Friday, March 10, 2006

(164) Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

"The truth is that, once the obselete Christian compact of the Fifties had broken down, there was nothing - apart from, in the last resort, money - holding Western civilisation together."
Ian MacDonald in Revolution in the Head

The TV programme Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? began in September 1998, and was soon the most talked about quiz show in the world. By the Spring of 2000, the production company Celador had sold versions of it to seventy other countries and it would eventually air in over a hundred.
The format was that a contestant answers a series of questions with a choice of four possible answers to each.
The amount of money won increases by near geometric progression from £100 for the first correct answer given to a final £1,000,000 after the fifteenth.
At any moment he may exit with the money won up to that point, but risks losing much of his winnings should he continue and give an incorrect answer.

To get on you had to ring in and correctly answer a multiple-choice question. You then left your number and waited to see if you were one of the one hundred applicants selected at random to be called back and asked a final qualifying question. I understood then the show might receive circa one hundred and fifty thousand calls per day.

I had made a few calls throughout the show’s first year, but in November 1999 I decided to make a concerted effort and phoned in over thirty times.

And on November 10th, they rang to say that I was through to the last hundred and was now to be given twenty seconds to answer this question:

"To the nearest month, for how long was Queen Victoria on the throne?"

The ten applicants supplying the closest answer to the correct figure would appear on the show.
I said "Seven hundred and thirty-six months."
The correct answer is sixty-three years and six months, and upon discovering that I thought that I would not make it on.

But they rang back the next day to say that I would be one of the ten people on a show to be recorded the following night and then broadcast on November 13th.

Since late 1998 I had been a member of the Internet Chess Club.
On October 26th 1999 a girl who went under the handle of Aletheaa became my online pupil for a weekly one hour lesson.

I asked about her handle and she said that it derived from the Greek word for truth.
Although she now lived in Detroit, a few years earlier she had been working as a waitress in Texas and one of her colleagues was called Alethea. The girl’s mother had wanted to call her ‘Truth’ but had settled on a name very close to the Greek form of it.

My pupil’s real name was Kelly Cottrell,
but she had taken her old friend’s name for her handle when joining another chess server called on June 6th 1999.
She then did an unusual thing.
In order to prevent anyone else taking a handle that was like hers, e.g. by just adding an "a" on to the end, she herself did just that! People often took more than one handle.
She now had two on the server — Alethea and Aletheaa.
When in September 1999 she joined the Internet Chess Club she took just the Aletheaa handle.

A couple of hours after I was notified of my qualification I logged on to the ICC and started to chat.
I was excited about it and asked Aletheaa if she knew of the show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, for I understood that since its (very) recent launch in America it was a huge success.

She replied that it was funny that I should mention that, because her only other internet chess teacher was appearing on the show over there!
As the opening titles of the show began to play on the TV in my sitting room she explained that on the www. server she took lessons from a man who had told her that he was about to appear on the American version of the show.
Since he had not been on line for a few days she assumed that he was away for that purpose right now.

I told her that I too would be appearing on it on the weekend, and at first she thought I was kidding. The show on that night was the fifty-fifth to be made and broadcast in the UK, so five hundred and forty-nine people had appeared as competitors (one chap had appeared twice).

But the show had been running in the USA since August 16th 1999. The only other country to scoop it up was Australia, where it had been broadcast since April 18th 1999. The total number of people worldwide who had appeared was almost certainly less than fifteen hundred.

Still, the two teachers of ‘Truth’ or ´Truth(a)´ were amongst them, and our shows were both recorded and also subsequently broadcast, one in London the other in New York on the same days.

Complete documentary evidence exists for this coincidence. And, as the end of this Entry will make clear, it had all yet far from ended...

If I had to pick out just one other example from all of these Entries which rivalled  points (45) to (50) of  the Entry then it would have to be that her two on line chess teachers were both on that show on editions which were both recorded and then subsequently broadcast on the very same days.

And Kelly later married a man who would go on to become a Grandmaster, Ben Finegold.

(One might, I suppose, view her handle as an amended form of truth: truth(a).)

And see also a lady who changed her name to Aletheia, and who knew Ben Finegold, in Entry 128 -

Yet the numbers watching were prodigious.
The people want bread and the circus and this show provided those in a greater and more accessible form than anything before. It would soon become established as one of the most popular programmes ever, and a global cultural phenomenon.

The next morning I took the train into London. Opposite me a man sat down and read from Martin Amis’ novel, Money.
I had never read it, but had once noted a quote from it. Amis had pointed that, try as we will, "we can’t get the money monkey off our backs."

Rehearsals went smoothly and at 7 p.m. the real thing began. When I and the other contestants were being made ready the man miking me up said that he had played some casual chess and thought he recognised me as a grandmaster.

A contestant has three "lifelines".

He may seek assistance by

(i) Asking the audience.

(ii) Using a fifty-fifty option where the computer will remove two of the incorrect answers and leave just the right answer and one remaining wrong one.

(iii) He may phone a friend. He has thirty seconds in which to read out the question and the possible answers down the phone to his helper who may then volunteer an answer.

I was notified the night before that I could have five such friends lined up to phone and, having chosen four that I thought to be good at history, science or current affairs, was looking for a fifth who would be knowledgeable at sport.

Les Blackstock, who had won TV quizzes before, was recommended, so I tested him out by asking a couple of sporting questions one of which was
"Who won the Wimbledon Men’s Singles in 1981?"
He knew that it was McEnroe, but said that the following night he was going down the pub.
Yet he was still happy to be listed as one of my friends to be telephoned "if you call the pub".

I tried to explain that I was loath to phone The Dog and Duck with a third of the nation listening in.

Of course, I would have rewarded anyone supplying me with a correct answer with part of my winnings. But Les would not revise his schedule.

So on the afternoon of the recording I was still looking for my sports expert. I rang Byron Jacobs, and he was eager to be in on it all.

Again I asked a few questions, including the same one about Wimbledon 1981. He also gave the right answer, so I selected him.

At rehearsal host Chris Tarrant asked me, as I faced a dummy question on a Biblical theme; "Are you a religious man?".
"Sort of," I replied.

On the edition of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? which aired on January 26th 2002 one of the (unsuccessful) contestants was the officer of the National Secular Society, Ms Barbara Smoker.
I had met her, some ten years earlier, at meetings of the London University Sceptics Society, and had also read numerous anti-religious letters of hers to publications as well as seeing her speaking against religion on television.
She was the only person whom I had ever met - apart from those I encountered at the studios who got on again -who appeared on the show.
The first person into the chair that night was temporarily flummoxed by the question “Which number is the cube root of 216?”
Eventually he reasoned out that the correct answer of the four available was 6. Tarrant observed that the correct response was “Six, six, six.”

Our show began with a lady recommencing from where she had left off the previous night. She answered four more questions correctly until she had £4,000.

Her £8,000 question was

"Who ended Bjorn Borg’s winning streak at Wimbledon in 1981?"

She was uncertain, and so quit there.

It was then my chance to get into the contestant’s chair by winning the "Fastest Finger" competition. We had been given three practice gos at rehearsals, and I had won the first of them.
We were now asked to put four historical women figures in order of their birth.
The first to do so would be next to play for a million pounds.

I finished swiftly… and then realised that I had stupidly put Marie Antoinette and Florence Nightingale the wrong way around.
Accordingly it was Lee Cartwright who got into the chair and won £16,000.

Then there was another Fastest Finger.
We had to put the Gospels in alphabetical order.
I panicked and blew it completely.

But my failure was irrelevant for Dr Mark Rogers managed it in 1.94 seconds!

He exited the chair having won £4,000, when he declined to say which fictional detective features in The Sign of Four.
The answer, which I knew, was Sherlock Holmes.

For our last Fastest Finger heat we had to put these parts of the arm in correct sequence starting at the fingertips: a) elbow b) knuckle c) shoulder d) wrist.
After my two failures I was determined to get this one right. I put them in the right order and hit the button that signified that one had made one’s selection.

And then my name did not appear as one of those who had answered correctly. In fact only two of the remaining eight players had got it right!
Contestant number nine, David Evans, called the floor manager over to protest that his final button, ‘C’, had failed to register.
I reported the same problem, and Mr Evans was pointing out that each of his neighbours said that neither had their buttons ‘C’ worked. Contestant five, Barry Snelling, later said the same.

We were all told that we must have skimmed the button, thus causing it not to register. This could be right, and the producer subsequently informed me that they had had no such problem before and also that I would not have qualified because Mr Jones did it in 6.10 seconds and I took 7.05.

But still, the majority of contestants experiencing the same problem with the same button on the same question?

Mr Jones was introduced as a policeman who was training to become a dog handler. The host, Chris Tarrant, pointed out that this was just like a man who had been on yesterday’s show who had won £64,000.

Officer Jones then went on to win £64,000.
... ... ...
In the bar afterwards some of us were moaning about our malfunctioning buttons C.
Contestant number ten, Ben Jones, tried to console me;
"You’ve had a day out!".

I shall treasure that as perhaps the most priceless remark I heard in my life.

The man sitting next to me on the show, Ian Phillips, had introduced himself beforehand as a schoolteacher. He now said that his button ‘C’ had twice failed to register at rehearsal.
I found it odd that he should have waited until after the show to say so.

He then said that he had been a keen chess player but had given the game up about twenty years ago and taken up Go. That he had also abandoned about six years ago.

I asked if he had ever had a chess rating. He replied that it had been 226. I was amazed.
"TWO two six?" I specified.
"TWO two six?"
An average club player might have a rating of one two six, but the extra hundred points meant someone of master strength.
"That must have placed you almost in the top twenty in the country!"
"Twenty seventh."
He said that in the mid 1970s he had beaten Nigel Short, when he was about eighteen and Short eleven, and had played several times in the annual Hastings tournaments.
He then seemed to recognise me and said "Oh yes we have met!".
I failed to recognise him.

Subsequent inquiries proved that his story was all fiction.

After money, status also counts for a heck of a lot in our world.

The dates he supplied, though, are very close to those of the incorrect conduct of the other Phillips schoolteachers (see Entry 134).

And Ian is the Scots form of John.
... ... ...
I e-mailed Kelly Cottrell’s other on line teacher, Av Rosen, a sixty-one year old retired computer programmer from Kansas.
He had flown to New York to appear on the show, which, like mine, was taped on November 11th and shown on the network the next day.

On the first Fastest Finger round he had failed to place in their correct sequence in The Star Spangled Banner the words a) Twilight’s b) Stripes c) Brave and d) Light. Only one person did it, in seventeen seconds.
For the second such round Av, like me, had mixed up the order of answers c) and d) and so he also missed out on the hot seat:

I really enjoyed the experience... It was a whirlwind trip to New York, and the total time there was less than 48 hours. My daughter and I will both try to get on the show again when it resumes probably in February.

I had to smile at the charming naïveté of his hope for either he or his daughter to be successful in (re)applying in so vast a country as America.

The last show of this UK series was broadcast on November 16th 1999. One contestant was asked to name the game at which Bobby Fischer and Gary Kasparov had become famous. He succeeded.
The next day I mentioned both that and my own unsuccessful appearance to Kasparov when recording with him in London.

He said that a Russian version of the quiz had just begun and was a big hit.

I also noted that amongst the contestants on November 16th, was one with the same surname of Cottrell. He also failed to make it into the chair.

On November 18th 1999 the $1Million was won for the first time as
John Carpenter
answered all 15 questions in America.

Towards the end of 1999 I wanted to finalise the details of Entry 121.
Up until then I only knew that Hartston had devised the answer "CRESCENT" and had then made up a clue to suit it.

I wanted the number of the crossword, the date it appeared and the exact wording of that clue.

In mid-November I rang him to ask for these and he said that he would supply them.
But nothing arrived, so I left a message on his work ansafone.
Still nothing.

At the year’s end I rang his home and spoke to his son who said that he would mention it to his father.

On January 18th 2000, I arrived home from a week in Malta to find amongst the mail this letter from Hartston:

Jan 1st 2000
Dear James,
Sorry to have taken so long in sending this. It took me ages to find the disc it was stored on. It had hidden itself behind a pile of other things and only surfaced when I had to clear a shelf to put a mirror up. (I only mention all that to provide enough material for you to attach some coincidences to.)

Anyway my researches have revealed two YOU magazine crosswords in the second half of 1996 which had CRESCENT as an answer — for 4 down in both cases.
Here are the relevant clues plus grids.
I hope they’re still of interest.
I wrote a splendid piece for The Express on "Who wants to be a millionaire’s friend?" but the series ended before they had a chance to use it.
I expect it’ll surface again one day.

Have a good 2000.

YOU was The Mail on Sunday magazine.
The Express was another newspaper, for which he now worked.

I am not an opera fan but when, in early 1999, I saw adverts for an English National Opera production of Parsifal in London, I thought that I had better see it.
So in the second week of March 1999 I rang up the number given for the ENO Box Office: 0171 632 8300.
But I mistakenly dialled 0171 632 3800, and a recorded voice informed me that I had just registered a vote with The Express!
Apparently this was a line for their readers to call and thereby vote on some or other topic.

I glanced at the contents of Hartston’s letter, and then put it to one side.

At about 7.40 p.m. that evening, Jan 18th 2000, I paused from amending the manuscript of Coincidences and entered the living room where my wife and child were watching Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
Peter Lee was just successfully answering his twelfth question to take him on to a total of £125,000.
The next question was

"Which French impressionist painter had a son who became a successful film director".

I did not know.
My wife said it was Renoir.

Mr Lee first said that he thought that it was Renoir, before using his fifty-fifty lifeline. That left him with the two possible answers of Pissarro and Renoir.
He used another lifeline by phoning the father of a friend, who he said was a film buff.
This gentleman said that he knew of a film director called Renoir and that proved the final reassurance necessary for Mr Lee to give that answer, thereby winning £250,000.

But before revealing to the audience whether Mr Lee’s choice was the correct one, Tarrant announced a commercial break!

During it I walked into another room and idly picked up Hartston’s letter.

On the page in front of me I saw the answers to the crossword he had set and which had appeared on September 8th 1996.

I noted that the answer for nine across was "Renoir".
A coincidence, but not a strong one. I pointed it out to Fiona.

But then I decided to see what the wording of the clue had been.

On a separate page Hartston had listed his clues and it read:

French Impressionist artist whose son was a noted film director. (6)

Precisely the same clue, and here too the answer came (to me) before the clue, just as it had for Hartston in Entry 121.

Mr Lee then answered the next question correctly. That made him, with £500,000, the highest winner thus far on the UK show.

The £1 million question was:

"Which county cricket side is based at Chester-le-Street?"

I knew of a town of that name near Durham, and so reasoned that Durham must be the right answer. It was, but Mr Lee declined to answer.

I checked the crossword grid that Bill had enclosed and saw that his nine across clue RENOIR intersected his four down clue CRESCENT.

Going by the skeletal outline that he gave in Entry 121, he would have to have chosen the answer CRESCENT (passing over, amongst the sixty-three alternatives that his gadget proposed, PLASKETT) before RENOIR.

Hartston had worded the clue for the answer CRESCENT thus:
Shape of moon in its first quarter. (8)

Likewise, in the only other instance he mentioned of his choosing the answer CRESCENT, also from the second half of 1996, he had worded the clue similarly.

This was also clue four down, of Crossword 457, which had appeared on July 14th:
Slim curve like the new moon
But there are lots of other ways by which one might define a crescent (see Appendix Five).
... ... ...
A newspaper article on February 13th 2000 stated that others were now complaining of malfunctioning buttons on WWTBAM?
It had happened on this very show; January 18th.
Two contestants felt that they had completed Fastest Finger more quickly than Mr Lee. I contacted one: Andrew Meldrum. He happened to work only a couple of miles from me.
He said that, here too, five people complained.

The difference here though was that there was no doubt that both Meldrum and at least one other competitor had finished well before the man who took the chair, for Lee took a full 14.58 seconds.

But the qualifier himself protested!

Lee acknowledged that so many unhappy players indicated that something was amiss, and so suggested that they all do it again.

Tarrant declined.

The equipment was certainly very unuser-friendly.
... ... ...
On January 19th 2000, the day after Mr Lee’s record-breaking win was broadcast, one of my Phone-A-Friends, Byron Jacobs, pointed out that there is a town in county Durham called Peterlee!
Both it and Chester-le-Street are about fifteen miles from the city of Durham.

And the aforementioned Mr T. Cottrell of the last episode of the fifth series, who shares his name with my pupil Aletheaa, points to the right answer to this, until then the biggest question ever asked on TV.
He was from Durham.
... ... ...
On April 2nd 2000 the front page of The Observer mentioned an interview with Chris Tarrant headed:
Who’d want to be a millionaire presenter?
But the main front page headline was how the day before in Harare protesters on a peaceful Christian march against violence had been attacked by thugs working for President, Robert Mugabe. The paper’s Zimbabwe correspondent had received a nasty head wound from a thrown rock.

His name was Andrew Meldrum.

Marked men?
... ... ...
On April 7th 2000 I e-mailed Av Rosen to get some more details.
He e-mailed me back the next day:

... I was born October 11, 1938. I think that I made one or two phone calls to answer the first round set of 3 questions, and I received the random call back within the first week that I tried in November. I then successfully navigated the 2nd round set of 5 questions, and went to the show the next day.
My wife and I went to Los Angeles... in 1986 to try out for a game show... "Million Dollar Chance of a Lifetime" ... There were about six winners in a relatively short time and I think it bankrupted the show, so it went off the air. We were not chosen to be on the show.

The really exciting thing is that my daughter tried out for WWTBAM, and made it to New York for the taping of the show that aired this past Sunday. She made it into the hot seat and ended up winning $1000.

She missed on the $4000 question. She was quite sure she knew the answer... but she was mistaken... "Which of the following said 'I regret that I only have but one life to lose for my country'".

The choices were Samuel Adams, Daniel Webster, Patrick Henry, or Nathan Hale. Most... people we have asked thought the answer was Patrick Henry, including Regis Philbin, the show's host. The correct answer is Nathan Hale...
Oh well, she... enjoyed the experience. We are going to be on... national television... this evening since we were a father and daughter who both appeared on the show...

Av’s daughter, Shawna Rosen married, but she kept her maiden name because she thought it useful to her career as a web site designer (consider events and names in Entry 128).

She had been notified of her qualification on March 8th, and flew to New York to participate in a show taped on March 22nd and aired on April 2nd. The selection process differed from what it had been in America in 1999, with tapings now being done many days prior to the airing of the show, instead of the day before.

The American news show mentioned that one is more likely to be struck by lightning than have two people from the same family make it to the finalist stage of the show, but Av commented to me that there had been more than one instance of the same person making it on to the show twice, and that that could hardly be more improbable.

A man of vision. (See Entry 170.)
... ... ...

Shawna  plays here -
I had intended to end the first edition of my book, Coincidences, there, and on the morning of June 14th 2000 regarded it as, essentially, complete.

But at 4.26 p.m. this e-mail arrived from Mr Rosen:

... Really hit the jackpot last Sunday playing a new on line "Live Trivia" game ...
My daughter Shawna and I won $500,000...
There were between 16000 and 32000 players, and it took 15 rounds... of 3 multiple choice trivia questions each to be answered in 12 seconds. The team with the most points at the end of the round advanced...
At the end of the tournament, the First Place winner then has the option to go for $1,000,000 without knowing the final question in advance.
If correct win the million, if incorrect fall back to... $250,000.
We chose to take the $500,000, and it was a good choice since we didn't know the answer to the final question which was posted on the site the following day.
... ... ...
Take care, Av

Everybody loves a happy ending.

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