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

November 20th, 2011

NPR
By NPR Staff
Nov. 20, 2011

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.

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