TV FEBRUARY 4, 2014
The current reigning champion of “Jeopardy!,” Arthur Chu, who has won four games and is set to return on February 24, has become a polarizing figure. Ignoring the niceties that govern the decorum of the 30-year-old game show, he unabashedly has gamed the game to his advantage by buzzing in aggressively, over and over and over again until he is the first buzzer; by betting in Final Jeopardy with the aim of tying for first place; and, most of all, by hunting for Daily Doubles—selecting higher-value questions among different categories, rather than orderly moving down each category, in order to increase his chance of landing on those valuable opportunities that permit you to wager (and win) more money. For his brand of hardball he has been both pilloried and just plain noticed.
But his supposed "mad genius" tactics have been in use for years. Here, for example, is a thread from 2005 about Daily Double–hunting. These tactics were even deployed by the guy who beat me on “Jeopardy!”
“Jeopardy!” tapes a week of shows in a day, and about three years ago I sat in the risers in the studio on Sony’s Culver City lot watching Jay Rhee mow down eight other contestants. Jay was a big Daily Double hunter: In his fourth game, he found the first Daily Double of Double Jeopardy by getting the first question right and then immediately going to the $1200 question in a different category, getting that right, and then hitting the Daily Double on the following, $1600 question. In (cough cough) my game, the last of the day, I can testify firsthand that his buzzing ability, honed no doubt by his having played four games earlier that very Tuesday, was a huge factor in his victory. (What I mean to say is, obviously I knew all the answers in the "Cover Bands" category.)
Do I begrudge Jay his Daily Double-hunting and his buzzer experience? Do I think it was bad sportsmanship? Of course not. He was free to avail himself of such gamesmanship, as was I. And none of it would have amounted to much if he did not know his stuff, which he did.
The complaint about Chu’s apparently incessant buzzing is even more bizarre. What, he shouldn’t buzz? Skill still plays a role: If you buzz in before Alex finishes reading a question, you are locked out for a crucial quarter-second or so; there is still timing to Chu’s thumbwork. His conspicuous digital athletics are merely bringing to light a facet of the game that not enough of its viewers appreciate: Buzzing well is part of winning, because most of the time more than one contestant knows the correct response. “Timing on the tricky ‘Jeopardy!’ buzzer is often what separates the winner from the, well, non-winners,” writes 74-time champion Ken Jennings, who would know. “The ‘Jeopardy!’ buzzer is a cruel mistress.”
And the complaint about Chu betting to tie is the most bizarre of all. Betting to tie clearly increases his chances of winning money and getting to play another game. The point of the game is to win money and get to play another game. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist—or “Jeopardy!” champion—to figure that out.
One could argue that the strategies Chu employs make for an inferior experience for the viewer. But the solution isn’t to blame Chu. It’s to blame the game itself. Chu is merely exploiting the show’s own rules, and those rules are fungible. In the National Basketball Association, there wasn’t enough scoring, so in 1954 they instituted a shot clock; then the NBA saw that the three-point line had made the American Basketball Assocation more exciting, so in 1979 they put in a three-point line; not ten years ago, stifling perimeter defense threatened to drown the game’s offense, so they banned hand-checking.
I can testify that “Jeopardy!” is willing to sacrifice pure parity for the sake of TV-friendly competitiveness. On my show, during the first commercial break, in the middle of Single Jeopardy, a producer worked with me to try to improve my woefully out-of-sync buzzer timing (a problem that, sadly, would continue to plague me most of the game). The assist I got from the producers was unfair in the sense that the other players weren’t receiving it. But the producers didn’t care—they wanted more competition in the service of better television. And I didn’t care—I had not solicited the help and wasn’t breaking any rules, and in fact was following the rulesmakers’ instructions.
“Jeopardy!” has changed its rules before, most notably ten years ago when it stopped capping the number of games an individual could play at five. So if the current rules are so bad, change them again. Force contestants to answer the easier questions first. Penalize them for buzzing too much (although, honestly, that makes no sense). After Final Jeopardy, give the tie to the contestant who had the higher score beforehand. These are easy fixes. Just don’t take away Daily Doubles. Man, there is nothing like betting big on a Daily Double and hitting it.