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The St. Louis CEO who devised a winning 'Jeopardy!' strategy. Who is Donn Rubin?

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Donn Rubin would like to set the record straight.

“I feel a bit cheated,” he says good-humoredly.

For weeks, all eyes were on James Holzhauer, whose stunning winning streak on “Jeopardy!” came to an end Monday. Holzhauer used a technique fans of the show call the “Forrest Bounce,” named for Chuck Forrest, a winning contestant in the 1980s.

How James Holzhauer's astonishing 'Jeopardy!' run came to a dramatic end.

"Jeopardy!” powerhouse James Holzhauer.

Photo by Carol Kaelson, Jeopardy Productions

Donn Rubin

Donn Rubin, president and CEO of BioSTL

Photo by Shari Photography

Typically, players work through a single category of clues. But Forrest’s technique involves bouncing around the board, choosing clues from different categories, to throw off competitors.

But even Forrest, 58, will tell you the technique is actually called the “Rubin Bounce,” so named for a friend who helped him practice back in the day.

That’s Donn Rubin. Rubin is the president and CEO of BioSTL, which helps build life sciences in the region. He’s married to Beth Rubin, a research assistant at the St. Louis Art Museum, and is the proud father of two sons in college, Sam and Harry, who have been invited to the teen tryouts for “Jeopardy!” but have not been invited to play.

Rubin, 57, has plenty of reasons to feel happy.

But he feels that the media and the internet have taken off with the wrong name: Forrest’s.

“It’s not as if I’m claiming something that he claimed,” Rubin says. “If you were really a ‘Jeopardy!’ maven, you’d call it the Rubin Bounce, right?”

The story starts in early 1985 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Rubin and Forrest were classmates in their first year of law school.

“Jeopardy!” advertised that it planned to come to Detroit to look for contestants. Rubin didn’t try out, but Forrest and another friend, Dave Abrams, did. The three watched the show together and then quizzed one another, using Rubin’s shoulders as buzzers. Rubin determined who buzzed in first depending on which shoulder got the first smack.

“I thought, ‘This is humiliating,’” Rubin says.

During the process, Rubin devised a strategy of bouncing around the board. Friends called it the Rubin Bounce. It gave players the advantage of speed, knowing a fraction of a second sooner where to look on the board before your competitors. Rubin also knew from his undergrad psychology class that memory works like a file drawer — with, say, baseball in one file, Shakespeare in another. While other competitors are still focused on the Shakespeare file, a Rubin bouncer is a bit ahead of the game, searching in the baseball file.

Donn Rubin and Chuck Forrest contract

This is the contract Donn Rubin and his law school classmate Chuck Forrest wrote up in 1985 before Forrest competed on "Jeopardy!" Forrest ended up winning $72,800, the biggest prize in the game's history at the time. The contract said Rubin would get one half of one percent of Forrest's winnings.

Courtesy of Donn Rubin

“So the Rubin Bounce is founded on some dime store psychology, along with sort of my own sports instincts of keeping opponents off balance,” Rubin says.

They scrawled out a contract on notebook paper: If Forrest made it to “Jeopardy!,” he would give Rubin one half of 1 percent of all his winnings.

That summer, Rubin went backpacking in Europe. This being the 1980s, communication was a bit slower, and the friends weren’t in touch for a few months.

When Rubin’s dad picked him up at St. Louis Lambert International Airport, he had news: Rubin had won $364. This meant that Forrest had not only been selected to play on “Jeopardy!,” but he had won $72,800 — at the time, the biggest “Jeopardy!” win yet. Players were limited to five days of play, so Forrest had competed and returned home.

Rubin didn’t collect his own winnings right away.

“We eventually had a party,” Rubin says. “He paid me the $364 in pennies.”

The three friends continued their trivia streak, winning the University of Michigan’s college quiz bowl. Then “Jeopardy!” invited Forrest to compete in the Tournament of Champions. The friends gave Rubin’s shoulders a break and borrowed the university’s electronic buzzer system. They practiced daily, using the “Jeopardy!” home game, with a friend playing the role of host Alex Trebek.

“I was the guy who could give (Forrest) a run for his money,” Rubin says.

Chuck Forrest

Chuck Forrest won $72,800 on "Jeopardy!" in 1985, at the time the biggest payout in the show's history. Image from video

Forrest used the Rubin Bounce as he played, “not as much as legend would have it, but enough to throw my opponents off,” Forrest said in an email interview. “The show was so new that nobody had thought much about strategy — I don’t think anyone else had done any real analysis of questions or strategy before.”

Forrest has given Rubin credit over the years. In the book “Secrets of the Jeopardy! Champions,” which Forrest co-wrote, he says, “I pioneered the ‘Rubin Bounce,’ named for my law school friend who first suggested it.” The Rubin Bounce also gets a mention in “How to Get on Jeopardy! And Win!” by another Tournament of Champions winner, Michael Dupée.

Forrest won $100,000 in the Tournament of Champions. Classmates asked if he would pay Rubin $500.

Forrest balked; he didn’t owe Rubin any money, he said. But the friends looked at the contract: It didn’t specify he owed Rubin only once.

Sue me, Forrest replied.

So Rubin did.

A friend who worked in student legal services helped Rubin draft the documents to sue Forrest in small claims court in Ann Arbor. “He was very unhappy about that,” Rubin says. In the end, the friends settled out of court. Forrest reimbursed him for his filing costs and promised to buy Rubin a Baluchi rug, which he purchased later that year in Cairo while working for a law firm. Rubin has used the antique rug over the years; it’s rolled up in his attic.

The two are still friends. Forrest lives in a suburb of Rome and is a senior legal officer for the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

“I am hoping that all of this hype will persuade my friends at ‘Jeopardy!’ to organize another tournament,” Forrest said by email. “The last one I participated in was the Battle of the Decades five years ago, where I almost beat Ken Jennings.”

Rubin would still like a bit more credit. He recently wrote a letter to the editor at the Economist after it published a story about Holzhauer and referenced the Forrest Bounce.

But otherwise, he’s happy.

“I got my $364,” he said. “And a rug, that’s true. And a great story.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story had the word Baluchi misspelled.

Valerie Schremp Hahn is a features writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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