According to news outlets as diverse as Fox News, CNN, and Mental Floss, nerdy voice-over artist Arthur Chu is tearing at the very fabric of your parents’ staid favorite quiz show, Jeopardy, using cutting edge game theory and unorthodox play to ride a 4-game winning streak right down the throats of angry viewers. His controversial method of taking questions out of order to clear the Daily Doubles, they say, has viewers gnashing their teeth in anger, while his decision to bet Final Jeopardy to tie had a Philadelphia paper lauding him as a hero. In interviews he’s been vocal about his refusal to apologize for the way he has played the game, no matter how riled up it gets people. Is he a villainous, thuggish bad boy? Or is he a brilliant, beneficent genius? Whatever he is, he’s the biggest news to come out of Jeopardy since Alex Trebek shaved his mustache.
A mere seven months ago, starting on July 1, IT worker Ben Ingram buzzed his way to an 8-game Jeopardy winning streak, eventually ending up 9th on the list of all-time money winners. I remember it very clearly, because I was one of the people he beat. Jeopardy films 2 weeks of shows over 2 days; Ben was called up for the first show of the first day, and I sat in the contestant holding pen watching him plow through each day’s competition using a technique that the Jeopardy faithful call The Forrest Bounce—instead of starting at the top of the category and working his way down, he would start in the middle and poke around the board looking for the Daily Doubles. He also did an unusual bit of bidding on his third Final Jeopardy that resulted in him tying for the win, sending two champions on to the next day.
Yes, for those of you playing at home, that doesn’t sound super different from Arthur Chu.
Yet instead of landing interviews with the Wall Street Journal and CNN, instead of starring in breathless pieces about how he was destroying Jeopardy, instead of being praised as a genius and hero, Ben just quietly collected his $177,000 and went home to South Carolina. Same technique, more success, way less attention.
I don’t get it, he said when I sent him one of the early articles. Why is everyone freaking out over this guy? And I realized that was actually a very good question, and one that was worth digging into a little more.
As a marketing person, I’m always interested in what makes some things catch the collective interest while most other things languish. Why does one video of an angry cat get 86 million views on YouTube, while an equally angry one gets only 300? Why did Rebecca Black’s terrible song and video “Friday” become ubiquitous, when the Internet is flooded with dubious talent? I decided to see if I could trace the Arthur Chu phenomenon back to its source.
A Timeline of Arthur Chu, Jeopardy Bad Boy
Arthur Chu makes his first appearance on Jeopardy, winning with $37,000. He live-tweets his appearance; he and his wife re-tweet the mean things being said about him and respond with humorous ripostes.
Kevin Clancy of Barstool Sports (82K Twitter followers) writes an article about Arthur, naming him “Your Next Jeopardy Sensation.” It’s mostly about how he’s an awkward dork who overworks the buzzer, but he also gives a shout-out to the Twitter work of Chu and his wife.
“I watch Jeopardy religiously every night and I’m always on the lookout for contestants that stand out from the others,” said Clancy when I contacted him by email to ask what had piqued his interest about Arthur. “When I saw Arthur looking sloppy and hammering his clicker and telling awful anecdotes I knew he was gonna be great material.”
His next appearance is that evening; in an unusual move, he bids to tie on Final Jeopardy. He continues to work Twitter so hard that his fingers run the chance of being worn to nubbins. (Just extend that to each day in the timeline.)
Philly.com runs an article about Arthur; he was a Swarthmore grad, and local papers often run stories about Jeopardy contestants. Heck, I got two stories, and I didn’t even win. This story touches on the tie win, and how he studied bidding theories on the blog The Final Wager, written by a former Jeopardy champ. He wins again in his appearance that evening.
In the morning, the website Mental Floss (364K Twitter followers) releases an article analyzing Arthur’s 6 winning strategies. It fails to note him as a hated bad boy, and in fact cites his charm in talking with Trebek as one of his strong points, right before noting that he answered a question about Mental Floss.
In the afternoon, Eric Levenson, in an article on website The Wire (69K Twitter followers), produces the assertion that people hate Arthur. One of the angry tweets linked to as evidence is his own from two days previously.
News aggregator Business Insider re-runs the Wire piece to its 432K Twitter followers. Later in the day, Mental Floss does an interview with Arthur Chu, referencing the Wire article and now noting his strategy as “polarizing.”
And from there the meme was set: his play is unique, and people hate him for it. Each succeeding article and interview worked it harder and harder. The Daily Mail cites him as villainous. Gawker-affiliated gaming blog Kotaku headlines that he is hated. On Salon.com, he is the man who broke Jeopardy.
So Why Is Everyone Talking About Arthur Chu?
Because Kevin Clancy found him amusing: Arthur should probably take Kevin Clancy of Barstool Sports out for a pint, because he and his followers are what brought Arthur to the attention of people who aren’t normally watching Jeopardy. “Our readers are rabid and usually take things and run with it,” Clancy said. “Other outlets see the Twitter interaction inspired by the original blog…and it kind of goes viral on its own.” Arthur’s willingness to wade in and trade jibes with Clancy and other Barstool regulars on Twitter endeared him further to them (and to others watching the exchanges).
Because he answered a question about Mental Floss. There’s a chance Chris Higgins of Mental Floss is a Jeopardy viewer (or a Barstool follower), was entranced by Arthur, and was going to write a bit about him anyway. But he noted in his article that seeing their name pop up on Jeopardy was a big moment for the crew, which couldn’t have hurt Arthur’s chances of scoring a write-up. And why, reason most readers, would you bother telling hundreds of thousands of people about someone’s particular style of winning at Jeopardy unless it was something special? Therefore, it is something special. That piece of the meme was locked in.
Because Eric Levenson found him annoying. The first article describing his style of play as being controversial was Levenson’s article in the Wire. But it is in the nature of people to seek out views that confirm their own—Levenson had tweeted days earlier about finding Arthur irritating, so when he wrote his article he sought out and showed people saying the same thing.
Is that reflective of true sentiment of the majority of viewers? Hard to say. If you look at Twitter during any given Jeopardy episode you will generally find people saying rude things about all three players. In fact, during Arthur’s own first episode, he tweeted that “My friends are calling Julie “Cylon Lady” because they are mean.” But Levenson presented his selection of mean tweets as representative, and Business Insider then transmitted that opinion to almost half a million people. And why, reason most readers, would you tell hundreds of thousands of people that someone is a much-hated jackass unless he really were? Therefore, he is a much-hated jackass. The second piece of the meme was locked in.
Because it’s a click-bait world. The online content game is all about page views, and to get page views editors will write headlines and articles awash in a hyperbole that would make PT Barnum blush. Conflict sells. Emotion sells. Nobody will click on an article about some run-of-the-mill smart guy who is using fairly standard tactics to win a game that has been on every weekday for thirty years. He has to be a BRILLIANT MAD GENIUS who has CHANGED THINGS FOREVER and who EVERYONE HATES but who REGRETS NOTHING. It’s just a better story.
Because he is a dedicated and effective self-promoter: While Ben Ingram is a low key IT guy, Arthur Chu is a voice-over actor and comedian who overtly stated during the live tweet of his first game that he was hoping to use his Jeopardy appearance to get more work. He has made himself available for in-person and in-print interviews, has tweeted out links to each piece about him, has responded to and re-tweeted comments, and in general made as much hay as possible out of the “controversy”—standing his ground, refusing to apologize, etc. And he’s been pretty darn funny, too, which is promising from a comedian.
So there you have it: the template for the next person hoping to make him- or herself famous off a modest TV appearance. Amuse one person with a platform, irritate another, and name check a prominent website. Then you too can be cast as one of the most brilliant, yet hated, people in America.
On November 20, Ben Ingram defeated Arthur Chu and Julia Collins to become the 2014 Jeopardy Tournament of Champions winner, adding another $250,000 to his all-time winnings. He still didn’t get that much press. Arthur Chu is now writing on pop culture and politics for Salon, Slate, The Daily Beast, and more.