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G911 Talks to Jeopardy Champ Arthur Chu, His Love for Gambling and Death Threats

Written by:
Thomas Somach
Published on:
Apr/09/2014
G911 Talks to Jeopardy Champ Arthur Chu, His Love for Gambling and Death Threats

Arthur Chu has turned the art of wagering into a science, and from it has earned a whopping $300,000!

The 30-year-old Cleveland native and first-generation Chinese-American last month won 10 straight games on the popular TV game show Jeopardy! to become the third-biggest money-winner in the 50-year history of the show (he lost his 11th game and earned a total of $298,200).

But because Chu used some unconventional strategy when competing on the show, including bouncing around among categories, picking clues out of order, betting double or nothing on Daily Doubles and, most famously, when calculating his wager for Final Jeopardy!, playing for a tie and not a win, some critics in the media and online have villified him for hurting the "purity" of the game, even though he did nothing against the rules of show.

But since you can't argue with success, Chu has just laughed...all the way to the bank!

Gambling 911 this week caught up with the now world-famous Chu, a commercial voice-over artist in real life, and sat down with him for a wide-ranging interview not just on all things Jeopardy! but also on his gambling habits, the Chinese affection for gambling and whether he is a Johnny Chan fan. Here is a transcript of that interview:

Gambling 911: How has your life changed since winning $300,000 on Jeopardy! and has the media circus surrounding you died down yet?

Arthur Chu: For the most part my day-to-day life is basically the same, with the exception that everyone in the community where I live seems to know who I am and I get randomly greeted by strangers all the time. This morning a car stopped on the street and a little kid yelled out the window, "Hi, Arthur Chu!" Overall, though, things have slowed down to a kind of plateau, though I think my Twitter followers have stabilized at a fairly high level still and I'll probably stay Twitter-famous for some time to come.

G9: How did you hook up with Keith Williams, the math whiz and former Jeopardy! contestant whose website (www.thefinalwager.co) about Jeopardy! strategy you credited with helping you prepare for the show, and how much did he really help you?

AC: I never actually hooked up with Keith Williams, in any sense of the term. Keith and I had never had any kind of conversation before I went on Jeopardy! The first time I ever spoke to him was on a phone interview conducted by NPR (National Public Radio) long after Jeopardy! had been taped. And while I certainly don't begrudge him the attention he's gotten from this, I do think people who say he taught me my Jeopardy! strategy are misstating the situation. I learned the basics of Final Jeopardy! wagering strategy by following Keith's blog, but even then I hadn't really been a regular follower of his blog. And his blog only started relatively shortly before I went on Jeopardy! anyway, so there wasn't that much to follow. It wasn't a strategy Keith invented, either. The fundamental concepts of Final Jeopardy! wagering strategy had been worked out by the Jeopardy! fan community quite a while ago, and the reason Keith started his blog wasn't to disseminate new concepts so much as to create a unified instruction manual based on known ideas in layman's terms. I basically watched the first few videos Keith made laying out the fundamentals of Final Jeopardy! wagering strategy, watched a few of the example breakdowns he did of individual games, and at that point pretty much understood  what was going on. He strongly advocated the "bet for the tie" strategy, which up to that point most Jeopardy! fans had dismissed as inferior to betting the "extra $1" to get the sole win. I watched Keith's video arguing why he thought betting for the tie was mathematically superior to betting the extra $1 for the win and was convinced by it, and that ended up being one of the most memorable facets of my strategy.
G9: Are you good at math?

AC: I think I'm a smart enough person to understand basic mathematical concepts fairly well, which is why I got the logic behind the game theory-based wagering strategy Keith advocates pretty quickly upon his explaining it. Being good at math as far as doing mathematical analysis or even being able to do mental arithmetic quickly on the fly, though, is not one of my skills and a lot of the reason I was so insistent on sticking to a set game plan I'd prepared ahead of time was not trusting myself to make these rule-of-thumb calculations on the fly.

G9: You received a lot of criticism over your style of play and some of it got pretty ugly. How did you deal with all that and is it true you even got some death threats?

AC: No, I never received a single death threat. Not that I know of, anyway. The closest thing that ever approached that level was someone saying, "I hope your wife dies," apparently because they knew my wife was sick and misidentified what kind of illness she has. She has fibromyalgia, which is a chronic, disabling condition but is not a life-threatening or terminal illness or anything close to it. I took that for what it was, immature trolling intended to spark a reaction. I do think people come back to this well of death threats as a way to stoke drama in news stories way too often. Death threats, unlike actual attempts at murder, are cheap. Any fool on the Internet can make a death threat just by typing so it wouldn't mean much even if I had received death threats. There was some outright nasty racist and obscene stuff, but that was pretty easy to ignore as just crankery, and it was pretty fun trading childish insults with people on Twitter. I especially liked people repeatedly mocking me for being a virgin despite it being repeatedly mentioned on the show that I was married. More upsetting would be the people whose insults were just measured enough to be taken seriously--all the people saying I was ugly, unpleasant, unlikeable, off-putting, that I must be a cut-throat and selfish person in real life. That did bother me, but it was a sentiment that wasn't shared by a single person who actually knew me and the more I thought about it the crazier I realized it was to put a lot of stock in the opinion of people who saw me for 20 minutes while I was doing an incredibly stressful and unnatural task.

G9: How do you think you would do against Ken Jennings, the Mormon software designer from Utah who 10 years ago won 75 straight games on Jeopardy!, earning $3.2 million and becoming the biggest money-winner of all time on the show? And how did you feel about him publicly criticizing your gameplay?

AC: Ken Jennings would likely give me a run for my money. I did very well on the show, comparatively, by leveraging an unusual strategy to cover for various gaps in my knowledge. Ken used a fairly conventional strategy and was able to dominate the game for far longer than I, or anyone else, has ever been able to just because of his sheer strength of knowledge. That's not to say I might not be able to beat him in an individual game if I got lucky and prepared well. But the way he just utterly ran over his opponents tells me I'd have a pretty tough match ahead of me if I ever faced him. And Ken didn't really criticize anything I did in-game. He did the exact opposite. The biggest difference between him and me is that he was a lot more conservative in his wagering strategy, and he actually calls himself wrong for being conservative and says he should've played more like me. This despite the fact that he won almost seven times as many games as I did using his strategy, so he really doesn't have anything to complain about. Ken has actually been very gracious and really fun to talk to, taking the initiative to reach out to me on a friendly level, and being able to electronically meet him has been one of the great things about this experience. The one thing he did say offhandedly in an interview is that he thought I should've ironed my collar before going on TV, and in retrospect he was probably right.

G9: Your success on Jeopardy! proves you obviously know a lot about wagering, so that begs the question, do you gamble? And if so, what is your game?

AC: No. The crucial thing about wagering in Jeopardy! is that you're not actually wagering money. You're wagering points. Jeopardy! isn't really gambling because you don't stake any of your own existing money on the game, so you can never actually lose money by playing. The worst that can happen is that you go home with a consolation prize of $1,000. Moreover, Jeopardy forces you to make aggressive wagers because your point total doesn't turn into money unless you actually win the game. This totally changes the expected-value calculations you make for all wagers in the game and is the single primary reason conservative wagering is a bad idea. If you end the game with a total of $15,000 but your oppponent wins with $15,001, your $15,000 disappears and turns into a $2,000 (second-place) or $1,000 (third-place) consolation prize. So people should not take away from watching me play Jeopardy! that I have a gambler's mindset. Quite the opposite. I feel that my approach in life in general is to try to minimize risk, and on Jeopardy! aggressive wagering is paradoxically a way to minimize risk, because the biggest actual danger in Jeopardy! is someone catching up to and overtaking your score. I don't ever play casino games, poker for real stakes, any of that. I don't throw away money that my wife and I could use to buy things of real value on the fun of chasing risk. Anyone who remembers my famous $5 bet on a sports category in Jeopardy! should know that I don't know nearly enough about sports to feel comfortable betting on it. In poker or in betting on horses or in anything like that the flow of money is from the vast majority of the players, who are the chumps, toward the small elite of really good players. Which means that if everyone were rationally evaluating their own competence and their own likelihood of winning, the game simply wouldn't exist because the majority of players wouldn't ever rationally decide to just throw their money away so some shark can take it from them. Which means that the fact that the games do exist means a lot of people are deluding themselves. Which means that if I got in the scene I'd be way more likely to be one of the deluded people than one of the successful ones. The only reason I went on Jeopardy! was that I gauged the worst-case scenario to be I got to be on TV and got a really cool story to tell and also got a $1,000 paycheck. The worst-case scenario if I got into poker would be me losing a very real, very major amount of money in the end and having no cool story to tell other than I was one of those idiots who thought he could be really good at poker. I know the target audience of this site might disagree with me on that, but yeah, no thanks.

G9: Being Chinese-American, you must be aware of how much Chinese culture embraces gambling. Why do you think that is and why are you not on board?

AC: I'm very aware of the cultural trend you're talking about. I'm in fact aware enough of it that I'm very careful when self-monitoring to be aware of bad habits in my own life that feel like they might be leading down the road of gambling addiction or irrational risk-chasing. That's one reason I don't pick stocks, even for fun with small amounts of money. My mother was aware enough of that trend to take active steps when we were kids to keep us away from mah-jong tables and dice. But it's been a remarked-upon trait of Chinese immigrants in this country since the beginning--anecdotes about the Chinese gold miners in San Francisco talk about how the Chinese miners were very clean-living men with little interest in alcohol, drugs or prostitutes, but who were obsessed with dice and staying up all night playing dice games even after a very long and hard day's work. Organized gambling games can only really happen when you have a large-scale, urbanized money economy, as opposed to a distributed, rural, barter economy, and China has had an economy like that longer than most of the rest of the world.
G9: Many top professional poker players are Chinese. Were you ever interested in the game and are you a fan of Johnny "The Orient Express" Chan, a Chinese player who won back-to-back World Series of Poker titles?

AC: I had a casual interest in poker back when the Texas hold 'em craze had taken over the country and basically everyone was interested and was watching the World Series of Poker. This was when I was back in college, so quite some time ago. I wouldn't be able to name any active players now, with one exception. If anyone knows who Michael Noda is, I'm a fan of his, in that I know him in real life and am going to be attending his wedding this summer. I remember hearing about him getting into poker when I was in college and being surprised to learn he was one of the few able to make a consistent living at it. More power to him, but he keeps trying to tell me to get into it and I keep saying it's not for me. Even if he's right that I'd be better than average at it and possibly better enough to make money at it, I doubt I'd be better enough at it to make enough money at it to justify the risk and the stress.

G9: Chinese people are traditionally very superstitious. Lucky numbers are a big thing in the Chinese community, with some Chinese paying extra money to have certain lucky numbers on their car's license plate or in their street address or apartment number. Also popular is feng shui, the notion that arranging the furnishings in your home or office in a certain way will lead to financial success and other good fortune. As a college-educated person who was born in the U.S., do you believe in lucky numbers and feng shui and other Chinese superstitions, or do you reject it?

AC: I unconditionally reject all of it. Superstition is an unavoidable thing because humans are fallible, and I know that one of my own personal neuroses is that I need to knock on or touch wood if I ever say something overly confident, or I'll be tormented with the irrational feeling that I've jinxed that prediction by saying it out loud. But I do my very best to keep superstition from actually having a substantive effect on my life, because it's dumb. There are ways to arrange furniture that are more ergonomic and aesthetically pleasing, but I don't believe in feng shui. Everything I know and understand about how the world actually works prevents me from taking superstitious or magical thinking seriously. Superstition tends to be centered around an irrational narcissistic sense of yourself as the center of the universe and luck as good or bad determined entirely relative to you.

G9: Do you consider yourself a lucky person? 

AC: It depends on what you mean. Do you mean did all kinds of things contribute to this accomplishment that I had no control over and that were solely the result of chance? Absolutely. Jeopardy! is a game of luck first and foremost and I wish people would keep that in mind. You have no control over what questions are asked of you and anyone can look like a genius or a moron depending on the board you get. Jeopardy! isn't an objective test of intelligence or anything close to it. I'm also lucky in the sense that I was born at the right time to get on the show when an accomplishment like this would be possible. Everyone says the ideal time to be on the show is when you're about 30, which is when you have enough life experience to actually know a fair number of things, but you're young enough to have the energy and reflexes to play the game well. I had no control over the Jeopardy! producers choosing to accept me on the show at this point in time. Keep in mind that being the third-winningest contestant of all time needs an asterisk next to it because Jeopardy! hasn't had the same rules for its 50 years of existence. The dollar value of the questions has greatly increased over the years and, most importantly, it wasn't until just 11 years ago in 2003 that the five-game cap on wins was removed. It's completely unfair to compare my 11-game streak to the streaks of past champions who were forced by the rules to retire after their fifth game. Frank Spangenburg comes to mind as an old champion from the 1980s who might've done just as well as Ken Jennings if the rules at the time had allowed him to even try.

G9: What is the strangest thing that has happened to you since you've been on the show?

AC: The strangest thing has been this whole notoriety afterwards, especially knowing that I'm a Twitter phenomenon. Not just that I'm famous, but specifically that famous people who I know about now know who I am and consider me famous. I'm followed by other D-list celebrities on Twitter and people somewhere across the country randomly name-drop me in conversations and whatnot. I think one of my friends put it best, when I was the answer to a question on NPR's "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me" (a quiz game). He said, "Finally Arthur himself has become trivia, and the circle is complete."

By Tom Somach

Gambling911.com Staff Writer

tomsomach@yahoo.com

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