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Sun November 20, 2011
Television

How One Man Played 'Moneyball' With 'Jeopardy!'

Originally published on Sun November 20, 2011 6:32 pm

One night last September, Roger Craig, a computer scientist from Newark, Del., was about to make history.

In his second appearance on Jeopardy!, he'd given one of the most dominant performances ever seen on the show.

"The whole game was sort of like a flow type of experience," Craig tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Laura Sullivan. "I was in the zone."

When it was time for "Final Jeopardy" — the last and most important wager of the game — Craig's competitor Tony Fan turned to him.

"Dude, I think you can break the record," he told Craig.

Craig looked up at the scoreboard. He had $47,000. The money record for a single game, set by Jeopardy! legend Ken Jennings, was $75,000.

Craig turned to Fan and said, "I think you're right."

You Don't Have To Outrun The Bear

Craig, who holds a doctorate in computer science, broke that single-game record last September. He went on to win three more games — a total of five.

That night, he sat in his hotel, stunned.

"It wasn't even about the money," he says. "I felt that my systems and my methods were sort of validated."

That system? A computer program unlike any other, custom-built to study Jeopardy! for patterns.

Craig says it works like Moneyball — a reference to the book and movie about the statistical techniques used by legendary Oakland Athletics coach Billy Beane to build a winning baseball team. Craig's system also relied heavily on statistics.

"I actually downloaded this site called the Jeopardy! Archive, which is a fan-created site of all the questions and answers that are on the show."

"Something like 211,000 questions and answers that have appeared on Jeopardy!," says Esquire writer Chris Jones, a self-proclaimed "game-show nerd" who's familiar with Craig's tactics.

Using data-mining and text-clustering techniques, Craig grouped questions by category to figure out which topics were statistically common — and which weren't.

"Obviously it's impossible to know everything," Jones says. "So he was trying to decide: What things did he need to know? He prepared himself in a way that I think is probably more rigorous than any other contestant."

Once he'd calculated the odds a category would come up, Craig quizzed himself on a variety of questions to find the gaps in his own knowledge.

But Craig says it's a fallacy for game-show candidates to think they need to know everything.

"They want to learn every capital of every county in the world. And you really don't need to," he says. "Instead, you need to know the 80 percent people have heard of."

That's because the show, he says, isn't written for the contestants. It's written for the people playing along at home, who need to feel they have a fighting chance to keep up.

Craig says that means one simple thing for the player: "You don't have to outrun the bear. You just have to outrun the other guy."

Double Double, No Trouble

Craig wasn't done making big bets after he set the single-day winnings record last September. He'd earned a spot on the show's Tournament of Champions, which aired this past week.

If he needed a second chance to prove his method worked, this was it.

But the Tournament of Champion represented a new challenge. Craig was playing against some of the biggest, most-brilliant winners of the year.

"I've written a lot about sports," says Jones of Esquire. "It's totally stripped me of any delusion I could be an athlete. And watching these guys play Jeopardy! is the same way."

And yet it was clear from Game 1 of the semi-finals that Craig's system gave him an edge.

After hitting one Daily Double and aggressively hunting for — and winning big on — the second one, Jones says Craig could have taken a nap.

"At that point, he could have put his buzzer down and not played again and probably won," Jones says. "He just destroyed the game."

Craig won $250,000 in the Tournament of Champions. He later told his fellow Tournament of Champion contestants about his system. One playfully ribbed him for cheating. Craig is quick to attack anyone who levels the accusation seriously.

"Everybody that wants to succeed at a game is going to practice at the game," he says. "You can practice haphazardly, or you can practice efficiently. And that's what I did."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

One night last September, Roger Craig, a computer scientist from Newark, Delaware, was about to make history...

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

ALEX TREBEK GAME SHOW HOST: The subject is "Literary and Movie Title Objects," and this is the clue.

SULLIVAN: ...on "Jeopardy!".

ROGER CRAIG: First of all, the whole game was sort of like a flow-type experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

ALEX TREBEK: Roger.

CRAIG: What is 21?

HOST: Yep.

CRAIG: I was in the zone.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

HOST: Roger?

CRAIG: Who is Odysseus?

HOST: Yes.

CRAIG: And it just flew by.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

HOST: Roger.

CRAIG: What is the MoMA?

HOST: Roger.

CRAIG: What is the Staten Island Ferry?

HOST: Roger.

CRAIG: What is the Chrysler building?

HOST: Yeah.

CRAIG: And then...

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

HOST: Roger?

SULLIVAN: Near the end of the game...

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

HOST: Roger.

CRAIG: Who is Ares?

SULLIVAN: ...Roger had racked up $47,000.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

HOST: Roger.

CRAIG: What is a beachhead?

SULLIVAN: Way more than contestants usually have at this point.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

HOST: Roger.

SULLIVAN: Until finally....

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

HOST: Roger.

SULLIVAN: ...it was "Final Jeopardy"...

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

HOST: Roger.

SULLIVAN: ...the last...

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

HOST: Roger.

SULLIVAN: ...and biggest question of the entire game.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

HOST: The inspiration for this titled object...

CRAIG: Tony Fan, who was next to me, turns to me and says, dude, I think you can break the record. And I look up at the scores, and I turned to him and said, I think you're right.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

HOST: It's up to Roger Craig, could set a new one-day record here if he came up with "The Bridge on the River Kwai." He did. I hope he wagered a lot. He did. New record: $77,000.

CRAIG: And it wasn't even about the money. I felt that my system and my methods were sort of validated.

SULLIVAN: That's right. The reason Roger Craig was so dominant on "Jeopardy!" is arguably because of a system he built, a computer program unlike any other, to study "Jeopardy!" for patterns.

CRAIG: What I did was I actually downloaded at one point this site called the Jeopardy Archive, which is a fan-created site of all the questions and answers that are on the show.

CHRIS JONES: I believe something like 211,000 questions and answers that have appeared on "Jeopardy!"

SULLIVAN: We called up Chris Jones. He's a writer at Esquire magazine...

JONES: And I'm a game show nerd.

SULLIVAN: ...to help explain.

JONES: And he downloaded that...

CRAIG: Downloaded the Jeopardy Archive.

JONES: And the first thing he decided to do was try to determine which categories were most likely to come up.

SULLIVAN: So for example, 19th century artists might come up a lot, so Roger would study that. But if, say, according to the archives...

JONES: Something like fashion was a relatively unimportant category.

SULLIVAN: ...Roger would study that less.

JONES: So he was trying to decide what things did he need to know.

CRAIG: Some people that are in this quiz world want to be on "Jeopardy!" et cetera, they want to learn every capital of every country in the world. And you really don't need to. Instead, you need to know the 80 percent people have heard of. And so to sum this up, you don't have to outrun the bear. You just have to outrun the other guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is the "Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions."

SULLIVAN: Roger won five games in a row last year using his computer system. And if he needed a second chance to prove his system worked, he got it last week during the "Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions," which pits this year's biggest winners against one another. Chris Jones of Esquire was watching.

JONES: And all the players were playing very well. It was a very close game at the start.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

CRAIG: Novels, $1,200.

ANNOUNCER: And then he hit the first one.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

HOST: Daily Double.

SULLIVAN: Now, that, the Daily Double, that's when you can bet all your money on one question. There are only three in the entire game.

CRAIG: You can put the game away with a Daily Double or two if you're very aggressive.

SULLIVAN: Again, the category is novels.

CRAIG: I was probably, like, 80, 85 percent sure I'd get the right answer.

SULLIVAN: Now, you don't want to tell people for sure what your actual - I know you know what percentage you actually are in novels. I noticed you're suddenly smiling.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

HOST: ...on the lead over Tom.

CRAIG: I'll bet it all.

SULLIVAN: You'd bet it all.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

HOST: Note the initials.

CRAIG: Who is Anne Bronte?

HOST: Anne Bronte is...

SULLIVAN: So here we are. Roger has just doubled his money. He's far and away in control of the game. Most players are lucky to do this once. But Roger?

CRAIG: And then you see me looking at the board.

JONES: And, yeah, they call it hunting. You go hunting for the Double Jeopardy.

CRAIG: And I pick out...

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

CRAIG: Languages, $1,600.

SULLIVAN: And it's the Daily Double. (Makes noise)

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

HOST: And the Daily Double is there.

CRAIG: And at this point, I have $18,000. If I bet $18,000, if I bet my whole stack, $18,000, and I get it right, I've essentially sealed the game.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

CRAIG: Whew. I'll bet it all.

The pages were going into the audience, telling everyone to stop gasping. They were like, stop gasping. The mics are picking it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

HOST: All right. Here is the clue. Although Dutch is the official language...

CRAIG: And then I saw the clue pop up. I was very happy to see Dutch, South American country, because then I immediately knew it was...

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

CRAIG: What is Surinam?

HOST: Surinam is right, $36,000. Oh, boy.

JONES: At that point, he could've put his buzzer down and not played again and probably won. And it just destroyed the game.

SULLIVAN: I mean, in some way, is this cheating?

CRAIG: No. I really take offense to that. Everybody that wants to succeed at a game is going to practice at the game. And you can practice haphazardly or you can practice efficiently. And that's what I did.

(SOUNDBITE OF "JEOPARDY!" THEME SONG)

SULLIVAN: Roger Craig. He won a quarter-million dollars in this past week's Tournament of Champions on "Jeopardy!" He's recently opened his own business specializing in what he calls data mining.

(SOUNDBITE OF "JEOPARDY!" THEME SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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