Friday, April 17, 2015

Jacob on Jeopardy!

Tuned in tonight to watch Jeopardy! in order to see Alex Jacob, the poker pro (or former poker pro) who is currently enjoying a massive run on the show.

Most in the poker world first met Jacob nearly a decade ago when he won that United States Poker Championship in Atlantic City in 2006, an event that was televised and thus got him some notice even though he’d already made final tables at the World Poker Tour and World Series of Poker by then.

He’d continue to collect cashes up through 2012, earning over $2.6 million total. I feel like he never was a full-timer on the circuit, though, and over the last couple of years has been even less conspicuous, perhaps having stepped away entirely.

In any case, you’ve probably heard about him popping up again on Jeopardy! where he’s been crushing. Going into tonight he’d won five times in a row, winning $129,401 total with mostly dominating performances. At the start of this sixth try, host Alex Trebek noted how Jacob had gotten to Final Jeopardy four of five times with leads of greater than double the nearest competitor, meaning he’d already clinched the win.

I did watch the end of one of those shows and laughed at the end when during Final Jeopardy Jacob appeared to push “all in” by moving his hands forward when his final betting amount was revealed -- $0, actually. At the start of tonight’s show Trebek introduced Jacob as a currency trader, so I’m not even sure they’ve discussed his poker background at all.

Hearing about some of Jacob’s strategies -- e.g., not going top-to-botton with categories but jumping all around the board with his clue selections, and usually betting everything on the Daily Doubles -- I thought back to that fellow from about a year ago, Arthur Chu, who also got a lot of press and poker players’ attention during a run of 11 straight wins on the show.

Chu became known as the “Jeopardy Villain” because of both his unorthodox strategy and his humorous baiting of folks over Twitter during the time of his reign. Chu would also pick clues out of order and routinely go “all in” on the Daily Doubles. Jeopardy! legend Ken Jennings wrote an article for Slate at the time discussing Chu, explaining how that latter decision to go for “true Daily Doubles” was correct.

“Like a poker player trying to increase the size of the pot when he has a good hand,” Jennings wrote, “Jeopardy! contestants should maximize their upside when the odds are in their favor.”

There was one other quirk Chu exhibited during Final Jeopardy. When leading but not having more than twice the “stack” as his nearest foe, he’d bet exactly enough to tie should his opponent bet everything and both players answered the clue correctly.

For example, if Chu had $12,000 and his opponent had $7,000, Chu would bet exactly $2,000 -- not $2,001, as some tend to do -- to end with $14,000 if he were to be correct and tie with his opponent if that player bet everything and was correct as well. In fact, one time that’s what happened and after tying both he and his opponent were able to return for the next show.

That strategy, as I understand it, makes it just a tiny bit less likely Chu could lose should his opponent happen not to bet everything but a lesser amount. In the above example, for instance, if he bet $2,001 and was incorrect he’d end with $11,999, and if his opponent only bet $5,000 even and was correct that player would have $12,000 and win by a buck.

I noticed someone retweeting Chu commenting on Jacob, in fact, interestingly bringing up his own poker playing as he did.

Getting back to Jacob’s performance tonight, Trebek introduced things by alluding to Jacob’s recent run, advising Jacob’s opponents Nikhil and Scott to “get him early, and then try to get him late, too.” Jacob ruled during much of the first round, though, quickly building a big lead before the others finally were able to buzz in and start notching some correct answers.

Then Scott got the Daily Double and with just $600 -- several thousand behind Jacob -- he surprisingly bet only $5. The questioned turned out to be an easy one for him and he won the $5, but it felt a lot like a player too timid to bet without a sure thing.

By the second round Jacob was well in front and in fact went a long stretch without buzzing in at all while the totals of other two went up and down. Scott got another Daily Double, and this time said “Alex is too good, I gotta do it... true Daily Double.” Alas for him he got a tough one about an Italian painter and lost his stack.

A little later Nikhil got the other Daily Double at a point when he had $4,200 and Alex $7,200. Betting it all and being correct would put him in the lead, but he chose only to bet $2,000. The category was “In the Dictionary” and the clue “Fittingly it means ‘Empty Orchestra’ in Japanese.” Nikhil guessed “What is kabuki?” but the correct response was “What is karaoke?” and Jacob’s lead increased again.

There was a clue about “Manhattan prosecutor Preet Bharara” -- he of Black Friday fame -- that perhaps got poker players’ attention. It got Jacob’s attention, too, as he finally buzzed back in to guess correctly that Bharara had vowed sweeping reform of Rikers Island.

Jacob then rattled off a few more correct answers, seeming at one point to pause unnaturally after buzzing in to answer an easy one about a Halloween TV special featuring a character who instead of candy gets a rock.

“Who is... Charlie Brown?” he said, and for a moment I thought he might have been stalling a little as the round was winding down. But he immediately picked back up the pace thereafter, and the trio was able to complete the entire board with Jacob sitting with $17,400, Nikhil $10,200, and Scott $3,600.

The Final Jeopardy category was “Book Reviews” and the clue was an easy one (I thought) -- “A 2008 review of this novel, later filmed, compared it to ‘Battle Royale’ & said it’s ‘a future we can fear.’” -- although I guess it might not have been easy if I hadn’t read The Hunger Games.

Nikhil missed it, though, while Jacob got it correct. He bet $3,001 -- meaning he did not choose the Chu approach -- and ended with $20,401 to bring his six-day total close to $150K.

To be honest, while it’s probably safe to say Jacob is using some of the same skills and strategic thinking he honed at the poker tables while playing and winning at Jeopardy!, there wasn’t that much in his play that obviously recalled his poker background. In fact, it was the timidity of the other two players that made me think more of poker, as well as a kind of “tell” from Scott when he declared he didn’t like one category as he was selecting it.

I guess, though, at the very end of the show I was reminded again that Jacob played poker. “Smile, Alex... smile!” said Trebek to Jacob who remained stoic even as the audience applauded his victory. He reminded me of a seasoned player who has just won a big pot and who has trained himself not to show emotion afterwards.

Jacob may be a “currency trader” now, but he still has that poker face.

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