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Arthur Chu: I Went From Jeopardy Villain to Asian-American Icon

Arthur Chu says he's not afraid of being controversial, outspoken, or hated.
Arthur Chu
Former Jeopardy "bad boy" Arthur Chu says he wants to use his new-found fame to speak his mind. "All my life, there have been things I have been saying and wanted to say," said Chu. "Now I get to say it and have people listen. It’s a great gift."Michael Cavotta, 2014

The world hasn’t seen the last of Arthur Chu yet.

Chu made headlines earlier this year when he took a controversial, non-traditional “game theory” approach to playing Jeopardy, which led some fans to cry foul and earned him the status of “Jeopardy bad boy.” His strategy paid off: The 30-year-old from Cleveland, Ohio won 11 straight games, took home nearly $300,000, and became a minor celebrity in the process.

Chu is expected to return for another run later this year in Jeopardy’s Tournament of Champions. But he hasn’t been sitting quietly in the meantime. Shortly after the Isla Vista shootings, the self-proclaimed geek penned a provocative piece about killer Elliot Rodger, the dark side of nerd culture and its misogynistic treatment of women, which sparked more than 1,300 comments. More recently, he reflected on pop culture and Asian-American identity.

In a recent conversation, Chu shared his plans post-Jeopardy, the freedom that comes with being a game show bad boy, and extending his 15 minutes of fame.

Image: Alex Trebek
Arthur Chu won big money on Jeopardy while taking heat for his renegade style. Chu reigned as champion for 12 days in March 2014. His total winnings were $297,200.AP
What has happened since Jeopardy?

I’m still working the same job, and I’m still living the same life. But it’s just this surreal feeling: I have almost 14,000 followers on Twitter. There’s this other world that I live in where famous people will say things and I can talk to them and they’ll reply.

I hesitate to say too much because who knows if it will get off the ground. But a lot of restrictions will be lifted off of me after the Tournament of Champions. I’m hoping to write a book and go on a speaking circuit. [In the meantime], I feel like I am establishing a solid voice with these articles online, which will be a foundation for that.

You have a platform now.

I’ve always been an opinionated person and an outspoken person. It sounds narcissistic and maybe it says something about the culture that we live in, but in a weird way, people of my generation are already used to this. We already write little summaries of our lives on social media. We take quizzes and spend a lot of time thinking about what we would say if we were interviewed. It’s like we have been practicing for our chance when we get that megaphone. In my case, I happened to luck into that. All my life, there have been things I have been saying and wanted to say. Now I get to say it and have people listen. It’s a great gift.

What made you decide to take on race and gender issues?

Those are the issues that people don’t want to talk about. Those are the issues that affect our world and daily lives. When something is controversial, some people are repelled from it, but I am drawn to it.

It’s a blessing and a curse. Being this Jeopardy celebrity meant that people got this impression of me that was based on a thin slice of who I was. [Before], people knew me as an opinionated person, a liberal arts, humanities kind of guy, not a cold-blooded, crunch-the-numbers kind of guy. I hope to show this other side of myself.

"All my life, there have been things I have been saying and wanted to say. Now I get to say it and have people listen."

It was gratifying to me that the most shared piece I’ve written was the piece about Elliot Rodger and it had almost nothing to do with Jeopardy. Jeopardy got my foot in the door so I could write it, but I’d like to think that the piece stood on its own two feet.

Arthur Chu
Chu with his wife, Eliza Blair, on a trip to Yosemite National Park in 2010.Courtesy Arthur Chu
You also wrote about what it’s like to be an Asian American man.

It is something that is personal to me and to a greater degree not being said. It’s a strong trope in the Asian-American community to avoid conflict, to avoid public controversy, to avoid airing dirty laundry in public. That’s certainly how I was raised, with this belief that the best way to get ahead in life was to be a reliable and useful employee and to be good at my job and not make waves. It’s to avoid politics and therefore we’re not well represented in politics. I just want to break that.

I became an icon in the Asian-American community -- which is crazy, I still find that funny -- partly because I was controversial and there are so few Asian-American celebrities who are openly controversial and who embrace that.

"I suppressed my political side for most of my 15 minutes of fame and now I am saying, 'Screw it.' I am going to say what I think."

The thing I dislike the most about the way we talk about race in American politics is the urge to not address it, to say you’re color blind, to say that you don’t see race, that race is not a factor for you. That’s always false. It’s impossible to not see race. And the only way to deal with race is to bring it into the center of the conversation and to acknowledge it from the beginning. That’s what I wish people would do. If we don’t talk about it openly, we can’t do anything about it.

Some people have it backwards. I am not jumping on the political bandwagon to extend my 15 minutes of fame. I suppressed my political side for most of my 15 minutes of fame and now I am saying, “Screw it.” I am going to say what I think.

What do you think of your reputation as Jeopardy villain?

The Jeopardy villain thing was a great meme to pick up and run with. I would like to think I am not a bad person, but I like the villain thing.

Once you’re established as controversial, it is, in a way, a gift. If everyone loved me for being a teddy bear, then I would have felt this pressure to avoid ticking anyone off. But as it was, my publicity started out with tons of people making fun of me and insulting me. My popularity was a backlash to that negative publicity. You start off with this much negativity and it turns into something good. Negativity is not something to be afraid of. It was a great lesson to learn. As a result, I am not afraid of people hating me. That’s part of my brand. It’s part of my brand to be outspoken and controversial. It is very liberating. Once you start with that expectation, you can only surprise people by being nice.

--Interview by Ellen Lee. Edited for clarity and length.