Jeopardy!, Game Theory, and Data

Everyone can use new data and strategies, often with amazing results.

As a kid, I would often watch Jeopardy! with my family after dinner. The four of us would race to see who could first shout out the question to Alex Trebek’s answers. It was more than a little competitive.

On a good day, I’d get twenty percent of the questions right. I did much better in certain categories than others. For instance, I don’t think that I ever scored any points on anything related to classic literature.

With rare exceptions, the real contestants followed virtually identical strategies. They would start at the top of each category and dutifully work their way down. They would effectively try to run the table in sports, movies, or potpurri. If down by vast amounts or in the negative, many in the second round would move directly to the higher-value answers. By then, though, it was almost always too late for them. Desperation is rarely a good strategy.

Everyone can use new data and strategies, often with amazing results.

Recently, 30-year-old Andrew Chu has been using game theory to buck Jeopardy! convention. This Business Insider article breaks down Chu’s controversial methods. I am particularly fond of his decision, when the situation warrants, to play Final Jeopardy! not to win. That is, he has played for a tie (when warranted) because both players come back the next day. With a nod to Mr. Trebek:

Answer: None.

Question: What’s the point of winning an extra $1 and risking losing?

This is just plain smart. (For more on this, see The Final Wager and the video below.)

Simon Says

I find Chu’s approach fascinating. He’s completely willing to do research and use data in ways not considered by the thousands of previous contestants. Somewhere Billy Beane and Michael Lewis are smiling. Chu’s approach has Moneyball written all over it. Like many people his age, Chu is not bound by convention. He knows that we have entered an era in which data is becoming the lingua franca. Why not use it?

Whether you like Chu’s approach or not is immaterial. There’s a general lesson here for all of us: Everyone can use new data and strategies, often with amazing results.

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