In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
Arthur Chu lit up the Internet earlier this year after becoming a Jeopardy! winner—specifically for his seemingly unruly (but not against-the-rules) playing style. Like several past winners, Chu jumps around the game board rather than starting at the top of a category and politely making his way down. The strategy is meant to give a contestant a better shot at finding lucrative Daily Doubles, and also to catch other players off guard. The Ohio resident has even deliberately wagered for a tie in Final Jeopardy—and it worked. At press time, Chu was a four-time champion with over $100,000 in winnings, and will be back on today’s episode. (The show took a break for a tournament in between.) While Chu’s style is unusual, his overall experience as a contestant isn’t. (Full disclosure: I was on Jeopardy! in 2006, winning one game.) A longtime A.V. Club reader, Chu emailed and pitched us this interview, in which he explains how he got on the show, what he learned behind the scenes, and what it’s like to take home the big bucks.
The A.V. Club: How did you get on Jeopardy!?
Arthur Chu: Like many A.V. Club enthusiasts, I have spent a long portion of my life dropping interesting facts that I’ve learned from the Internet or TV into conversation. The usual response you get to that is, “Hey, you should take that to Jeopardy!” So it’s been in the back of my mind for most of my life.
Back in the old days, the procedure for getting on Jeopardy! was a lot more extensive. Now that we live in a modern era with the Internet, it’s much easier. There’s an online test that you can take every January. You just go on the website, answer some questions, and if you score high enough, there’s a chance you’ll get called back to attend an in-person audition. That’s just taking a day to drive out to some hotel in your city where the Jeopardy! contestant crew will be. They’ll take a headshot of you, they’ll make you take a written test to make sure that you didn’t cheat on the online test, and they’ll play a mock game with you to make sure it’s safe to point a camera at you and put you on TV.
The dates for the in-person audition are pretty fixed, though, and if you can’t make it, you can’t audition. We had to move out of our apartment on the day of the audition, so I was telling my wife, “I can’t help you move. I’ve got to drive to Baltimore.” She wasn’t very happy about it, but in retrospect she agrees that it was the right decision.
AVC: Do you have a sense of why you got picked?
AC: I’ve been through the audition process twice. I got called once for an audition when I was in L.A., and then I did it again in D.C. People who watch Jeopardy! compare it to other game shows. But, man, the freak shows really come out on Jeopardy! It’s all the nerdiest, most awkward people in America. You have no idea that Jeopardy! picks the top 5 percent of telegenic appeal from their pool. I was probably one of those super awkward people. My glasses were crooked, and I stammered and stumbled a lot my first audition. And I didn’t get called. I don’t know that that’s why, but I was like, “Next time I’ve got to prepare like it’s a real audition.” Since then, I’d done some more community theater and gotten better at turning on my performative self as opposed to my authentic, awkward, weird self. So the second time I had some stories prepared and I was a little more personable.
If you really want me to be cynical about it, I think one of the major factors is they have a pile of headshots and they pick diversity. They pick for diversity of appearance and diversity of race and gender and age. So that was partly luck.
One question I’ve gotten asked was whether I was the same hyper-intense, hyper-competitive person at the audition as I was on Jeopardy! And the answer is absolutely not. When I went to the audition, I had no plans about winning the show. I wasn’t even striving to be on the show, so I was just trying to be nice. The hyper-competitiveness didn’t come out until I knew for a fact that I was going to be on the show and realized that, gosh, if I won it could be thousands and thousands of dollars.
AVC: So the show calls, and then what happens? You have to pay for your own flight and hotel, I know.
AC: I was lucky that my mom lives in the L.A. area, so I was able to crash on her couch, which brought back a lot of memories of being 26. The problem is that that meant that I wasn’t in a hotel right next to the studio. We had to get to Culver City from my mom’s house in Cerritos, and I had forgotten just how bad L.A. traffic was. So I showed up late and I think that gave some of the other contestants the impression that I was being a diva from the beginning, but I wasn’t. I was just poor.
AVC: Do they tell you to bring outfits?
AC: They tell you be on time, have all your paperwork ready, your Social Security card and everything. You’re basically signing up for a contract job. And they tell you to bring a suitcase with three changes of clothes. The show actually tapes five shows in one day, so it’s one week of Jeopardy! in one day. It really changes your understanding when you realize that the week that you watched someone playing was just one day. If someone was on Wednesday and Thursday, then that means they did one episode before lunch, had lunch, and then came right back. If they were on Thursday and Friday, it means they did a show, ran out to the dressing room, changed in 10 minutes, and then came back.
I actually wondered why they said three changes of clothes, not five. But I think expecting people to be five-day champions is overly optimistic, and they figure that as long as you can mix and match the clothes enough so it looks like you’re wearing different outfits, America won’t really notice. I was so focused on studying right before I had to fly out, so I basically just shoved a bunch of business casual clothes into a suitcase and didn’t have an iron, and so America got to see me as my rumpled, nerdy self. I think maybe 50 percent of the hate I get is because people can’t stand to see a guy with a crooked tie on television.
AVC: How did you study?
AC: Literally the first thing I did when I got the call was to ask myself, “Do I feel ready?” And the answer is, “Hell no, I don’t feel ready.” Thankfully, we live in the electronic age. So without having to use too much ingenuity or creativity, I just typed “Jeopardy! strategy” and “Jeopardy! studying” into Google, and lo and behold…
Jeopardy! has been around for 30 years. All of the advice about how to study for Jeopardy! and how to play Jeopardy! has already been written. There’s a community online, called the J-board, of past Jeopardy! contestants and fans who just talk about this all the time. So I absorbed a lot of strategies from the greats. One of them was Roger Craig, who won a couple years ago and who broke the one-day total winnings record. He’s brilliant. He is a computer scientist, and he actually combed through an archive of past Jeopardy! games using an algorithm that scrapes all the clues out and figured out what the most common categories were, what the most common high-value categories were. Then he compared it to his own performance using flashcards to tell him where his most important weak spots were.
Jeopardy! feels like it can be anything, but most of the really random clues come in the first round. The higher-value clues in Double Jeopardy are much more limited. They’re much more about traditional academic knowledge, things that a gentleman and a scholar is supposed to know, like history, geography, literature. And Final Jeopardy is often really focused on Americana. They love state capitals, state nicknames, U.S. presidential facts.
You can’t possibly learn everything you need to know to get a perfect score, but to greatly increase your chance of winning, there are a few finite sets of knowledge that you actually can memorize. You can memorize what all the state capitals and all the world capitals are. You can find a list of all the official state nicknames and memorize those. And once you’ve done that, because those things come up over and over again, you’ve given yourself a big advantage.
There’s a program that Roger Craig recommended, that I ended up using as well, called Anki. It’s a free program, and it uses what they call space repetition, which is an algorithm that keeps track of how well you do on flashcards and focuses on giving you the flashcards that give you the most trouble at regular intervals. So you boost your knowledge where you need help the most. I’m not a computer scientist, so unlike Roger Craig, I didn’t have a super scientific way of judging what I needed to know. I just looked at his comments. “Oh, you need to know about Nobel Prize-winning literature writers. You need to know about U.S. presidential facts.” And then I just put together a little study guide and committed to it. I started doing that every night instead of going out with friends or acknowledging my wife.
AVC: When I knew I was in the contestant pool, I started playing along with the game by standing and using a click pen. That’s a tip the contestant coordinators gave us.
AC: I got very obsessive about that. Here’s the funny thing. My wife and I are cord cutters, and so we didn’t have actual TV. We just watch TV online, and it turns out there is no legal way to watch Jeopardy! online. There are a bunch of uploaded “classic episodes,” though. I watched a bunch of those. The celebrity ones are mainly hilarious because celebrities are really bad at Jeopardy!, except for Andy Richter. He’s pretty awesome. He’s one of my Jeopardy! idols.
But anyway, the first thing I did when I got in the contestant pool was buy a cheap pair of rabbit ears just for the purpose of watching Jeopardy! on my local TV station. And I got the click pen out. I couldn’t watch Jeopardy! without that pen in my hand. It became this spastic, automatic reflex that I click wildly at it as soon as I hear Alex Trebek finish reading a clue.
A lot of people have remarked on that. They say, watching me, that I’m not very calm and chill about clicking. I don’t look like a normal person. I’m clicking every time Alex says something like I’m one of Pavlov’s dogs. I think getting to that automatic point may have reduced how telegenic I was, but it definitely made a difference in being able to capture money because a lot of times—most of the time, I’d say—everyone knows the clue and the game is almost 100 percent about who can buzz in first.
AVC: And you’re not allowed to buzz in early. There are lights around the board that let you know when you can start.
AC: What they told us is that you need to keep hammering on that button because even though buzzing in too early locks you out for half a second, it’s not cumulative. It’s just a half-second delay. If you’re still hitting the button rapid fire, you will buzz in as soon as that delay expires. Since human beings are fallible and none of us will ever exactly hit the moment the light turns on, you probably have a better chance if you err a little bit on the side of buzzing in early, but you keep on hammering it so you get in as soon as that lockout expires. That’s why the rapid-fire clicking that gets on so many people’s nerves is a good idea. I think the majority of contestants do it. I just think the majority of them were subtler about it than I was. I was just so wired that you can actually see me clenching the buzzer next to the mic, and people can hear the springs in it. And that’s one of the things that gave me a reputation for being kind of a crazy person.
AVC: They draw names for the games randomly, so did you get to watch other people play?
AC: I’m definitely glad I wasn’t the first person to play that day. I was a little intimidated because Julie, who beat the champ in the first game, was awesome. I was like, “God, I hope I’m not a one-and-done against Julie.” Having that bar set pretty high caused me to come out of the gates really aggressively, and it might not have turned out that way if it had been someone else.
AVC: You also had an advantage coming into the game fresh, rather than coming out of one of those 10-minute quick changes.
AC: The mental game of Jeopardy! is so weird. People don’t realize how weird it is when you’re playing it live for real stakes and there’s an audience and you’re really talking to Alex Trebek. People find Jeopardy! to be relaxing and soothing when they’re watching it on the couch. But actually playing Jeopardy! is one of the most stressful things you can do, and playing Jeopardy! back-to-back, like a week’s worth of games over a single day, is incredibly mentally exhausting. And if you’re playing really aggressively, as has been my strategy, it’s even more exhausting. I’ve compared it to running a full court press in basketball. By the end of the day when I won four straight games and was leaving the studio, I was soaked in sweat. I was just utterly drained.
The only reason I had that amount of success was that I had anticipated it would be like that and I had drilled myself to be unemotional, to be completely focused on the game, rehearsing game play over and over again in my head because I was focused on winning the money. I put myself in a certain mode. I think I mentioned that I have some experience as an actor, and I was like, “I’m going to be playing a role and that role is of an unstoppable Jeopardy! champion.” An unstoppable Jeopardy! champion would look a certain way and talk a certain way. He’d be hyper-focused on the board. He wouldn’t react emotionally to any setbacks. He’d lean forward and be tense. And that’s almost a character I was playing on the show.
What’s really weird, something I hadn’t really thought about now that it’s on TV and now that it’s gotten viral media attention is that that’s the image of me that all these American viewers have. I would hope it’s completely unlike who I am on a day-to-day basis. That’s the weird thing about being on TV, the disconnect between the image that you portray for whatever reason and who you think you are in real life. So I have some sympathy for so-called bad-boy professional athletes, not that I put myself in their same league. But I get where some of that frustration with the way the media reports on people comes from.
AVC: How did you decide on your strategy? Was that something that you found in the message boards?
AC: Not every champion has done it. Ken Jennings used it to an extent. I think Ken Jennings is just some kind of robot that naturally has skills that mere mortals don’t. But tournament champions have all said that you get an edge from doing certain things that most Jeopardy! players don’t.
For instance, Jeopardy! is a game where you don’t have a lot of control. You have no influence on what the categories are going to be. You have no influence on what the questions are going to say. One of the few decision points you have in the game is after you answer a question correctly, you get to pick the next one. Unfortunately what most people do is start at the top of one category and work their way down. They’re not really making a choice. They’re giving up that choice by being predictable and they are thus taking away one of the major advantages they could have. If you are unpredictable, if you jump semi-randomly around the board, then you have the advantage that you’re the only one who’s mentally prepared for the next category. Your opponents have to catch up a little bit. In a game where it’s not just about knowing the answer, that can be a huge edge. I didn’t come up with it. Jeopardy! fans call it the “Forrest Bounce” after Chuck Forrest, who did it in 1985 when I was turning a year old. It’s a known strategy.
I think people don’t do it because it is mentally taxing. It makes the game less pleasant. The writers often structure the categories so there’s some cute joke or there’s some logical progression that you don’t get to see if you bounce around. But we’re playing for real stakes, for real money, and I don’t want to feel like I did anything other than maximize the chance to take home a big cash prize for me and my wife. That’s why I did stuff like bouncing around, going for the Daily Doubles, or going toward the higher value clues instead of starting with the lower ones, wagering strategically. There’s a clip going around of me making a $5 bet, the lowest possible bet, on a sports category, because I knew I wouldn’t know it.
My famous Final Jeopardy wagering strategy I basically yanked from Keith Williams on his The Final Wager blog. Final Jeopardy wagering is almost like an academic subfield. There are endless conversations about it among hardcore Jeopardy! fans. There’s a ridiculous amount of jargon, and basically Keith Williams took it upon himself to try to explain it in layman’s terms. It’s really weird to even talk about layman’s terms for Final Jeopardy wagering, but his blog was invaluable to me.
The Final Jeopardy wagering can have so much influence on whether or not you win. You can be ahead and doing really well, then lose because of a bad question, and you didn’t have to because you didn’t need to make that big a bet. That’s such a revelation when you really understand it. And it’s such a big difference to how the game is played. It was putting all the pieces together, finding out what experts say that made sense to me, and committing to do what expert opinion and evidence has proven to be the most effective strategy, even if it wasn’t natural or comfortable. That’s the essence of playing to win.
AVC: How hard was it to stick with your plan?
AC: Just getting the answers right in Jeopardy! is so mentally taxing. I don’t blame people for making “bad decisions” because if you haven’t drilled yourself on this stuff ahead of time, to be able to make that decision in the moment is almost impossible with everyone staring at you, with the adrenaline pumping, with Alex waiting for an answer. People make bad decisions all the time on a Daily Double, especially because Alex, who is paid to make the game interesting, will say something like, “You need X amount of dollars to take the lead” to try to get them to bet big. Sometimes betting big is not to their advantage.
The same goes with Final Jeopardy. A lot of people really, really overemphasize if they feel confident or not about a category. And if they feel confident they’re going to bet it all and if they don’t feel confident, they bet nothing. Really, there’s so much variance in how hard a clue can be in a certain category. The important thing is how much you need to bet to maximize your probability of winning. Usually that’s based much more on what your score is versus everyone else’s score, not on what the category says.
So I told myself, “I’m not going to make these decisions. I’m going to outsource my decision making to the experts. I’m going to write down a playbook. I’m going to come up with some scripted plays and just discipline myself and say this is exactly what I’m going to do in the game. And I will not have to think about making those decisions. That part will be automatic, and I can use all of my brain cells to know the answers because that’s what I need them for.” I stuck pretty rigidly to that script. I didn’t follow it perfectly. I had a month to prepare and I’m only human. I don’t usually play in high-stakes competitions, so I wasn’t used to thinking that way. If you go back and watch those four episodes, I made quite a lot of strategic errors that I would point out if I were watching the game. But I think it makes a big difference even just to have a strategy. Not having a strategy and having to make decisions on the fly can really harm you.
Some of my opponents were very smart, but you can see sometimes they would hesitate or freeze up because they were trying to make a decision. “Should I stay with this category or not stay with this category? How much money should I wager? What should I do here?” Those are tough decisions and when you’re already taxing your brain trying to figure out clues, it’s easy to get in an anxiety spiral. The one thing I really didn’t want to do was freeze up and have a brain fart in front of the United States. To avoid that, I became a Jeopardy! robot. I followed the program with every fiber of my being until the play was automatic.
There are probably some people who don’t have to act weird to do well in the game, but I’m not one of them. People say, “He’s acting like an unemotional robot. His affect is flat. He’s cut off.” I had to desensitize a little bit because if I didn’t, I would have just been like, “Oh my God, I’m on Jeopardy!” and died up there.
The reason game shows are interesting is because they’re so artificial. They are like no other experience in life. I can’t think of another point in time when I had so much riding on being able to play this silly game for 20 minutes. Those 20 minutes make a difference toward me having $20,000 or not having $20,000. Jeopardy! is entertaining and fun because of the narrative that comes out of it, but you cannot learn anything about the person playing Jeopardy! from watching Jeopardy! You do not know anything about how smart a person is, how nice a person is, even how socially awkward a person actually is from watching Jeopardy! because people, while they are playing the game, are completely different. Every single person that I played against, no matter what kind of player they were, was completely different than they were in the green room.
AVC: What’s Alex Trebek like?
AC: We definitely did not get that much time to hang out with Alex. I get the sense that Alex guards his personal time pretty well. He’s highly professional. He’s an old pro. He’s been doing this one job for 30 years and he’s really good at it. People have asked, “Was Alex mad at you because you were making his job difficult by bouncing around the boards? They had to shuffle through his cue cards.” I never noticed him having to shuffle through anything. Whatever his system is, it works well.
Honestly, Alex could have loathed me. He could have hated my guts and there’s no way I would have been able to tell. He is the most cordial, self-possessed person, and the façade of being Alex Trebek, genial game show host, doesn’t ever break. He does let his hair down a little bit when the cameras aren’t rolling. He tells some verging-on-off-color bawdy stories to the audience and I think that really endears people to him. But for him, it’s a routine and I respect him a lot for that. He’s been doing this job a long time and he knows how not to screw it up.
The one thing that I was really tickled by: One of the illusions of Jeopardy! is that he comes walking out from behind the game board. I always thought there was a hallway back there that led to his dressing room or something. But there isn’t. It’s just a wall back there, so he is just standing there waiting for his cue to walk in. From where I was standing I could watch him peering around the corner waiting for a stagehand to give him the cue. It looked exactly like every time I’ve been onstage in a theater production watching the cast members getting ready to take their entrance. That image has stayed with me a long time. That humanized him for me.
AVC: How does Alex get the questions he asks each contestant?
AC: That’s scripted to an extent. When you fill out your form to be on Jeopardy! you write down some funny stories about yourself. It’s kind of nerve-wracking because you’re already trying to cram all this information into your brain, so it’s surprisingly difficult to find things about yourself that are interesting enough to be on TV and yet simple enough that you can accurately tell the story in a 30-second sound bite. They don’t want it to be completely scripted. They want Alex to be able to have his pick. So before you go out for an episode, they always say, “Do you have three stories out of the ones that we have on file for you? If we need another story, can you just give it to us real quick?” What’s even more nerve-wracking than writing all that stuff down ahead of time is running out of stories because you’ve been on the show two or three times and they’ve already thrown out some of them. Apparently all stories about cats are banned. No stories involving cats whatsoever. That threw out a lot of my stories. Having to think of something on the fly, something interesting to say while you just won a game of Jeopardy! and you’re soaked in sweat and you’re ready to go out there and try to win another game—that is one of the most difficult things you can do on the show.
Alex, I’m sure, has to go through so many of these damn things. I give him a lot of credit for looking as interested as he does because of how many awkward nerds he’s had to interview about their lives.
AVC: One thing the contestant coordinators tell you is that, if you lose, tell your friends, “They just weren’t my categories.” Do you feel like you got friendly boards?
AC: That’s the thing. When you look at a game of Jeopardy! they always throw in a bunch of random categories, tough categories. If you wanted to get everything right, it would be impossible. Although it doesn’t seem like an edge, the fact that there are a few categories that just keep coming back is a huge edge.
For instance, I got a Daily Double on state things. State things was one of the topics that I had zero interest in before Jeopardy! State legislatures seem to create state flowers or state animals just as a way to pass the time and justify their salaries. But I knew that Utah was The Beehive State for no other reason than it says on Wikipedia that Utah is The Beehive State. That came up and I instantly knew it because it was one of the things that I memorized. Boom. That’s a Daily Double falling right into my lap.
A list of world capitals is one of those finite sets of knowledge and it’s usually just random questions based on the list. “What are the world capitals that end in Z?” That’s a really hard question if you’re expecting people to have just learned it from everyday life. But if you’re looking at the list of world capitals and you’ve memorized it, then those Z ones, they’re easy to remember.
Think like a Jeopardy! writer. The writers are not randomly putting things together from things that happen to them. Most of the time they are working off of databases of things like state capitals, world capitals, kings of England, presidents. So by memorizing the kings of England, I ran a category that was “Kings Of England Not Born In England,” because that’s one of those little things that you put on the bio when you’re doing flashcards of kings of England.
I would have liked to have had a friendly board, but the chance that I would have had a super friendly board—one that was video games, science fiction—is not very likely. When one of those questions comes up all the video game geeks put up a Reddit post, they tweet it. They get super excited because it doesn’t happen very often. I knew I couldn’t count on that.
As far as what I would have told my friends if I lost, I like to joke, “Apparently everyone who gets on Jeopardy! was sick that day. Nobody was feeling well that day.” That was a joke but it’s true. Jeopardy! requires you to fly out, get out there early in the morning, be in this completely unfamiliar situation. No one’s at 100 percent. Everyone does better playing Jeopardy! in the comfort of their own home than in that situation. Everyone probably has some kind of physical ailment that’s now nagging at them all of the sudden because of all the stress or some element of the environment they can’t get over. I would have had plenty of good excuses if I lost. Two-thirds of people on Jeopardy! lose, so it wasn’t so much that I was upset about the possibility of losing, but I really wanted to be able to say if I lost I did everything I could to prevent losing, that I went out there and played my best game. I didn’t want to be in that situation, which I have been in all too often in my life, where I didn’t try hard. I didn’t want to say, “Oh, I didn’t want to put too much energy into that game. I just lived my life and flew out there and then lost.” I would rather say, “God, I turned into a crazy Jeopardy! machine. I derailed my life for 30 days to get ready for Jeopardy! And even then I still lost.” Even though that sounds more humiliating, that’s a better story. I could respect someone for telling that story.
AVC: Can you talk a little bit about the payout structure? A lot of people think that if the winner has $19,001 and the second place person has $18,999, that person still goes home with $18,999.
AC: That was how it worked way, way back on the original version of Jeopardy!, the Art Fleming version. That was one of the big controversial changes that Merv Griffin made when he went into syndication with Alex Trebek, and it’s pretty clear why. Everybody kept their money. It was like a cash game in poker. Once you’ve gotten enough money, why risk more money? Why make a big bet? If I know I’ve got $18,000 in the bank and someone’s like, “Hey, want to bet $8,000 that you know the answer to this question?” No. Why would I do that? Am I a gambling addict? Am I stupid?
In order to encourage big bets, Jeopardy! is winner-take-all. Only the person in first place keeps their total at the end of the game. Everyone else gets the consolation prize. If you have $20,000 and someone else has $20,001, you get second prize, which is $2,000. If you are in third place and the two other players have $5 more than you, no matter how much money you have, you take home $1,000. There’s a very powerful incentive to be aggressive. You really do need to make sure you win the game. The most important thing isn’t the absolute number of dollars you have on the board. It’s how strongly you’re beating the other players. How far ahead are you? What’s the spread? $1,000 is not that much money for having to pay for a plane ticket to L.A., possibly book accommodations, and miss a day of work. For a lot of people, that’s barely breaking even.
AVC: Minus taxes.
AC: The difference between winning and losing is huge. So is the difference between getting second place and tying with the person for first place. That thing where I tied with Carolyn in my second game? That was a strategic move on my part, as I’ve explained ad nauseam elsewhere. But I feel pretty good about it because that was $20,000 she got instead of $2,000. She was happy about it. I was happy about it.
AVC: And then you get to play again.
AC: And we both got to play again.
AVC: And if you come back, you’re guaranteed at least another $1,000.
AC: It’s the expected value, to be all crazy gambler, to use that terminology. The expected value of winning is so high in Jeopardy! compared to losing. Even if you win with a small amount of money, who cares? You’re coming back. You get the chance to win more money the next day. Everyone else, they’re gone. They take their consolation prize and go home. Even if you win Jeopardy! by ending up with $500, that’s still fine because you’re coming back. The betting has to be based on how you can maximize your chances of coming back, not maximizing the amount of money you make. That’s why pulling a Cliff Clavin was a bad idea. It’s one of those things I promised myself I wouldn’t do no matter how tempting. It doesn’t matter how smart you think you are or how good the category is. You do not bet more than you need to bet to win the game. I’m sure A.V. Club viewers know the Cliff Clavin reference. It’s literally called Clavin’s Law among Jeopardy! strategists.
AVC: You are coming back to the show. Have you taped those episodes yet?
AC: Yes. It’s all in the can.
AVC: Were your episodes shot back-to-back, or did they fly you out again?
AC: After the first day, if you are a returning champion, they’ll pay for your ticket. They don’t pick up the hotel, but again, I was crashing with my mom, so I figured, what the hell. It wasn’t completely back-to-back. Their filming schedule is Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so Alex Trebek has a two-day workweek, which is another reason to be envious of him. That block of games was a Wednesday taping, so I had the rest of the week to go back home to Ohio, tell my wife what happened, and kind of mentally adjust to the fact that I just won $100,000 and would be coming back. I’m glad it worked out that way because we did have that time to make that mental adjustment before I had to go back and jump into the game again. But we did not have a long break. It was just a week. The break between the games isn’t related to the airing schedule at all.
AVC: Did you study when you were home?
AC: Oh yeah. I actually told my wife, “Boy, this is disappointing. I thought I was done with these flashcards forever.” But no, back to the flashcards. It’s ridiculous to think this because of the amount of money you can win, but I was saying after that day of filming, “This is so tiring. I’m going to be happy when I lose and I can go back to being a normal person instead of a Jeopardy! machine.” That was because I hadn’t gotten any money yet. I still won’t get any money until after the last episode airs. It’s only slowly catching up to me what a big deal it actually was. Plus, when I went home I could only tell my wife and my closest, most trusted friends that I had won at all. I had to keep it a secret from the rest of the world and just tell people, “Hey, watch my episode of Jeopardy! See if I win or lose.” In the back of my mind, I’m like, “$100,000, that’s a big deal.” That was all in the back of my head, but I couldn’t let it rise to the surface because I still had games to play.
Only now when I’m watching it again and then seeing the reactions to my game play, I’m like, “Wow. This is actually something that could tick a lot of people off.” It’s polarizing that I’m very different than other Jeopardy! contestants. Then to see it become this viral story and to be called to Good Morning America and get interviewed on Fox News? My life has changed in the past week and I’ve been freaking out about it. I feel like “David After Dentist.” “Is this real life? Is this going to be forever?”
AVC: What are you going to do with the money?
AC: Actually deciding what you’re going to do with $100,000 is a difficult decision that I don’t think you should make without doing a lot of research. I didn’t think about it at all when I filled out the questionnaire. And when they asked me about it on the show, I had to come up with something off the top of my head. The first thing that is safe to talk about is charitable donations rather than all the crack you’re going to smoke or whatever.
But my wife has fibromyalgia. It’s really impacted her life, and I know a lot more about the whole spectrum of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue illnesses than most people do. I’ve seen firsthand how much it’s affected her life. And, yes, I would agree with people who say it’s less of a pressing concern than people who are dying of cancer, dying of AIDS, dying of malnutrition. Even though it’s a first-world problem, it’s a problem that ruins a lot of people’s lives. It’s crushing because it’s an invisible disability. People walk around looking like they’re fine but their ability to function in life has been cut in half or less from what you or I experience. A lot of people dismiss it as not a real condition. They re-characterize it as laziness, scatterbrainedness, the lack of ability to hold down a job or to commit. It’s a real physical drain on your ability to do those things. I do care a lot about raising awareness and am glad that I mentioned it on TV. I’m still doing research because it’s not a very well-publicized illness. There isn’t some big flagship charity that everyone knows about, like with the American Cancer Association. I’m still doing my research, but am committed to spending a good chunk of money on that.
$100,000 can buy you a lot of peace of mind when it’s in the bank and when it’s in good investments. I told myself that I don’t want to look like an idiot during the game or after the game. I don’t want to end up being one of those people who goes on a spending spree and then ends up in debt because of a prize they won. My wife and I agreed that our lifestyle is going to stay the same.
I’ve always wanted to go on a trip to China. I’ve never been to mainland China. I’ve only been to Taiwan a few times. My relatives live in Taiwan. I want to get a chance to be there on my own without it being part of a family trip, and I want to bring Eliza because she’s never been there. I thought that would be something we might do far in the future, and now it’s something we could do in the near future before we have kids. That’s definitely something I’m looking into planning.
AVC: Well, thank you so much. It was nice to talk to you.
AC: Thank you. Big A.V. Club fan. I have a comment history on A.V. Club. One of the reasons I couldn’t hang out on A.V. Club anymore was because I was neglecting all my other interests and pursuits for the sake of Jeopardy! But it’s definitely a community for people who think like Jeopardy! people, who are voracious vacuums of information, so that’s what I like about it.
AVC: Anyone who’s a voracious vacuum of information should absolutely try out for Jeopardy!.
AC: You lose nothing by trying out. One thing I hope people take away from what I’m saying is that strategy and luck play as big a part as natural talent. You may not think you’re ready, but it’s not that hard to make yourself ready if you know how to train the right way. These things are doable. They’re achievable. Maybe I should become a motivational speaker, I don’t know. I’m trying to think of ways to leverage my 15 minutes of fame.