Arthur Chu: An Appreciation

The reign of divisive Jeopardy champion Arthur Chu came to an end last week. Considering the skill and deftness Chu had managed over the course of his run, his exit was an ignominious one. He was left in third-place after Double Jeopardy (in large measure due to missing on a Daily Double where he had bet everything) and then he missed again in Final Jeopardy with a last-gasp “all-in” wager that left him with a total of $0 for his final game.

Chu had been the Jeopardy champ for 12 games, though to casual viewers such as I his run seemed much longer, as it was interrupted by several weeks of a “Battle of the Decades” tournament featuring Jeopardy champions of times past. As it stands, Chu assembled the third-longest winning streak in the show’s venerable history, ( though it should be noted that until sometime in the early 2000s winners had their runs capped at a maximum of five games) and he will take home just shy of $300,000 for his efforts.

But what will make Chu memorable wasn’t his formidable knowledge of trivia or his game-playing acumen or his substantial success, but rather the surprising amount of vitriol his playing “style” stirred up. It’s fair to say that Chu is about as controversial a contestant as Jeopardy has ever mustered. Though considering the show’s long, mostly-staid history, that’s kind of like being declared the biggest shrimp at the supermarket—a very relative sort of distinction.

Chu raised hackles amongst Jeopardy devotees for a range of reasons. His playing style was unorthodox—instead of methodically going through the board category by category, Chu bounced all over the place trying to root out the all-important daily doubles. Some of his daily-double and Final Jeopardy wagers were unusual, sometimes only a few dollars and often playing to tie rather than win.

These tactics drew the ire of Jeopardy purists who contend that they were indicative of something approximating “poor sportsmanship.” It probably didn’t help Chu’s case that many of his moves were also used by the IBM supercomputer “Watson” when it appeared on the show and brutally thrashed its human opponents.

In truth though, these sorts of formalist complaints about Chu’s strategies are just red herrings. Other players have employed the same gambits in the past (though perhaps not as successfully), and if they can help a competitor win…well isn’t that the point? As Chu himself noted, the contestants are playing for real money and there are substantial (if not necessarily life-changing) amounts at stake during every game. If game-theory can be used to offer some incremental advantages to contestants, what’s wrong with them availing themselves of them?

No, the real antipathy towards Chu stemmed from his perceived “attitude” his detractors were eager to ascribe to him from his time on the show. He’s cocky, he tries to intimidate the other players, he’s too clipped when we selects questions, he cuts-off Alex Trebek’s corny jokes.

All of these so-called faults are really “nontroversies” at heart. Is Chu trying to intimidate his competitors? Maybe, maybe not, and even if he is, so what? As mentioned earlier, its real money at stake. What’s the big deal if he talks over Trebek’s groaners and wince-inducing accents once in a while. That’s more like a public service to viewers than an affront to the game.

There have been other Jeopardy contestants with grating personal tics or cocky demeanours in the past, but few of them have attracted much comment. In fact, I’d argue that any random Wheel of Fortune competitor is usually 8-10 times more annoying than Arthur Chu during his Jeopardy appearances. So why so much anger directed his way?

The first reason is obviously Chu’s outsized success on the show. Most aggravating players only last a game or two and then disappear before they tsunami of Twitter-hate can really build. Beyond that though, things start to get uncomfortable. Because it seems that a lot of the invective ostensibly aimed at Arthur Chu the Jeopardy contestant is in fact bound up with Arthur Chu the person.

I guess the remaining pertinent facts about Arthur Chu here are that for most of his appearances he had kind of a “schlubby” aesthetic going on. His shirts were usually rumpled and his hair kind of mussed. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him “unkempt,” but he always kind of had the look of someone who just got back from a long day of writing direct mail pieces or selling mutual funds.

The second point, which you likely know or have deduced, is that Arthur Chu is Asian. And while I’m not going to chalk up all of the criticism he garnered to the bogeyman of racism, I feel like that has played a part in it, even if only on some subterranean level.

Judging by all the ads for arthritis medicine, Gold Bond Medicated Powder, and accessible bathtubs that let you “keep your dignity,” I’m going to say that the audience for Jeopardy skews on the old side. By old I also mean “white.” Though out-and-out racists are probably few, I’m guessing that this viewership might be less tolerant than younger demographics. For some of its members, Chu’s race likely informs the negative gestalt they develop around him, in a way that it would not for a white contestant with the same disposition and mannerisms

In all, I found most of the criticism of Chu overblown, much of it unfounded, and some of it unseemly. In the tedious “meet-the-contestants” interstitials and in subsequent media interviews, Chu always came off as an interesting and self-aware guy. He is an amateur theatre enthusiast and an aspiring voice-over actor. It sounds as though both his wife and he have had a hard time muddling through the economic downturn (as many younger couples have). His Jeopardy prowess might be the catalyst that allows them to get a better house, to have children, or to pursue some of their dreams and ambitions with greater confidence.

So, to Arthur Chu I say, “Shine on you crazy diamond.” Like Alex said it was a great run, and we’ll see you at the Tournament of Champions.

 

 

 

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