Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Optimal Jeopardy! question-choosing strategy

It didn’t take long for Arthur Chu to become Public Game Show Enemy No. 1. Within days of his Jan. 28 debut on Jeopardy!, the 30-year-old Cleveland-area insurance analyst was making America very, very angry. ...

Arthur Chu’s signature technique: bopping around the game board seemingly at whim, rather than choosing the clues from top to bottom, as most contestants do. This is Chu’s great crime, the kind of anarchy that hard-core Jeopardy! fans will not countenance. ...

In any game of Jeopardy!, three clues have been secretly earmarked as Daily Doubles. The player who finds each one can bet any or all of her winnings on responding to it correctly. By and large, Jeopardy! players are a risk-averse bunch. Unless a player is in need of a big comeback, the Daily Double wager is usually a smallish one.

Strategically, this is crazy. Like a poker player trying to increase the size of the pot when he has a good hand, Jeopardy! contestants should maximize their upside when the odds are in their favor. Historically, the odds of getting a Daily Double correct are very good: Between 65 and 70 percent. Too many players instead let games come down to Final Jeopardy, where conversion is much less predictable. (Fewer than half of all Final Jeopardy responses are correct.) Finding the Daily Doubles becomes more important the stronger a player you are, since it lowers the influence of chance on the outcome. Crunching some numbers, I see that my own Daily Double conversion during my Jeopardy! run was about 83 percent. In hindsight, my wagers were almost always too small.

So when Arthur Chu bobs and weaves around the board, he’s chasing those game-changing Daily Doubles. (The Jeopardy! contestant coordinators recommend playing the game in top-to-bottom order, mostly to make life easier on Alex Trebek and the techs who run the game board, but it’s not a requirement.) Hunting is possible because Daily Doubles may be hidden, but they’re not distributed randomly. For example, they’re much more likely to be in the fourth row of clues (36 percent of the time, in recent years) than the second row (just 10 percent). Roger Craig even discovered that Daily Doubles are distributed nonrandomly by column as well, and played accordingly.
--74-time Jeopardy! winner Ken Jennings, Slate, on Moneyball-hacking Jeopardy!