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Controversial Jeopardy! champ’s game theory is paying off

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Alex Trebek and Arthur Chu (Credit: Arthur Chu, Facebook)

Arthur Chu might be the most controversial champion in Jeopardy! history.

Chu's on a winning streak these days, due in part to his encyclopedic knowledge of all things trivial. But he owes a pretty big debt to ‘game theory’ as well.

Chu isn't playing the game like most contestants. He's on a hunt for Daily Doubles. Instead of systematically running through a category from lowest to highest like so many other winners have before him, he instead searches the board for Doubles by targeting the toughest questions in each category (Doubles tend to show up in the three top-paying tiers).  It’s a great tactic, though it's turned off TV viewers who have a hard time following his erratic play.

But for Chu, it's working like a charm.

"There's no logical reason to do what people normally do, which is to take one category at a time from the top down," he told Mental Floss. Your only point of control in the game is your ability, if you get the right answer to a question, to select the next question—and you give that power up if you make yourself predictable. The more unpredictable you are, the more you put your opponents off-balance, the longer you can keep an initial advantage."

Hitting a Double in a category he doesn't know anything about doesn't slow Chu down, either. He displayed this in his second game, betting just $5 when he found the Daily Double in the category IN THE SPORT'S HALL OF FAME -- an area he immediately admitted he knew very little about. But getting the Double meant he kept it from another player, too, a key component in his strategy.

It's paying off. Chu won four straight games last week to the tune of over $80,000. And while his strategy is certainly peculiar, he gives some credit to Watson, the IBM computer that managed to best legendary Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings in part by hunting for Daily Doubles.

He's also not playing to win the game, just to move forward until the next day (which is tantamount to winning in Jeopardy!). On his second night, instead of betting an amount which would put him $1 above his nearest competitor, he bet enough to tie.

Sounds weird, but Jeopardy! experts say it's exactly the right move to make.

"There's no potential upside to wagering more than you have to to guarantee a tie," says Keith Williams, a 2003 College Jeopardy champ and an originator of Jeopardy game theory. "Tacking on that extra dollar won't help you come back the next day if you're right, but if you're wrong, you could lose the game by a dollar - and there have been several instances where that has been the case. . [Also] is another player knows you're going to wager for the tie, he might do the irrational wager of betting it all."

Chu will attempt to extend his four-game win streak when he returns to action after the Battle of the Decades tournament concludes in three weeks. Will his daring play bring him anywhere close to Jennings' record of 74 wins? It's unlikely, but we're anxious to see how long his game theory holds up.

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