Press "Enter" to skip to content

Chuck Forrest Can’t Recommend His Disruptive Jeopardy! Strategy to Everyone

“I’ve had experiences where I jumped in the middle and didn’t understand what the category was, and I found myself getting a question wrong.”Photo: Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

Buzzers. Lecterns. **** Ferguson. The Forrest bounce. Plenty of beloved lexicon has entered into the Jeopardy! orbit over the past four decades, but only one of them involves a game-altering strategy that shifted how contestants chose to approach the board and bend it in their favor. We owe this “bounce” to Chuck Forrest, a now-62-year-old legend who appeared on the show in its second season and dared to test out a new method of play. Instead of customarily descending from top to bottom in categories to receive clues, the attorney picked a random assortment from around the board in an attempt to disorient his opponents; the strategy, more recently pioneered by megachampion James Holzhauer, hinged on giving Forrest a minor time advantage due to being the clue-picker. Oh yeah, and also being incredibly smart. “Physically facing the game board, you realize that focusing on a different part of the board gives you a slight head start,” he tells me. Voilà: With that, the show’s first breakout star was born.

Forrest was forced to bow out after winning five games during his original run in 1985, which was the maximum number allowed at the time. (Contestants were only given unlimited wins in 2003, just before the reign of Ken Jennings.) Forrest reappeared in several tournaments over the years, most recently as a semifinalist in 2014’s Battle of the Decades tournament. And now, he’s back to “What is?” and “Who is?” his way to potential glory once more. Thanks to the Jeopardy! Invitational tournament, which is currently airing, Forrest is facing off against other fan-favorite geniuses who have graced the show since its inception, and he has no immediate plans to retire. “I can’t see any end to Jeopardy!. It’s going to go on forever,” he says. “It’s an institution. All divisions of American society love Jeopardy!.”

I kind of view you as a forefather of Jeopardy!. How did you determine this would be the best time to return and show the kids who’s boss?
Whenever they invite me, I’ll come back. I think everybody who’s been on the show says the same thing. It’s just a lot of fun — it’s a great experience to be up there whether you win or lose. Nobody will turn it down unless they’re in the hospital. It’s not about the money. Well, once you’ve won and got some money, it’s easy to say that. It’s about the competition. It’s a great group of people. When you’re there with the other contestants, especially people who have been on the show before, there’s a lot of camaraderie. We all have similar personalities, as you can imagine.

You come from an era of players that had to abide by a more rigid set of rules: You ended your run at five games, for instance. When you look at the show in 2024, is it still recognizable from 1985? What have you observed about its evolution?
The actual game is almost unchanged. You can debate whether the questions have gotten easier or harder, but I don’t think they have. It’s a tribute to this group of people who have been writing for the show, some of whom have been there for decades. There’s a lot of tradition, consistency, and continuation on how Jeopardy! works. The big change was when they allowed an unlimited number of wins, which created the Ken Jennings phenomenon. And now Ken is standing where Alex is. That’s a change, but nobody lives forever, and that was inevitable.

When you go back to the beginning of the show, there was more of a memory in Hollywood of the game-show scandals. They were concerned about the possibility of creating personalities who would become bigger than the game itself. That’s the reason there was a five-game limit, and even with that, there was a limit in how much money you could win. I couldn’t win more than $75,000, and if I exceeded it, the rest would have to go to charity. It was a big gamble raising the five-game limit. It’s proved to be one of the ways the show has managed to adapt. In a way, these were kind of the first reality programs. You had real people up there with real names. It wasn’t just “Bob.” You knew their full name, profession, and they would come back for the Tournament of Champions. The whole experience is much more tied into the personalities.

And that has a lot of pros and cons now.
Yeah; fortunately, we haven’t had anybody who goes out and becomes a criminal. That’s a risk the show has to take. Apart from that, the show is the same as it’s always been. It’s clear that there’s a huge advantage to the returning champions. When you go back to play again, you have to get yourself mentally back into the proper mode of approaching things and it takes a while. It’s almost surprising we haven’t had more of these super-champions.

What compelled you to try out the Forrest bounce?
I always thought it would be difficult to get on Jeopardy!. I figured the selection process was the difficult part. But then when I found out I’d been selected, I started to analyze it as best I could. I was in law school and all of my classmates and colleagues watched the show and tried to come up with an analysis of it. Remember, it was a new show at the time. You didn’t have an enormous database, like we have now, of questions and answers. I tried to analyze the areas that come up most frequently and what could potentially be studied. And then look at the possible strategies. That was the one that came to mind.

It was a friend at law school who suggested it. When I got to the show on the stage, I could see the physical advantage of it. When you name the category and amount, everybody has to look for it. But you know where you’re looking. That half-second advantage makes a big difference. Now the balance has been turned into a tool for searching for Daily Doubles. I didn’t see the Daily Double as a great opportunity. It’s a risk more than anything else. Some of these new contestants have found ways to keep multiplying and build up huge scores by finding Daily Doubles. James Holzhauer is the prime example of that.

Several years ago, Alex Trebek admitted that the strategy you pioneered bothered him: He believed the categories were constructed to be played going top to bottom and it’s not as advantageous if you bounce around. Do you understand why he might’ve felt that way?
Sure, I think he’s right to a certain degree. Some of these categories are written so that you need to start from the top. I’ve had experiences where I jumped in the middle and didn’t understand what the category was, and I found myself getting a question wrong. You have to be in a very dominant position in order to use this. People sitting at home might find it confusing. There are a few people who have been able to use it effectively, and many others will try it, hit a roadblock, and wish they wouldn’t have done it. You see people psychologically give up. You’ll see other people claw back into the competition. And it all happens in a very short period of time. If you were to make this show an hour, I don’t think it would be any better or a better way to determine who’s a better player.

I feel like every prominent Jeopardy! player has at least one great Alex story. What would yours be?
I go back to the beginning, where he had an afro and a big mustache. He was a wizard of odds. He wasn’t this avuncular figure that everybody respected. He was a game-show host. Over the years, my impression of Alex was that I realized what an intelligent person he was. He genuinely cared about the contestants and wanted to see people do well. He was a remarkable person. You can see how he turned Jeopardy! into this institution for the whole country. Nobody knew what his politics were. He never expressed his opinion on anything. He maintained his dignity.

Were you surprised by the reaction to James Holzhauer’s historic run and the strategy he employed? I felt that so much of the coverage presented his methods as new and different, and I’m like, Uh, Chuck might have a word about this.
James brought this audacity of spirit, but he really knew his stuff. It was an amazing combination. He’s obviously a brilliant guy and was able to take these incredible risks, which is how he built up these huge leads with his games. But look, the top money winner of all time is Brad Rutter. He doesn’t seem to have a particular strategy or anything. He’s just really good. People have different approaches, and there’s no one-size-fits-all method.

Is there anyone from the newest lineage of players you’re dying to compete against? 
I’d love to get the chance to compete against James. The people in the Invitational tournament are all worthy opponents. I have to say, Sam Buttrey is a great guy and I had a fantastic time talking with him. He’s such an affable person. This tournament wasn’t as convoluted as previous ones I’ve competed in, so it’s a way to showcase old and new players and see how they do against each other.

As I get older and slower on the buzzer — and the fact that I’ve now spent most of life living outside of the United States — I kind of felt like I was out of the loop with Jeopardy!. I have almost 40 more years of things to learn and know about. Any of the questions they asked the first time I was on, they could ask again, but then you’ve got everything that’s happened since. Who can keep up with all this stuff? New planets, new elements, new countries, new music, and thousands of television shows? To compete against younger people is getting harder for me. They know things I don’t. But it’s still a great experience to put yourself up against these people. I’m waiting for them to invite me again and again and again. I’ll keep going to that studio until I’m too old to travel.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply