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April 21, 2015

Chu vs. Jacob: a qualitative analysis

Last night, Alex Jacob fell in his seventh Jeopardy! appearance. He racked up $149,802, good enough to place him in the top 20 all time.

His style of play has drawn comparisons to that of Arthur Chu, who won 11 games and just under $300,000 last year before finishing second in the Tournament of Champions. The strategies that led to Arthur’s success made him unpopular with many fans, and led him to be branded as “the Jeopardy! villain” – a title Alex has so far avoided.

Arthur Chu Alex Jacob

That’s not the only distinction we can draw between these two champs – because while their aggressive approaches to the game might have appeared similar, they were actually quite different.

Here at The Final Wager, I like to use numbers and data to draw conclusions. In this case, however, only a qualitative analysis will do. Here’s a look at how Arthur and Alex handled several facets of the game.

End goal(s) and speed of play

Like any good competitor, both Arthur and Alex had one goal: to win, and to come back the next day. But Arthur had an additional aim in mind: he wanted to maximize the amount of cash he took home on a given day.

In interviews, Arthur often points to the life-changing money that is at stake on any given episode. To him, the cash that came with each win represented something tangible: a down payment on a new house, a semester of college for a future child, a luxury vacation. He played quickly, because he saw each clue that went unrevealed as money left on the table.

Alex, by contrast, seemed content to lock up the victory early and set his sights on the next game. Once he had a big lead, his pace slowed down, and he milked the clock, trying to prevent his opponents from mounting a comeback. (Most of the time, that would have been difficult, anyway, since unplayed clues were typically in the $400 or $800 boxes.)

Alex Jacob DD stall

In his first game, Alex killed a full 60 seconds on the last Daily Double. He played it perfectly, leading me and many others to believe he might have just been nervous. (Then I learned he was a professional poker player.)

The Forrest Bounce

Many Jeopardy! players will attack the game board straight down a single column: five in a row, with each clue harder than the last. It allows the players to get into a rhythm, and makes it easier for the viewers at home to follow along. It also helps everyone figure out what an ambiguous category – say, COLORFUL SINGERS – is actually about (James Brown, Al Green, Jack White, and so on).

But not everyone does this. In 1985, Chuck Forrest won five games (then the limit) using a technique he and a friend developed, now called The Forrest Bounce. Instead of taking clues in ascending order, Chuck would jump from category to category, often down toward the bottom of the board.

The intent is two-fold. First, it disorients your opponents: you know where you’re going, but they don’t. (It also makes it harder for casual viewers to follow along, which is why the technique sees such strong backlash on social media.) Second, by going to the bottom of the board, you’re more likely to find the coveted Daily Doubles.

19-game winner David Madden, TOC champ (and bet-it-all-twice-in-a-row badass) Roger Craig, the IBM supercomputer Watson, and many others found success with The Forrest Bounce before Arthur Chu and Alex Jacob came along.

Between the two of them, however, there is one big difference: Arthur would say as little of the category name as possible, hoping that his opponents would use valuable concentration just figuring out what he had done. Alex liked to draw out category names as part of his larger slow-down-the-game strategy.

Daily Doubles

Here’s one place where both players agree: find the Daily Doubles and maximize expected value with respect to winning the game. If you like the category, go big; if you don’t, or have a big lead, go small.

With one exception, Alex wagered either everything or $100; Arthur made waves for betting the bare minimum, $5, on one clue (before quickly blurting out “I don’t know” to get back to building his bank).

A well-timed Daily Double can change the game, allowing a weaker player to leap into the lead – or at least into striking distance before Final Jeopardy!, which often turns into a crapshoot. Without the Daily Doubles, Jeopardy! would basically turn into bar trivia: whoever knows the most will probably win, assuming they have the buzzer skills (something both Arthur and Alex quickly mastered).

Both players are confident enough in their knowledge bases to want to play straight up.


Arthur was happy to play the Jeopardy! villain; his approach screamed I don’t need your approval, America, and he wasn’t ashamed to admit it. Alex, by all accounts, is a nice guy in real life, and that came across during the show, particularly during the interview segments.

Both, however, were there to play the game, not to impress anyone with their appearance or personality. And both love retweeting their haters. After all, they’re the ones with the cash.

  1. jdgalt permalink

    It’s off topic, but Arthur Chu seems to have gained a different kind of fame this weekend, a kind he probably didn’t want.

    • I’m not going to touch that, but I will implore you to not confuse Breitbart with a legitimate news source.

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