping into a genuine conversation, and from a conversation into a narrative with a protagonist.

Could it also have anything to do with you being Asian, and them not?

Well, 100 percent of the Asians who’ve talked to me about it have been extremely positive and extremely convinced that the haters are motivated by racism.

Obviously some of the most offensive tweets are openly and unabashedly racist, so you can’t argue with that. That said, I’d avoid playing the race card too openly—I’m sure if I were Asian but I otherwise looked like a “good guy” out of central casting, I was thin, and charming, and smiled easily and all of that, that the narrative would be somewhat different. (No offense to you personally, Ken, but I think you may have seen the quote where I said that as talented and charming as you are on TV, you were also kind of lucky that you look like a cherubic boy next door from a Hallmark card.)

I do. I am America’s sweetheart.

That said, stereotypes aren’t so much about people totally projecting things that completely aren’t there but about people having a framework with which they interpret things that actually are there. It’s not that racism causes people to see (for example) belligerent teenage boys where there are none, but that a white belligerent teenage boy is just seen as himself while a black belligerent teenage boy is part of a pattern, a script, and when people blindly follow the scripts in their head that leads to discrimination and prejudice.

So yeah, it is a fact, I think, that I was a bit off-putting in my Jeopardy! appearance—hyper-focused on the game, had an intense stare, clicked madly on the buzzer, spat out answers super-fast, wasn’t too charming in the interviews, etc.

But this may have taken root in people’s heads because I’m an Asian and the “Asian mastermind” is a meme in people’s heads that it wouldn’t have otherwise.

Look, we all know that there’s a trope in the movies where someone of a minority race is flattened out into just being “good at X” and that the white protagonist is the one we root for because unlike the guy who’s just “good at X” the protagonist has human depth, human relationships, a human point of view—and this somehow makes him more worthy of success than the antagonist who seems to exist just to be good at X.

So we root for Rocky against black guys who, by all appearances, really are better boxers than he is, because unlike them Rocky isn’t JUST a boxer, he has a girlfriend, he has hopes, he has dreams, etc. This comes up over and over again in movies where the athletic black competitor is set up as the “heel”—look at the black chick in Million Dollar Baby and how much we’re pushed to hate her. Look at all this “Great White Hope” stuff, historically, with Joe Louis.

So is it any surprise that this trope comes into play with Asians? That the Asian character in the movie is the robotic, heartless, genius mastermind who is only pure intellect and whom we’re crying out to be defeated by some white guy who may not be as brainy but has more pluck, more heart, more humanity? It’s not just Flash Gordon vs. Ming the Merciless, it’s stuff like how in the pilot episode of Girls Hannah gets fired in favor of an overachieving Asian girl who’s genuinely better at her job than she is (the Asian girl knows Photoshop and she doesn’t) and we’re supposed to sympathize with Hannah.

Okay, here’s one more comment from the Internet that kind of encapsulates it. The kind of un-self-awareness of what someone is saying when they say they’d prefer I not win because I try too hard at the game, work too hard at it, care too much about it, and that they’d prefer that a “likable average Joe” win.

This is disturbing because it amounts to basically an attack on competence, a desire to bust people who work very hard and have very strong natural gifts down in favor of “likable average Joes”—and it’s disturbing because the subtext is frequently that to be “likable” and “average” you have to have other traits that are comforting and appealing to an “average Joe” audience, like white skin and an American accent.

Here’s something I haven’t seen you talk about: I was watching your fourth game last night and noticed you trying to make a run with an unusual strategy: powering through the $2000 clues early. It wasn’t the Forrest Bounce, it wasn’t optimal Daily Double hunting, and it totally worked. Anything you want to say about your thinking there?

Yeah, part of it is just if you can rack up lots of money quickly you should do that—build a lead that’s tough to recover from, put a little fear into your opponents, etc.

My “strategy” is basically a mix of principles that center around trying to build the lead to a locked game as fast as possible while keeping opponents off balance—Forrest Bounce is part of it, starting at the bottom is part of it and DD hunting is part of it but it’s mainly an ethos opposed to the “slow build” that’s the standard progression of Jeopardy!

As far as why I did what I did at any particular point, that’s mostly a blur now, and a lot of it acting on instinct—as you can tell I don’t like to spend a lot of time mulling over what the next clue to jump to will be. What I mostly remember in my mental highlight reels of these games are the points where I messed up—so now in retrospect it’s weird to see how well I did.

Thanks so much for your time, Arthur. This is great stuff. Oh, one other thing. In the Wall Street Journal interview, you ask what the equivalent of “Linsanity” would be. The answer is clearly “Chu-phoria.”

Ken Jennings is a 74-time Jeopardy! winner and is the author of six books, most recently the Junior Genius Guides.