So You Want To Be A Millionaire?

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A Million Bucks Isn’t Trivial

I’m sure most of you have watched or at least heard about “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” at some point in the last few months.

What you may not be aware of are some of the background details and the kinds of people who manage to get on shows like these.

About four years ago, someone introduced me to a series of live trivia games which you can play in over three thousand watering holes across the United States and Canada.

The games are sent via satellite to all these watering holes, and the game results are sent back. You get a little box with buttons that you press to enter one of the multiple-choice answers, and when the game is over, the results are sent back to HQ, and a few minutes later, you see the top individual and bar scores from across North America for that game.

So you compete against others playing the game in the bar, and if you’re really good, against the best playing on the continent at that time.

Well, I found I was pretty good at it. As time went on, I found that at least hundreds of groups of people in various places formed teams and shared the answers they knew to get the watering hole on top or near it in the standings, particularly in the prime-time games.

Some people take this seriously. Very, very seriously. So seriously that, for one prime-time, general-knowledge game, a number of places bring in computers loaded with reference materials just to play.

Then they say, “What computers?” Just like people who use all kinds of cheat codes are firing bots to play Quake and call themselves great players. We both think about the same of such people: lower than whale shit.

Due to circumstances, I have found myself playing for some of the best teams at this game, literally trivia superpowers.

Ever had a movie question that you just couldn’t find the answer to? I’ve been with groups of people where you will ALWAYS get the answer. I don’t care what it is; if asked how many dimple Shirley Temple had, they’d ask, “Which cheek”?

Get six or eight people that good together and toss a movie trivia game at them. Out of three thousand location, if they came in second, that was a pretty rare disaster. These suckers are good!

There are prizes, but they don’t usually amount to much. People usually play for much the same reason you like to frag people, for bragging rights and glory.

Anyway, you can imagine that people like this would be very interested in a game like Millionaire, and indeed they are. Actually, quite a few of the people you see on Millionaire play these games regularly.

Running the Gamut

Recently, the second person of the group I currently play with qualified to get on the show. (The first one got on, and kept coming in second or third. He indicated it was very aggravating to have to watch the people who beat you out blow questions he could have answered unconscious.)

Qualifying to get on the show is a little odd. Essentially, you call on the telephone, they give you a question asking to place four facts/people in a certain order, and you punch that out quickly on a dial-tone phone. Get it right and quickly for two rounds, and you qualify for the show calling you for more. Qualifying doesn’t mean they’ll call you, you just get into the pool of potential candidates.

Here, this person had qualified a number of times in the past, but this time, he got called, and asked to show up for another round of testing in New York. He did that, and went for the third round, where they ask you a number of questions like the ones they ask you on the phone.

A couple days later, he was told that he had passed, and was given a date for when the show he would be on would tape, along with a variety of instructions. For most people, this would include travel plans; since he lived literally within about five miles of the studio, they just picked him up in a limo, and brought him to a hotel near the ABC studio on the West Side of Manhattan.

With A Little Help From My Friends

The show allows you to call one of a number of friends (up to five) for help in answering one question. The rules (and there are quite a few) do not preclude having more than one person in a place. Well, we had about a dozen at Trivia Central, with tons of experience, fortified with anything not disallowed under the rules.

Are These People . . . Well . . . Normal?

Well, they’re certainly normal looking. The only one you’d describe as geeky looking is . . . uh . . . me.

Well, maybe the contestant isn’t. I’m hormonally-challenged on this one, but I suspect many ladies would find him rather better than normal (including his wife).

He’s one of the entertainment wizards. Another is a postal worker; specialties sports and music. If you ever were in a band that ever said “doo-wop,” he knows who you are and where you live. He also probably has evidence in his 7,000 record collection.

We had television experts. One answered a few questions recently from some old TV shows I don’t think the original scriptwriters could have answered.

We had arts and literature specialists. OK, one of them might not be described as “normal-looking”. Nobody who could fill-in for God, or at least some Old Testament prophet (ironic given his avowed atheism) in some theatrical production quite meets the description of “normal,” but looking and sounding like God the Father can be pretty handy when you’re a lawyer cross-examining someone.

Another is an arts curator of eighteen stone originally from Northern Ireland. He’s responsible for moving precious art around. We have pictures of him putting one of Princess Di’s gown up against himself for size. A little small.

We had history specialists. Don’t ask me about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ask me about Vlad Dracul (after making him far nicer and far less-bloodthirsty, what you’re left with is Dracula).

We even had women. Intelligent women who can answer questions about horse breeds and French culture, and lots of other things. They’re even good-looking, too.

Offsite, as alternative lifelines, we had one source who sounds like a longshoreman, actually is a medical doctor, and can wipe up just about any general knowledge question. Another is a poet and three-time Jeopardy winner.

Overall, what you have are a bunch of pretty normal people who just have a passion for certain areas of the human experience, and have learned quite a bit about it because of that. Not freaks, not geeks, just folks with knowledge peaks.

And we had enough knowledge peaks to form a mountain range.

Not A Piece of Cake

However, we also knew perfectly well that getting most of them right didn’t matter much, getting all of them right did. One wrong answer, and bye-bye.

We knew question mix was crucial. Millionaire leans towards entertainment questions, which, fortunately, our two contestants are very good at, but for instance, I’m not.

We also knew the question writers for Millionaire were really good at what they did; they knew how to write tough ones that didn’t seem absurdly difficult to the viewing audience.

We also knew that as of late, in the midst of the softball questions early on in a round, they were now tossing in a couple tough ones before a contestant reached $32,000.

Of course, given the kind of money at stake and the relative generosity of the rules otherwise, it’s reasonable to expect tough questions. It would nice to win a million dollars by answering “What’s your name?” but hardly realistic.

What happened? Read on!

Email Ed

This Ain’t No Party, This Ain’t No Disco, This Ain’t No Fooling Around

Despite our trivia experience, there was one huge difference between this exercise and some trivia game. The stakes.

You play a trivia game as a team, if nobody else has a better idea, you just don’t give answers you are absolutely, rock-certain positive about. You toss out the best you can do, try to indicate the level of certainty or uncertainty through words or the tone of your voice.

After all, even if you miss, what’s the worst that can happen. You lose a game, a tournament, a small prize. If nobody else had a clue, it’s tough for them to complain.

But with Millionaire, now we’re talking about real money, and more importantly, not yours. You may gamble on a hunch; but for somebody else?

People usually forget about a wrong answer you’ve given in a trivia game pretty quickly. We had the sneaky suspicion the memories would linger if a wrong answer cost somebody tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Makes you a little cautious.

Meanwhile, Back At The Studio

Contestants are usually flown in the day before the taping and given a hotel room for the night before and after the taping. It’s a good hotel a few blocks away from the ABC studios (no, they aren’t being cheap, there just aren’t any world-class hotels within a few blocks of where the ABC studios where the show is taped, and you don’t want to fight Manhattan traffic, believe me). Since my friend lives in New York, they just drove him over in a limo.

You get a $50 a day meal allowance, though you hardly have time during the day of the taping to spend it; you get taken to the studio pretty early in the morning, where you get to practice and wait until the studio taping.

They do watch you pretty closely. If you need to go to the bathroom, for instance, you get accompanied. I don’t think they do that because they think you’re going to hold the question writers hostage until they spill the beans; but rather to remove all possibility of any contestant saying that another contestant somehow found something out.

The Gathering

Lifelines are supposed to be present between 4-7 PM Eastern time. We had been told that things really didn’t get started until about 5.

So from about 3:30 to 4:30, people rolled in. It seemed very much like a Super Bowl party, except they mostly talked trivia rather than football. Beverages (alcoholic and not, some players only hit cruising altitude with a couple under their belts) were served, and we waited.

Fortunately, Millionaire doesn’t just leave people hanging for three hours. They call to tell you if your friend gets on the hotseat, they call to tell you (if you hadn’t gotten the lifeline call) once it’s been used, and finally, if your friend doesn’t get into the hotseat, they call you to tell you when the taping is over. That’s a nice touch.

We had designated one person to take the call and talk. No cell phones, no speakerphones, per the rules.

At about 5:20, the phone rang. Our friend had made it to the hot seat!

Now we were really on-call. The tension rose a bit, but not too much. The conversation level remained about the same. We knew the longer we waited, the more would be at stake.

The Crunch

About fifteen minutes later, the call.

A few pleasantries were exchanged, and then the question

“Who is responsible for naming the capital ships in the Navy?”

You have ten seconds. BTW, “capital ships” are the biggies. Like aircraft carriers.

He’s at $16,000. Get it right, and he’s guaranteed $32,000. Walk away, and he gets $16,000. Get it wrong, and he goes home with a grand. It costs your friend fifteen thousand dollars if you tell him and you’re wrong.

Time’s up.

Do you know? Are you sure? Are you fifteen thousand dollars sure?

Yes, you got four choices. No, I’m not going to tell you what they all were, nor the answer. Oldest trick in the book to hear the answer and say, “Of course I knew that.” All the options were reasonably plausible; they didn’t have Bozo the Clown or Eminem as choices. If you need multiple choice to get it right, you don’t know it and you have no business handing out guesses.

Our friend figured one person, who went to the Merchant Marine Academy, would know it cold. He didn’t. He knows the names of all these things, not who named them. Two people ventured a guess just before or after the ten seconds were up. One person ventured what proved to be the right answer; I recalled reading that President Reagan had named a couple aircraft carriers in the eighties and ventured what proved to be the wrong answer, but indicated I was not at all sure.

The person on the phone saw we didn’t know for sure, and almost immediately relayed that. Probably pulled the trigger too fast, but it didn’t make a bit of difference here.

What We Really Needed Was A Vulcan Mind Meld

Our friend proved much more adventurous than we thought. He’s a quiet fellow, hardly comes across as the gambling type.

He had used the audience lifeline on an earlier question. We had fanned on the second. He used fifty-fifty, and the two choices left were precisely the two choices we had come up with. So even if we had had more time, it would have come out the same.

He went for the gusto and chose the President. Wrong.


It sounds like an easy question, but to really know rather than guess it, you’d have to be in the Navy, or a Navy contractor, and maybe some Navy port.

At least for me, there’s one fiendishly clever word in that question: capital. Take that word out, and you can think your way through to an answer. The President isn’t going to name every patrol boat the Navy buys. He might name all the aircraft carriers, though.

Afterwards, I checked my sources, and what I had remembered was correct. President Reagan did name those carriers. However, that does not mean (nor had I thought), that he was the only one who could do this. What apparently happened was the responsible guy (for very sneaky reasons, I might add) got his boss to name these particular ones.

A day or so later, to our mortification, we found out that there actually had been a recent (New York) newspaper reference to the responsible official actually naming the ship. Do you know where it was?

In somebody’s gossip column.

I am not making this up.

The reason why it was in somebody’s gossip column was because a submarine got named for some guy who writes submarine novels.

Anyway, the mood among the crowd afterwards was . . . deflated. Like being on the wrong end of a Super Bowl score.


Coming loaded for bear is still a good idea, just know it’s no guarantee.

Maybe looking at New York papers for the few days before a taping wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world.

Have a healthy respect for the scope of human knowledge. The more you know, the more you know how much there is to know, and how little of it you know.

If you’re ever in the same boat (no matter who names it), make sure you and the contestant understand each other insofar as risk-taking is concerned, and what his comfort level is.

If you don’t know, you don’t know. Not like it was a boob question. What else can you say? “You should have listened to the Village People and joined the Navy?”

Maybe the biggest lesson is: don’t let the expectations build up. Not so much for the trivia players, if there’s anything we’ve learned in our years of playing, it’s that just one wrong question can wreck everything. We were disappointed we couldn’t come through, not shocked that we didn’t know something, nor thinking that Millionaire had asked an unfair question.

But you could see the family members were pretty upset; they had really built up their hopes, and now they were dashed. Better not to get your hopes up too high. They don’t give you money for high hopes, just right answers. Just answer the questions you can, and stop if you get one you can’t.

Actually, both we and the contestant found the whole Millionaire operation, from Regis Philbin on down to be a first-class professional operation. No complaints or problems at all.

The contestant obviously wasn’t the happiest man in the world, but he went to the Mets game the following night, so he’s OK.

The show will air this week.

If you live in New York, and think you’re good at trivia and want to see what it’s like playing as a member of a team, send me an email, and I’ll tell you more about it.

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