It only took Arthur Chu four appearances on the game show Jeopardy! (and many subsequent TV interviews) to become a household name. Partly, it was how he won: by studying game theory and statistical distribution of high-value Daily Double questions—despite sucking at sports trivia. Mostly, it had to do with how he appeared—namely, as an awkward, yet utterly confident, nerd. He has now won $102,000 and the support of nerd-lovers everywhere. “Someone like me can go viral, because I don’t fit a pre-existing image of what a hero or celebrity should look like,” Chu explains. “I’m different from what people expect to see on TV. The real world is not managed by Hollywood.”
Pop culture has celebrated nerds before. They are typically shy, sweet and apologetic characters—cowed underdogs who somehow triumph despite themselves. Arthur Chu represents an altogether different genus of the nerd kingdom: a self-assured nerd, comfortable in his own skin, altogether unfazed by sneers from the hordes of normalcy.
How do I know this? Before Arthur Chu’s media apotheosis into a geek god, we studied together at Swarthmore College, a bucolic and intense liberal arts school in Pennsylvania that is the closest earthly equivalent to nerd heaven. Arthur and I weren’t particularly close, but I knew him. Everyone did. Even among a conglomeration of brainy social deviants, he stood out.
For reasons that remain shrouded in mystery, Arthur always wore sandals, shorts and a loose-fitting T-shirt—in the rain, in the snow, on bitter winter days. Whenever he was late for class, which was often, we’d see Arthur streaking across campus like a nerd comet, running with the inevitable awkwardness of a man running in sandals. Arthur belonged to a fantasy and sci-fi student club. (This club introduced him to his future wife, Eliza.)
In retrospect, I should have thought, “This dude has viral potential.” Instead, to my discredit, I often thought, “Arthur, it’s freezing outside, put on some pants and boots.”
Now, Arthur is being rewarded for being an übernerd. He also makes a broader case for nerdiness. “We live in an era when it is impossible to deny that the faculties of nerds, like obsession with information and a willingness to question traditions, are traits we need in our society and for our economy,” Chu says. “A nerd, by definition, is someone who is obsessed with things that normal people don’t care about. We can then use that for an advantage.” Yet, nerds continue to struggle—at getting dates, relating to others and avoiding derision. “Nerds can’t separate having gifts from the challenges of being different.”
After Chu’s initial victory, Internet trolls emerged to decry his hyper-rational strategies and to mock his sloppy dress. An “almost comical wave of people had visceral reactions to me,” Chu says. “At first, I was upset.” But then he did a highly un-nerdy thing: He fought back, with cutting wit, on Twitter. He and his wife would re-tweet the meanest messages, then Chu unleashed one skewering riposte after another. One jerk wrote that Chu looked as though “he just ate a pizza in bed.” Another chimed in to request a pizza delivery. Chu tweeted: “Sorry, I finished all the pizza in bed last night. With your girl.”
Chu works a day job as an analyst at an insurance company. But he regularly braves audiences as a stage and voice actor. When Alex Trebek asked Chu about one of his acting troupes, Chu replied: “We get drunk and just read a Shakespeare play with randomly assigned parts. So I’ve been women, I’ve been men. It takes a lot of the pressure out of Shakespeare, it’s great.” The typically unflappable Trebek seemed unsure how to respond. Point: Arthur Chu.
One is a nerd as one is black or redheaded or gay. The only real choice is whether to be a closeted nerd or not. Chu has been proudly out of this closet for a long time. Despite his new-found fame/infamy, he vows to “make the same awkward jokes and dress in the same unfortunate way. The amount of effort required to shed my nerdy qualities, even temporarily, is not worth it.” The question is whether it is metaphysically possible to remain a nerd after becoming so popular.