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Issue Date: May 2014 Issue


Arthur Chu


Jason Brill
brill@clevelandmagazine.com

Arthur Chu's wife turns up the volume on their living room TV.

She's sitting in that most coveted spot of any sectional couch — the corner where two sections meet. Their cat Watson, named after Sherlock Holmes' friend and assistant, is perched on the backrest.

All around the living room are nods to the couple's fandom for geek culture. A lightsaber sits atop a bookshelf loaded with sci-fi novels. A framed Star Wars poster hangs over the fireplace.

Yet the Broadview Heights couple doesn't have cable. Like a growing number of millennials, they get their TV and movies from Netflix or other streaming services. So in order to watch a syndicated show such as Jeopardy!, Chu installed a TV tuner on his computer, which is connected to a 60-inch TV screen on the other side of the living room.

As 7:30 p.m. approaches, Chu's wife, Eliza Blair, reminds him to maximize the window on the screen. Tonight's episode of Jeopardy! is Chu's ninth straight as a contestant.

He's won $238,200 so far, dismantling opponents and Jeopardy! conventions along the way. Wearing shirts with rumpled collars and slackened ties — if any at all — he skips around the board, ferreting out Daily Doubles and building big leads. And since the show was taped more than three months earlier, he even tweets right along with the action on screen, explaining his strategy, boasting about right answers and addressing his critics.

All that has made Chu, an insurance worker and aspiring actor, a bit of a celebrity — not quite of the Kardashian variety, but certainly some pop culture algorithm of LeBron James dominance, Comic Con geekdom and Breaking Bad antihero.

As the game show's hummable opening tune begins, Blair turns up the volume in an attempt to drown out Chu's philosophical discussion of buzzer theory.

Chu continues without pause, even as Jeopardy! announcer Johnny Gilbert delivers his familiar "This is Jeopardy!" and announces the two challengers vying to end Chu's run.

Dawn Volmert, from Troy, Mo., is a round-faced controller wearing a peach top. She's added an exclamation mark after her name on the podium screen and gives a cheerful wave as she's introduced.

Occupying the far end of the couch in casual black slacks and a white button-down, Chu picks up his iPhone to tweet: "I'm never sure exactly what a controller' controls when they say that but it's intimidating."

The TV camera cuts to Semret Lemma, an MBA student from Arlington, Va., with a shaved head and V-neck sweater.

"Oh, sure," Blair says. "I remember this guy."

  *  *  *  *  

Growing up in an affluent town south of Los Angeles, Chu showed early promise. An IQ test in third grade showed he was a genius. Yet Chu's parents, who came to the U.S. from Taiwan, didn't reveal the results until he was in high school. They tried to keep him disciplined and focused. He took piano and violin lessons, had a limit on his video-game time and didn't own a bike until he was 16. Sports were never really an option. They even discouraged him from trying out as the Valley Christian High School mascot.

"They thought it was very important to keep me on the straight and narrow path to make sure I didn't squander my potential," Chu says.

At the school of about 600 in Cerritos, Calif., Chu got straight A's, was valedictorian of his class and voted most likely to publish a book.

But he also rebelled. Most of his friends were burnouts or slackers. He got detentions and had disagreements with teachers.

When it came time for college, Chu's father, Ang-Ling, had high expectations. He encouraged Chu to pick a major that interested him, something he was capable of doing in a field that would still be relevant 20 years down the road.

Ang-Ling believed Chu would make a great attorney — and still does to this day. "He has a tremendous memory," he says. "He likes to analyze things and give the essence of the matter."

Yet Ang-Ling's hopes for his son are colored by his own story.

When applying to college in Taiwan, Ang-Ling wanted to major in geography, but his father filled out the application and chose a major for him, checking chemistry instead.

"That is the reason my dad is a chemist," Chu says. "My dad would never go back and challenge. That was how he was raised."

Chu, on the other hand, didn't pick math or chemistry or law. He decided to pursue a history degree at Swarthmore College. A small liberal arts school southwest of Philadelphia, its environment and culture gap were far greater than the 2,700 miles he was away from home.

Academically, Chu struggled. Yet, he began to find other outlets, throwing himself into acting and performing. As a freshman, he directed and produced a play that featured scenes from the movie Fight Club. It didn't come easy like most other things in his life, but it was fun.

"This is what I wanted to be doing," he recalls. "I wouldn't be blowing off classes for drinking or video games. It would be to do more theater stuff."

It also took a toll. During his senior year, Chu had a breakdown. He developed insomnia, and on one occasion he fell asleep during a required honors economics seminar. The professor kicked Chu out of the class. He had to transition out of the honors track and eventually quit school to return home.

"I just didn't want to be on campus anymore," Chu says.

  *  *  *  *  

After taking a year off and then spending a year writing his thesis from a California public library, Chu eventually graduated from Swarthmore in 2008.

He had met Blair at the Swarthmore Warders of Imaginative Literature club — a sci-fi and fantasy organization — when he was a sophomore and she was a freshman. They formed a friendship and eventually a relationship over games of Dungeons and Dragons.

When she got a government job in Washington, D.C., he moved to be with her. "She claims she had a secret crush on me for a long time," Chu says with a laugh. "But she might be retroactively projecting."

As an engagement gift, Chu gave Blair a life-size wizard's staff and the lightsaber perched atop their living room bookshelf.

He got a job as a Washington tour guide to pay the bills. But in his free time, Chu checked out the improvisational comedy and acting scenes. He began doing voice-over work for radio commercials. One spot for a D.C. area college has him giving a testimonial about the merits of its MBA program.

He also narrated a part of the Erfworld fantasy series, a Web comic about a video-game player stuck in a war game. The first book was named one of Time magazine's Top 10 Graphic Novels of 2007. For a geek such as Chu, working on the epilogue to the second book was the most exciting break in his budding performance career.

"This is a national thing with readers all over the country," he recalls. "That was a big deal."

But Chu had a loftier goal. "I wanted to do something cooler," he says. "It's a shameful thing to admit, but yeah, I always did want to be on TV."

  *  *  *  *  

After Chu is introduced as returning champion, Alex Trebek chimes in with a little trivia of his own: In Chu's eight days on the show, he's racked up $238,200 — already the third-highest total in non-tournament play in the show's 30-year history.

On the couch, Chu looks up from his phone.

"I hadn't known that at that point," he says. "That's crazy."

But now it's game time. Chu starts near the bottom of the board rather than the top. "Russian For Judgment" for $800: "Nicholas wooed Alexandra with these, Russian for •pancakes.' "

Chu gnashes the buzzer so hard it squeaks. He's first in, but fumbles for the correct response. There's an awkward pause, then, "Oh, sorry."

Volmert, the controller, buzzes in with "latkes." Wrong.

Lemma — Blair's "Oh, sure" guy with a gravelly voice — answers "blinis" to get on the board first.

"I thought, blintzes," Chu explains. "And was like, Oh, blintzes aren't a pancake at all."

"Not an auspicious start there, man," Blair quips.

Chu echoes that, tweeting: "Ugh this game is not off to a great start."

  *  *  *  *  

Midway through each of Chu's rounds on Jeopardy!, the game board looks like a picked-apart corpse from The Walking Dead.

Contestants usually choose a category, start at the top with a $200 clue and move down in order: $400, $600, $800, $1,000.

Not Chu. The night before, for example, in his eighth appearance, the Double Jeopardy board is all bones. Every one of the $2,000 and $1,600 clues have been scavenged. One category, "Entertainers," has a lonely $800, another row has just a $400 at the top. "CNN Religion" and "U.S. Government" have the first three clues still on the board.

Chu's at $28,200. The other contestants are at $5,200 and $2,600. It's a ridiculous lead. But when it reaches Final Jeopardy, he has a choice: With the category "Landmarks" and a total of $44,200, Chu can make a run at the single-game record of $77,000. But he plays it safe, gets the question right and ends with $58,200 — the third-highest single-game total in history.

Chu discovered his style of play by searching the Internet for Jeopardy! strategies. He found Chuck Forrest, David Madden and Roger Craig, who all bounced around the board. Forrest did it first in the 1980s. Madden used it in 2005 to win 19 games and $432,400 — both stats rank second only to Ken Jennings. Craig used the strategy in 2010, setting that single-game dollar amount record at $77,000.

The strategy serves a few purposes, according to Chu. It keeps opponents off-balance, switching up categories at what seems to be random, and it builds early momentum with a higher dollar total.

It also makes it easier to find Daily Doubles, which hard-core Jeopardy! strategists know are vital to making a lot of money on the show.

But Chu didn't want to leave anything to chance. So in addition to the strategy, he added his own twist. He'd play the part of a Jeopardy! champion, intensely focused on the board and his buzzer. He kept the game moving at a furious pace — even cutting off Trebek — to get to the next clue quickly so as not to leave any money on the board. He stared at the other contestants as they answered so he could buzz in as quickly as possible if they got something wrong.

Using flashcard software, he spent a month studying frequent Jeopardy! categories: U.S. presidents, countries of the world and their capitals, and Oscar, Tony and Grammy awards winners.

"By putting all those pieces together, I can play that character onstage," Chu says. "It may not have been the best [liked] character."

Chu, the fan of pop culture, became Chu, the pop culture phenomenon — at least briefly. Before Jeopardy!, he had 162 followers on Twitter. Within a few weeks of live-tweeting his episodes, he was up to more than 11,500. A.V. Club, Slate, Salon, The Washington Post, Mental Floss and other media outlets ran stories about Chu.

But for his combination of strategy, intensity, quasi abuse of Trebek and his general appearance on TV, Chu was also roundly hated by many on Facebook and Twitter.

"I watch Jeopardy! now only because I want to see Arthur Chu get his face shoved in it. Hard. He breaks etiquette to win. Fall hard, Arthur," read one tweet.

Many social media comments were racist, labeling Chu a smug, smartest-in-the-room Asian guy. He shared a lot of the tweets with his growing list of followers as a way to control the story around him.

Jennings is familiar with the hate. Plenty of ire was directed at him for winning 74 games in a row in 2004. A woman who ran a popular Jeopardy! fan site actually shut it down completely and refused to watch the show, because she hated Jennings so much. ESPN sportswriter Bill Simmons said Jennings had the personality of a hall monitor. Jennings got hate mail, and his family was threatened.

"Suddenly the FBI was calling me at work, and I was meeting the Sony security team," Jennings says via email.

Both Chu and Jennings point to the fact that many people who watch Jeopardy! nurse the fantasy that someday they can make it on the show and win thousands.

"There's people who watch Jeopardy!, not hoping for excellence, but just wanting to see people rotate in and out," Chu says. Sure, they'd like contestants to play well, he offers, "but no one to do too well."

Chu definitely has fans. A ChuChuTrain hashtag popped up. Jennings himself is one of Chu's biggest supporters, coining "Chu-phoria" as the Jeopardy! equivalent to the NBA's Linsanity — when Jeremy Lin lit up New York City and the basketball world two years ago.

Blair likes the comparison she saw on Twitter calling Chu the antihero pop culture has been missing since the death of high-school-chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-kingpin Walter White on AMC's Breaking Bad.

"We root for Walter White because here's this guy who's figured it out," Chu says. "He's figured out how to transcend the box he's been put in."

  *  *  *  *  

The final question before the first commercial break strikes a nerve with Chu. The category is "Actual 911 Calls." "In 2013 Connecticut police had to post online, missing 'Breaking Bad' is not a 911 issue, please call this provider, not us."

He and Volmert get it wrong, answering AMC and Time Warner, respectively. Lemma gets it right with, "What is your cable company?"

On screen, Chu raises his hand in disbelief. The miss drops his total to $3,000, still ahead of Volmert's $1,600 but now tied with Lemma.

From his couch, he's tweeting, " •Your cable company' is a bullshit answer for that #Bullshit." Sure the question's funny, but Chu thinks the answer's too generic to be fair.

After the break, Trebek introduces the contestants with a little tidbit about their lives. Volmert talks about her work with the Global Orphan Project in Haiti.

Lemma announces to the world that he and his wife are expecting a baby boy. "You and everybody here are tied for the fourth people to hear that news," Lemma says to Trebek.

With his turn at the microphone, Chu shares some of the spotlight with his wife. Trebek mentions Chu earmarking some of his winnings to help Blair publish her fantasy novel about talking dogs in the ancient Near East. Blair, sitting in the audience, is shown on screen with a smile on her face.

"Oh, god," she says, watching from the couch. "This is my two seconds on national TV."

"Now you've got to finish that book," Chu tells her. "Everybody's waiting for it."

Following the introductions, Chu makes up some ground, answering nine of the remaining 16 clues on the board and pushing out to a $4,200 lead going into Double Jeopardy.

But early into that round, soon-to-be dad Lemma finds the "Who Sang It First" category. In 58 seconds, he correctly answers Dolly Parton, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, "Stand By Me" and Gladys Knight to run his total to $8,200.

Chu buzzes in only once, but answers the question incorrectly, "This song was a hit for Ben E. King in 1961, for John Lennon in 1975 and for Ben again in 1986."

"He's got this category," Chu says. He picks up his phone and tweets, "Dammit Semret STOP KNOWING THINGS."

Chu remembers seeing Lemma in rehearsals the day of the taping and thought he was the day's strongest competitor. "I hope he's not last," Chu recalls thinking to himself. "And he was last."

  *  *  *  *  

Onstage, Chu is wearing a puffy blue winter coat, a red hat with earflaps and shorts. He's moving erratically across a bland motel room setting, explaining in a backwoods Virginia drawl how he managed to lose a casket with a body in it.

His character, Terrence, a delivery truck driver, is attempting to explain to Ayelet, an Israeli woman on vacation, what happened to her dead grandmother. But Ayelet doesn't speak English. And even if she did, there's a good chance she wouldn't pick up every word from Chu's convincing accent, even the part where he says he actually lost the truck that had the casket in it.

The play, Handle With Care, is a production of the Actors' Summit, a family-run professional theater company intimately tucked into the sixth floor of Greystone Hall, an old Masonic temple in downtown Akron. Chu pulls off the idiot delivery driver act better than expected.

After the performance, the crowd empties into the lobby, waiting to greet the play's four actors. Each one appears with some fanfare, garnering hugs from friends and family.

Chu's the last out, walking slowly with his head down, hands in his pockets. After a few minutes, a 30-something couple asks to get their picture taken with the Jeopardy! champion.

Exhausted from the continual media requests, rehearsals for Handle With Care and his full-time job at Family Heritage Life Insurance, Chu is the first person out the door.

He and Blair, who is originally from Chagrin Falls, moved to Northeast Ohio from D.C. in February 2013. Since then, Chu has played a British scientist in the Actors' Summit's performance of Photograph 51, appeared in FAIDS at Negative Space Gallery and Studio and in the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival.

Neil Thackaberry, founder and co-artistic director of Actors' Summit, believes Chu has a talent for the stage that he's seen lacking in people with more formal training.

"It's whether or not they have that spirit of becoming somebody else," he says. "Arthur just throws himself into it."

It's the same intensity his Handle With Care castmate Keith E. Stevens noticed when he watched Chu on Jeopardy! "He was so focused, like a laser beam," says Stevens. "He wasn't there to schmooze or to meet Alex Trebek. He was there to win."

  *  *  *  *  

"In the 19th century Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis •gave birth' to antisepsis in this medical field." Chu buzzes in, but says "obstretics" — with an "r" in the wrong place — instead of "obstetrics."

Blair groans at the TV. "I remember that one," she says.

It drops Chu down to $6,000. Two questions later, a little less than halfway into the Double Jeopardy round, he's lost another $2,000.

Volmert is in control of the board and she picks "Medical History" for $1,600, but Chu buzzes in and gets it right. He rattles off three more in a row, adding $2,000, $1,600 and $1,600 to recapture the lead.

He's threatening to put the game away, but Lemma answers Ansel Adams in the "Photography" category to gain control of the board. Under "Photography" for $800, Lemma discovers the round's first Daily Double. Chu's biggest challenger trails by only $600. He bets $1,200.

"He bet too small," Chu says. "That's not enough. He could have put it away."

But Lemma gets it wrong.

Two clues later, Chu finds the final Daily Double in the "Rip Van Winkle" category. He's up $11,600 to Lemma's $9,400. Volmert has $6,200. Chu takes a second to survey the board and the scores. There's still $8,400 worth of clues left. It's enough to get close if he misfires on this answer. He bets $8,000.

"The strange men playing 9-pins were said to be this British captain and his crew, who would visit the area every 20 years," appears on the blue screen above Chu's right shoulder.

In the living room, Chu shifts in his spot on the couch. "This is the most memorable part of the story," he says.

Henry Hudson. He gets it right. "Way to go!" Trebek says as the crowd erupts with applause.

As Final Jeopardy starts, Chu, at $22,400, is just short of doubling up Lemma's $11,400 and locking it up. But a wrong move here and his run could all be over.

The category is "Modern Day Suffixes."

As the show comes out of commercial and the clue appears: "Dating from 1973, this four letter suffix indicates a person or thing that has become associated with public scandal."

At the end of the couch, Chu asks a rhetorical question to the TV, "What other modern day suffixes are there?"

As 30 seconds and the Jeopardy! jingle expire, Volmert, at $7,400, is first. "What is —gate?" shows up on her screen.

"Yes, we have Watergate, Contragate, Camillagate, Koreagate — lots of —gates," says Trebek.

Lemma gets it too, but bets just $10,600 to take him to an even $22,000.

"A nice round number," Chu comments. "There's never any reason to make it a nice round number," Blair laughs.

"He's hoping that Arthur missed the final," Trebek says about Lemma. "Did Arthur get it?" On screen Chu doesn't even crack a smile.

"Poker face!" Blair says in singsong as Chu's answer is about to be revealed.

"What is —gate?" shows up on screen. "Yes, he did," Trebek says. "He's going to remain champion, but how much was the wager?"

A mere $400. Chu bet conservatively, thinking Lemma would go all in, putting them both at $22,800 and ensuring a tie that would move them to the next game. But Chu won $22,800 to Lemma's $22,000 and Volmert's $11,401.

As the show ends, Chu recalls the moment. Lemma was staring at him, and then, with a laugh, says he couldn't believe Chu gave him a chance to tie. It's why he didn't go all in.

"I'm going to be thinking about that for the rest of my life!" Chu says Lemma told him. "You ruined my life, Arthur. You ruined my life!"

  *  *  *  *  

Three games later, Arthur Chu lost.

His $298,200 in 11 games ranks as the third-highest amount in regular Jeopardy! play.

In his final match, the seventh show he'd taped in less than 48 hours, Chu met graduate student Diana Peloquin, who, despite her perky, all-smiles disposition, was playing more aggressively than anyone he'd faced. He was rattled and worn down by tough earlier wins.

Then, early in the Double Jeopardy round, with Chu in pursuit, Peloquin found the first Daily Double with the clue: "The h. pylori bacterium causes this type of ulcer, from the Greek for 'digestive.' "

She originally answered, "What is peptide?" But after a long pause and crinckled face, she added "peptic?" — the correct response.

"I had a tough time recovering from her getting that Daily Double," Chu says. "Especially with a questionable call. She was given a lot of time to correct her answer."

Chu says he went on tilt, a term poker players use when they allow their emotions to cloud strategy and judgment. "I was buzzing in early and getting negative numbers from some unnecessary incorrect responses," he says. "You can second-guess it all day long, but it was a tough board for me and I was tired."

Now Chu is even more impressed with Jennings' 74-game streak from a stamina perspective. "Ken's a mutant or something," he says.

As a lover of pop culture, Chu understands that even Breaking Bad only lasted five seasons. But he sees parallels between his role on Jeopardy! and another pop culture idea: the way Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane changed baseball. With a hyperfocus on advanced statistical analysis, Beane replaced emotion and tradition with cold, hard math to help his Moneyball A's win.

"This is like Jeopardy! sabermetrics," Chu says. "I'm sort of leading with the idea of I'm in it to win."

As for the disdain that approach has generated, Chu doesn't mind. Like any good antihero, there are advantages to everyone rooting against you. "I still get to be the underdog," he says.

As of April 10, he hasn't gotten the nearly $300,000. There's a plan to visit China and maybe use some money as a down payment for a house. The show's annual Tournament of Champions might even be in his future.

"But I'm not sure that I'd want to be known as the Jeopardy! guy forever," he says. "These stories come and go."

Chu hopes Jeopardy! will open other doors. He wants more acting and voice-over gigs. He's used his Twitter pulpit to promote Blair's writing by tweeting links to her short stories.

Still, Chu thinks his regular-guy story can be inspiring for others. Maybe he's the anti-Ken Jennings. "You don't have to naturally have this ability to walk onstage and be a prodigy at Jeopordy!" he says. "This is genuine."

It's still shocking that his story rose to the level it did. "You go through life and you think of yourself as a spectator," Chu says. "You don't think of yourself as part of the story."


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