Arthur Chu locked in his seventh straight victory on “Jeopardy” Wednesday night, fanning the fire surrounding the controversial practices he has used to win. Chu, a 30-year-old freelance voice actor, has garnered both heavy criticism and praise from viewers for his unusual tactics.
But it isn't that Chu unlocked some secret key to playing the game that has rankled audiences so much — it's the fact that he's become the very antithesis of a game show hero.
From “Jeopardy” to “Wheel of Fortune,” what keeps the traditional game show format alive is that on some level, we could all see ourselves answering that million-dollar question. Contestants don’t need game theories and strategies to win — all they need is a brain, some guts and little bit of luck.
Autumn Erhard got pretty far on that combination. At 30, the Orange County, Calif., sales rep became the second contestant ever to walk away with the coveted $1 million prize on “Wheel of Fortune” in May 2013. Her game-winning guess: “Tough Workout.” She managed to solve the puzzle with just a few letters revealed. She told Yahoo Finance she didn’t use a special strategy that day other than figuring out how to tame her nerves.
“When you get to the studio, it’s completely different [from TV],” Erhard said. “You kind of have to relax and have fun, but it’s easier said than done when you have cameras and lights and the audience around you. I got in the zone and pretended I was at home.”
Teams of game show producers spend their days figuring out how to make every challenge, puzzle, quiz and question as un-crackable as possible. But that hasn’t stopped contestants from coming up with their own strategies to optimize their winnings, giving rise to an entire industry in itself — with websites, books and blogs written by past winners and so-called “consultants” offering their own theories on how to play the game.
Not all strategies have been scientifically proven, but it’s nice to go into a game relying on something besides sheer luck. Here are a few techniques that just might work:
1. Waste your first guess on ‘Wheel of Fortune’
If you make it to the speed round in “Wheel of Fortune,” entertainment site Cracked.com advises players to take the counterintuitive approach: waste your first turn. They call it the “first mover disadvantage.” Most contestants who go first will pick the letter E because it’s the most commonly used letter in most words and doesn’t cost anything to guess. But if you win that letter, you’re only giving the person to go after you more of an opportunity to guess the right word. Instead, choose a letter that’s almost certain not to show up (like Z or an apostrophe), and you basically give the next contestant nothing to go on and you can kick back and benefit from the letters everyone else selects.
2. Use wagering to keep your lead in 'Jeopardy'
Manchester, Vt., native Ken Williams buzzed his way to $50,000 and a new Volvo when he hit the "Jeopardy" stage in 2003. Since his winning streak, Williams has fashioned himself into something of a "Jeopardy" strategist, analyzing almost every game in his own YouTube series. One of his favorite game-winning strategies is using simple math to figure out how much other contestants will wager on a question in Final Jeopardy.
“There are few things you can control in the game of 'Jeopardy.' Wagering strategy might be the only one,” he says. For example: If you’re in first place, your goal is to wager just enough so that you’ll wind up with at least $1 more than the other contestants, whether you’re wrong or right.
Watch him explain how in the video below:
3. Pay attention to who’s being surveyed on 'Family Feud'
When the brains behind WiseGeek.com analyzed episodes of “Family Feud,” they were surprised to find the most basic strategy of all was most likely to garner a win: Paying attention to the demographic.
The entire show is based on guessing the most common responses to questions answered by 100 random people. You’re given a tiny hint when the host tells you what kind of people were surveyed. Use it to your advantage.
“Remember, they probably didn’t take much time to rethink their answers, so investing neurons coming up with something smart won’t actually win you points,” they write. “[100 single women or 100 men] will give two very different survey results. Pay attention.”
Here's a great example of looking at questions from a specific gender's point of view — when two contestants were asked what 100 men would want in a new car:
4. Use the ‘Rubin Bounce’ to confuse contestants on ‘Jeopardy’
This strategy was made famous by Chuck Forrest, a five-time “Jeopardy” champion, who named the technique after a law school friend, Donn Rubin, who’s credited for the idea. It's the same strategy that has been revitalized by Arthur Chu.
Typically, players like to play “top to bottom” — they select a clue with the lowest dollar value and work their way down to higher-valued clues on the bottom of the board. It’s not an actual rule, but the game has been played that way for so long that viewers and players alike are accustomed to that progression path.
But if you start selecting clues from different categories, the board loses its streamlined, easy-to-read order and can confuse other players. On top of that, you’re changing the category so often that it makes it difficult for players to get into a groove.
Forrest and Chu's victories suggest that the theory works, but they haven't convinced everyone.
Josh McIlvain, the Syracuse, N.Y., a home health aide who lost to Chu in his fifth game this week, says the contestant's strategies are nothing special. “People who get on the show don’t get there because they know strategy. It’s because they know a lot of facts,” McIlvain said. “I don’t buy so much into the strategy aspect of it. I don’t think [Chu] cracked some kind of code. He’s really smart and really good at buzzing in and I respect that.”
5. ‘Fail efficiently’ to get past the first round in ‘Wipe-Out’
In “Wipe-Out,” a hilarious game show that’s based on getting contestants to compete in a series of ridiculous obstacle courses, there is no tougher round than the first.
In fact, the first obstacle course is deliberately designed to be nearly impossible to get through. The more people fall on their faces in spectacular fashion, the funnier the show, the higher the ratings, etc. etc.
“Viewer’s don’t want to see people succeed,” executive producer Matt Kunitz bluntly told the McClatchy-Tribune Press.
It can be smarter to forfeit the first leg of the competition. If you fall from the obstacles, you’re allowed to just swim to the finish line. If you keep trying to pick yourself back up again and again, you’ll only waste time and energy.
“In business literature, this is known as failing efficiently, which means that if failure is already presumed, then the most logical use of resources is in failing the best way possible,” writes Cracked.com’s Michael Voll. “In the case of ‘Wipeout,’ you give yourself a 100% chance of getting past the first round if you just accept the fact that you're going to fail.”
6. Don’t under-spin to win the Big Wheel on ‘The Price is Right’
In one round of “The Price is Right,” three contestants get a shot at spinning The Big Wheel, which has 20 different prices ranging from 5 cents to $1. You can spin up to two times, but the total value of your two spins can’t exceed $1 or you lose. That always creates the classic “to spin or not to spin?” dilemma. A paper published in the Economic Journal details the downside of “under-spinning” — that is, skipping your second to ensure you won’t go over $1.
Researchers analyzed the show and came up with a way to figure out when a second spin is worth it (kind of like Blackjack betting strategies). We’ll spare you the academic jargon and share this nicely summarized version of their formula by Slate instead:
- The first contestant should spin again if he has 65¢ or less.
- The second contestant should spin again if he is a) behind player one, b) ahead of player one but has less than 50¢, or c) is tied with player one but has less than 65¢.
- The final contestant (who has the benefit of knowing all the previous players’ actions) needs to spin again if he is not in the lead or is tied with one of the other contestants with a score of less than 50¢. (If the contestant has more than 50¢ and is in a tie, he is better off pressing his luck in the one-spin tiebreaker.)
7. ‘Steal’ clues from opponents in ‘Jeopardy’
Chu earned as many fans as he did foes after winning a string of “Jeopardy” shows that aired over the last month. One controversial strategy he used was to bet the least value possible on clues he wasn’t sure about, if only to take them away from his opponents.
Chu knew he was weak in sports knowledge. So when it came time to wager on a Daily Double in sports, he bet just $5. Chu said he didn't bother to give an answer because he knew he’d never guess right. Fans called him out for being a bad sport, but Chu said it was all about playing to his strengths.
“If I get a Daily Double in sports and I’m pretty sure I’m not going to know it, why would I take an unnecessary risk?” he said. “I guess people see it as a jerk thing to do, but the benefit in that is that I can take that clue away from someone else who does know about sports.”