My Who Wants To Be A Millionaire Appearance and addressing Who Wants To Be A Millionaire Conspiracy Theories

Quizbowl / Jeopardy / Tests of Knowledge, September 20, 2011

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by randomness.

I long ago promised a detailed breakdown, from start to finish and afterwards, of my own appearance on the syndicated version of the game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, so here it is at long last. This is admittedly very late in coming, especially since I'm posting this on the fourth anniversary of my appearance, and the game has changed a lot in the years since. But I'm writing this not only to give my own definitive record and statement of what happened, but also to address (to some degree at least) a matter that has dogged my own appearance and which I feel needs to be addressed.

I first have give a bit of background of myself. I love trivia games -- I always have and always will -- from answering "chihuahua" as my correct answer to the very first question I heard playing Trivial Pursuit with my father when I was ten years old, to a career playing quizbowl for both the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago, to playing at Chicago pub trivia and other charity trivia events (on the weekend my son was born I played at a massive charity trivia event at which my team finished in first place). I have tried out for Jeopardy! five times (at this writing) and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire twice. I was a participant in the 2007 Game Show Boot Camp held in New York City in early June 2007 playing with some of the very best trivia competitors on the continent, and it was at that visit at which I had a chance to try out for Millionaire.

What follows refers to my in-person tryout attempts in 2003 and in 2007; I am forbidden by the rules of the show from appearing as a contestant a second time, so I haven't tried out since and what I describe may have since changed. The first (and for most the hardest) hurdle to overcome in the tryout is a 30-question written multiple choice test. As in the show, each question has four possible answers to choose from, and a single correct answer to some general knowledge question. Each wannabe contestant is asked to answer as many questions correctly as possible, using a #2 pencil to fill in a Scantron form, in just ten minutes. The tests are then graded immediately, presumably by machine, and those would-be contestants who score some minimum number of correct answers then advance to the next round. The show doesn't disclose what that minimum score is, but I can infer that it's not a perfect 30-for-30 score since I passed the test twice and in neither time did I earn a perfect score (I know after the fact that I got some questions wrong).

If you're among the 10% or so of those who take the test and earn a passing score, you'll then advance to the next stage where you're given a number of paper forms to fill out asking basic biographical information (name, age, address, education, family), possible conflicts-of-interest (Are you running for public office? Have you, or any immediate family member, worked for us, our parent corporations, or any of our advertisers?), and other assorted questions (What's your most embarrassing moment? Do you have any interesting hobbies? Tell us an interesting story you think Meredith would like to hear. What would you do with a million dollars?). They take your photo, and interview you for about five minutes to ask you to elaborate on the answers you wrote down on the forms. They thank you for your time, and promise to notify you within a month if you've qualified for the show or not (perhaps by telephone if you did, but usually by postcard if you didn't).

This might be the bad-poker-player in me giving this assessment, but the interview I had was with a young woman who seemed to me like she thought that, not only was I contestant material, but that I was big money contestant material. The contestant-material hypothesis was confirmed two weeks later when I received a phone call inviting me to New York City to be a contestant on Millionaire for a taping in late July 2007, roughly six weeks away.

At my taping in New York City, there's some behind-the-scenes organizing I'd like to describe. A week's worth of episodes are taped in a single tape day: contestant coordinators at the show have perhaps a dozen contestants and potential contestants ready in advance. The "new" contestants (that is, those who weren't holdovers from a previous taping) are ordered into a list in the order to be fed into what I'm calling a "triad", which I'll explain in a moment. The coordinators then take the holdover contestants from the previous taping (there were two in my taping) and as many contestants from the pre-arranged list as it would take to make a group of three. From this group of three, a person is selected at random during the taping, mere moments before the next contestant is announced and brought on stage. While the next contestant plays the game through, the next person on the list is added to the triad. When that contestant is finished, a new contestant is selected from the triad, the next person on the list is added to fill in that gap in the triad, and the process is repeated until a week's worth of episodes are recorded. Those contestants who didn't complete a show become the holdovers for the next taping session.

I happened to be the first person on the list, so I got placed into the triad immediately, and since they record episodes in sequence corresponding to the days of a week, Monday through Friday, I thought I would appear on the Monday, maybe the Tuesday episode. Nope. Lucky me, I stayed in that triad through to the end of the Thursday episode for my week. Meanwhile, while I'm waiting for my chance to get chosen, I'm watching all the other shows being recorded and nearly all of the other contestants take their shots at the Million. While I'm offstage I'm getting nearly all of the questions correct, even without any lifelines, up to an including the highest value -- a $100,000 question -- during my taping session. This impressed all of the other potentials in my week's worth of tapings, and intimidated/scared one contestant in particular to my regret.

But I finally get in the hot seat. I've saved the full list of my own questions, as well as my own blow-by-blow assessment of each question, to an appendix at the end of this essay. But I will say this here and now: While I was responding correctly to questions that I wasn't in the Hot Seat for, the "middle-tier" questions (those inclusive to the $2000 and $25,000 cash ranges) which I faced in the Hot Seat could not have been less to my liking if the staff of Millionaire had researched my knowledge base, gleaned my weaknesses, and asked questions about those very weaknesses. Before the show (and even to this day), I would have listed my main weaknesses in three groups: popular music of any time range, TV and movies after 1992, and what some have taken to call "Lifestyle" questions (topics like cooking, food and drink, fashion -- mostly the kinds of things one would learn in a home economics course). And of course, what are the topics that exactly come up? The Beach Boys (popular music of any time range), Karo syrup ("Lifestyle"), and the ABC TV show "Brothers and Sisters" which debuted in 2006 (TV and movies after 1992). The fourth middle-tier question was in world geography -- probably my weakest academic category, but fortunately I was able to keep my cool, determine an answer and my confidence in that answer, and correctly respond.

And that's where I'm going with this. I have heard repeatedly that since the questions could not have been less to my liking if the staff of Millionaire had researched my knowledge base, gleaned my weaknesses, and asked questions about those very weaknesses, the show must have researched my knowledge base, gleaned my weaknesses, and asked questions about those very weaknesses. Before I do my best to argue that this is highly unlikely to have happened, I have to first ask: Why would they want to? Budgetary reasons, sure, and some game shows do have limited budgets. But from what I was inferring by the reactions of people behind the scenes, both at the tryout and in the taping, they would have ~loved~ to have given away six or seven figures, and looked to be well-nigh hungry for a new grand champion. They do it so rarely, and at the time it had been more than four years since they could boast a million dollar champion (Nancy Christy in 2003, who at this writing still stands as the last millionaire to have won on Millionaire).

The key question to address here isn't why but rather how. How could the staff of Millionaire rigged the game against me to ask questions in topics I had little clue about? Obviously, in order to set the questions against me, they would have to know what my preferred topics are and are not. There are two main avenues for doing that: the interviews that I've had (in person at the tryout and at the show, and in forms I've filled out for the show), and in the 30-question qualifying test that I took. We can dismiss the former pretty readily: the interviews didn't ask me about my knowledge base. They asked about my job, my hobbies, my motto on life, my nervous tendencies, how well I can handle pressure situations, what my thoughts about Millionaire was, what my reaction was when I found out I would get on Millionaire, what my audition experience was like, how I'm preparing for the show, what would I do with a Million dollars, how have I been studying for Millionaire, what I love most love about Millionaire, and more questions about Millionaire in case you hadn't noticed. Besides, asking me in about what I know would be beside the point since the knowledge parameters of the show are so enormously broad and defy quick characterization.

That leaves the 30-question test, which is still too small to make a dent in the broad knowledge parameters of the show, but put that aside for the moment. In fact, let's grant that the show is able to somehow encapsulate one's knowledge into thirty well-selected questions (which frankly aren't all that well selected since I've seen questions appear on the show recycled in past tests, but never mind). It stands to reason that these questions would then reflect a number of fairly broad categories documenting one's knowledge. And given that, a TON of questions follow which in the aggregate strain at the credulity of the theory. What categories are used? How is a given question assigned to a given category? What happens if a question straddles multiple categories? Who decides what categories and what questions are used? Are the categories stored in a database on the show and queried out with a series of exclusion parameter clauses? How is that database maintained? What happens if you hit a perfect score in the test -- is that recognized in this system as omniscience? How would such a system handle false positives, false negatives, and flat out lucky guesses? And most importantly -- how would such an elaborate system be kept out of knowledge of the public or Congress or the Federal Communications Commission, particularly since a given system could be seen as ginning the game and would prove to violate the Communications Act which was amended in the early 1960s to forbid rigging game shows? Add all that to a workload where that is done for tens of thousands of contestants per year, every year, with an already busy and overworked staff and without anyone leaking this to the press or to a blog or to Twitter, and the result is one of two possible explanations.

Either (1) I was kept from winning my million dollars with the most successful and elaborate ruse in television history involving a conspiracy of random selection in my triad and somehow gleaning my knowledge parameters from a single 30-question multiple choice test, or (2) the questions on the test and on the show are meted randomly on a topic-by-topic basis and I simply got unlucky. To reiterate the epigram of this essay:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by randomness.

This is my variation of an adage called Hanlon's Razor which says "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity". Except that it wasn't stupidity in this case, it was randomness, hence the variation into what I might call "Szczepanczyk's Razor" if it didn't have a terribly marketable name to spell and pronounce. ;-)

By way of closing, let me make two final points:

Point one: In my experience in trying out for TV shows, the point of such tests isn't to gauge what stuff you know, but rather that you know stuff, to winnow most of the contestants out who wouldn't do well on the show in any event and save time and work for the TV show staff whose job it is to provide suitable contestants. And remember, I tried out in 2003 having passed the test but failed to get on the show, so I could have written a screed in 2003 about how they rejected me and hated me because of my nose or my last name or my political beliefs, but instead waited four years and tried out again and actually got on the show.

Point two: If evidence ever came out that the show was rigged against me, I would win a LOT more than a million dollars. Since the game show scandals of the 1950s, television broadcasters take rigging of traditional game shows seriously, and understandably so since game show rigging is a felony under 47 U.S.C. Section 509. ("Reality" shows or so-called "game operas" are a different story altogether, and research has shown those shows are very much rigged.) Hence, it is very common to talk with on-set lawyers on game shows when I have made appearances. If some may say that I was a "victim", it was a victim of fate. And boo hoo -- beating better than 100-to-1 odds to get on national TV, getting paid more money in one day that I did in more than a decade of playing trivia, meeting Meredith Vieira and later getting a congratulatory card from her, and checking off "Getting on Millionaire" off my personal bucket list. Some victimhood; where's my handkerchief?

Appendix: My list of questions

1. $100 - A person who successfully avoids a horrible event is said to have "dodged a" what?
A. Bullet
B. Harpoon
C. Boomerang
D. Holiday with the in-laws

I first heard this aphorism, ironically enough, from Alex Trebek in an episode of Jeopardy! I saw when I was a kid.

2. $200 - Which of these athletic footwear items need to be sharpened periodically?
A. Tennis shoes
B. Ski boots
C. Basketball sneakers
D. Figure skates

I can usually glean where a question is going before the answers are read, but in this case I wasn't sure where it was going, and was puzzled up until the last response was revealed -- hence my startled response on tape.

3. $300 - In the comedy "Old School", Will Ferrell's character memorably takes off all his clothes and says what?
A. We're going shopping!
B. We're going skiing!
C. We're going streaking!
D. We're going snorkeling!

I hadn't heard of this movie before I saw this question, but luckily I knew that streaking = no clothes. So I felt I should go for it and was correct.

4. $500 - In a corporation, the "IT" department organizes and maintains the company's "information" what?
A. Technology
B. Trademarks
C. Treasury
D. Timetable

This question also torpedoes the case against a Millionaire conspiracy theory. Why ask me a question about my own freaking career?

5. $1,000 - What is the ending to the common philosophy riddle that begins, "If a tree falls in the forest and nobody's around to hear it..."?
A. How tall is the tree?
B. Does it make a sound?
C. Where is the forest?
D. Why does it fall?

This was a long question to complete reading aloud, and while Meredith was reading this I'm thinking to myself if I should make the smart-ass remark to say something like "Funny, I thought that phrasing responses in the form of a question were for that other show", but ultimately I chose not to and simply remarked saying that this question was my final answer.

6. $2,000 - The title of the 1966 Beach Boys hit "Sloop John B" refers to what type of vehicle?
A. Motorcycle
B. Airplane
C. Pickup truck
D. Sailboat

If there was any point of the game I regret, it's at this question. My friend Amanda -- whom I would call on the next question -- gave me the advice to treat the $2,000 question as another first-tier question from Obviousland. Thing is, I hadn't heard of this song, and it seemed obvious to go with Sailboat since it's the Beach Boys and it's the only nautical-related response on the list. However, I didn't want to take a chance, and I'd have to burn the ask-the-audience lifeline at some point before getting to $25,000 or it would prove worthless, so why not here? If I had seen the full list of categories of all the remaining questions -- a change they added in the season after my appearance -- I probably would have kept the lifeline and guessed D.

7. $4,000 - Introduced to grocery stores in 1902, Karo is a classic brand of what?
A. Vinegar
B. Powdered milk
C. Corn syrup
D. Whipped cream

This came up in my studies when I was working on topics I felt weak on; I remembered that Karo was a liquid, but I couldn't remember which liquid. I would have guessed vinegar if I had no lifeline, but I did have a lifeline, so I called Amanda -- a big foodie -- for help and she of course nailed it before I had a chance to read the answers.

8. $8,000 - The Strait of Gibraltar separates Cape Spartel in Morocco from Cape Trafalgar in what European country?
A. Spain
B. Portugal
C. France
D. Italy

As soon as the question popped up, the word "Spain" immediately popped into my head. But I felt I had to be sure, so I took my time (more time than they actually showed on screen) and gave my answer which was correct.

9. $16,000 - The acclaimed ABC drama "Brothers & Sisters" is centered on the lives of what California-based family?
A. The Mansfields
B. The McDermotts
C. The Quinns
D. The Walkers
I knew I was sunk with proceeding any further as soon as I saw this question, and in a cruel irony Millionaire was and still is recorded in ABC studios in New York. So, here I am, sitting in ABC studios, with a question about an ABC TV show I had never heard of, and with my remaining lifeline offering no help. It so happened that it would have been slightly more of an advantage to go for it after burning the 50-50 lifeline, but with $8,000 already in hand, that's eight times more than the $1,000 I would be faced with if I got the question wrong. So I took the money and walked.