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What Is it Like to be a Contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Posted: 06/15/2012 12:50 pm

This question originally appeared on Quora.

2012-06-15-nbonaddio.jpeg
By Nik Bønaddio, CEO of numberFire

Alright, let's do this.

Right off the bat, I can tell you that my experience was on the prime-time version hosted by Regis, and this will differ from the experience on the syndicated version. As I understand it, the gameplay itself is different, as well as how they source the contestants.

It all starts about three years ago. Being a loyal son of Yinz, I read the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette daily despite not having lived in Pittsburgh since graduating from CMU and moving to pastures more green. The Post-Gazette happens to have a very active TV columnist named Tim Owen, and he had written an article previewing the upcoming season of "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia", one of my favorite shows. In the article, there was a small blurb at the bottom mentioning that "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" was returning for a limited prime-time engagement to celebrate their 10th anniversary, and that details on applying to be on the show were available on their website.

Going back to when the show originally aired in primetime, the registration process generally went like this:

  1. A potential contestant calls into a 1-800 number, usually available after the show is aired for 3-4 hours.

  2. On the call, you're asked a series of 4 multiple choice questions - analogous to the fastest finger questions they ask you on the show - and you need to put them in order using the keypad on your phone. They start out easy (ex: "Put these Presidents in order of their term, from earliest to latest - Washington, Lincoln, Nixon, Clinton) to very, very difficult. I don't remember my first three questions, but my fourth was "Put these world capitals in order from northernmost to southernmost: Oslo, Helsinki, Rejkavik, Stockholm." Yikes.

  3. Miraculously, I got that final question correct, and then the automated system asked me for my name and a phone number where I can be reached during business hours. This is because they put all of the people who got all four questions right into a random pool, and they call you if you are selected for one of the tape dates.

Fast forward about three months later, I'm sitting at work, and I get a call from an unknown 212 number. Normally I send these straight to VM - as I later found out, they call once and don't try again - but instead I answered. It was ABC; I had been selected to appear on the show.

It's important to note at this point that unlike the previous iterations of the prime-time version, some contestants on the show were selected via an in-person audition. I personally found this very curious, because the composition of the 10 people in my tape date ranged from the incredibly intelligent (and likely qualified via the phone test) and very extroverted and entertaining (likely via audition).

Because I was already based in NYC, they simply sent a car to pick me up and take me to the UWS studios instead of putting me up in a posh hotel. Instead, that perk went to my Dad, who came up from Pittsburgh to be in the audience. The car picked me up at eight in the morning - way, way too early for my taste - and I was in the ABC makeup chair by nine.

Before we taped, there were a few different phases. One was being briefed by the show's lawyer about various policies they had in place, such as not discussing the outcome of the show before the airdate and things like that. Another was a briefing by the show's producer, who told us above all things to not show fake enthusiasm because that was obvious, but to instead be "the most entertaining version of yourself that you can be." This will be important later.

We also walked onto the set and simulated a few fastest finger questions to give us a sense of what we should expect. The studio is very small, much smaller than it looks on TV. It's been awhile, but I would estimate it as roughly the size of a typical fast-food dining area. During these simulations against the nine other contestants on my tape date, I won three times out of five so I was feeling very confident. It sounds somewhat ridiculous, but I've always been very good at read and react quickly-style games - things like NTN, Dave and Buster's Super Trivia, and so on.

An aside: I remember there were a very strange set of arcane guidelines in place - never get up from your chair before Regis, for example. I suppose this is because he's very short, but I just remember it being ridiculous and arbitrary. Another was to raise your left hand if you're ever going to sneeze.

After lunch and another round of makeup, people - and my Dad - started piling into the studio around one in the afternoon. We lined up in order so that we could be introduced to the crowd - the same order in which we sat during the practice rounds, I soon realized - and then Regis came out amidst wild applause.

I have no idea if this is typical or not, but the first thing he did was greet the audience, and then he filmed various promos for the episode. He was smooth and very professional - but I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised by that. As soon as he was done with the promos, they filmed a super awkward segment of us being introduced by Regis with us while we wave the camera. I don't even remember what I did, I think I just waved and tried hard not to look too awkward.

And then we got down to business, the first fastest finger question: "Put these vampire themed books in order ... "

I knew immediately it was the Twilight series. What other series of vampire-themed books is there? My heart sank. I haven't read any of them. Still, I knew that Twilight was the first one and that New Moon was the second one, as they were going through a huge marketing push around it. Knowing the first two, I had a 50-50 chance of guessing the order of the final two. I had mentally prepared for a situation like this - I was to always guess as fast as possible if I was ever unsure, since in the instance of multiple getting the question correct, it is judged by the fastest answer.

The order given to me on the screen was:
A. New Moon
B. Twilight
C. Breaking Dawn
D. Eclipse

Long story short, I got lucky. Like super, ridiculously lucky. Not only did I win the coinflip of correctly guessing the order of the last two books in the series, but I also messed up in keying in my answer. I knew the first two, so I quickly typed in B-A. I had randomly decided to answer B-A-D-C, but in my effort to type it in quickly, I entered in B-A-D-D repeatedly. You can actually see this on the TV feed, with me looking baffled at why my entry wasn't submitting. I realized my error and re-entered it as fast as I could, but my heart sunk because I knew I had wasted ~4 seconds entering it, thereby ruining my chances of getting to play the game because surely someone would have answered faster than me, even if I had gotten the order right.

Like I said, I got lucky. Super lucky. Regis announced me as the winner, and I went bananas. I don't even remember anything. I didn't realize until watching myself on TV that I went on a 15-second dancing spree, shucking and jiving like an awkward and manic software engineer who just lucked out to an extreme amount. This was me being the most entertaining version of myself I could be, apparently. I sat down in my contestant chair - after Regis sat down, of course - and sighed heavily as the taping went to break.

My main worry at this point was not missing the first question. I didn't want to be that guy who lives forever on YouTube by missing a question like "What color is the sun?". Regis saw my obvious nerves and was actually quite nice, telling me that he was sure that I'd go far in the show, and that if I was ever feeling overwhelmed, they'd stop tape and let me settle in. I've heard conflicting things about him in my time since, but he was very pleasant to me, and I appreciate it greatly to this day.

The actual gameplay was a bit of a blur - I knew the answer most of the questions the second they came up on my screen, which once resulted in me answering before Regis finished asking the question. I think I rolled through six or seven questions before needing a lifeline, which I regret using in retrospect.

The question was: "Published continually since 1942, the newspaper for U.S. soldiers and servicemen overseas has what patriotic name?"

Again, before the question was finished, I was 90% sure it was Stars and Stripes. I had never personally read or seen an issue, but enough movies have made reference to it that I was fairly confident. Still, without knowing for sure, I decided to use a lifeline and Ask The Audience. They overwhelmingly agreed with my hunch, which simultaneously made me happy that I got the answer right and disappointed that I had wasted a lifeline - a lifeline that I would desperately need later.

The only question that I truly had no idea was about the movie "The Wrestler", which I had not seen. In the time between when I was chosen to be on the show and my appearance, I had several correspondences with various producers for the show, so that they could learn my biographical information, my interests so Regis could ask me questions, and so on. They also collected the information for the people I'd like to use as the friends in the Phone-A-Friend lifeline.

I had chosen my college frat buddies from CMU, Dave and Matt. Dave is your typical CMU brilliant egghead scientist - no one knew more about random topics than him. Matt was my partner in crime in our bar trivia league, he was equally random but with a wider range of knowledge. Amazingly enough, literally a week before my tape date, Matt had told me that he had just seen "The Wrestler" and he loved it, recommending that I see it. When I see the question come up - and knowing that I had Matt as a lifeline - I almost laughed at how unbelievably lucky I am, for the second time in an hour.

(In case anyone is curious, they have the Phone-A-Friends standby the entire time you are taping, on hold. They first call them and get them on the phone when you move from the fastest finger into the contestant's chair.)

Through the gameplay, I was very comfortable. I was getting a lot of questions about pop culture; music, sports, movies - all things I'm very well-versed in. At the $50,000 level (or so), I was asked a literature question which threw me a bit: "What famous work originated the popular quote 'The first thing we do, let's kill all of the lawyers?'"

The answers were:
A. Oliver Twist
B. Ulysses
C. Billy Budd
D. Henry VI, Part II

I knew immediately it wasn't A, and I was fairly sure it wasn't B because James Joyce simply wouldn't have phrased it like that. It sounded Shakespearean for some reason, but I couldn't guess - not at this level. It was probably too non-pop to ask the audience (even if I had that option), so I decided to Ask The Expert, which was a new lifeline specifically created for this run. My expert was Gwen Ifill, who is apparently a well-known Washington pundit, but If I'm being honest, I had absolutely no idea who she was. Ignorant me, I guess.

She agreed with me that it wasn't A or B, and reasoned through the rest, saying (paraphrasing) that it didn't sound like Melville, so it was most likely Shakespeare.

I was kind of sure and she was kind of sure, but it wasn't enough for me. At this point, I was at $50,000 and I would lose $25,000 if I missed it. My entire goal of being on this show was to win enough money to do something life-changing, not just buy a couch and a new TV and be done with it. I wanted something new, to use this random, amazing experience as the impetus for something great. $50,000 wouldn't be enough for that if I walked away, and $25,000 wouldn't be enough for that if I was wrong, so I decided to use my final lifeline, the Double Dip.

The Double Dip is very similar to the 50/50, except you get to answer twice. It doesn't eliminate any answers for you, but rather it allows you to answer twice. The downside is that you don't get to walk away if your first guess is wrong, you have to answer. Generally being down to C or D, I was comfortable with this. My first guess was D, and lo and behold, Gwen and I were right. I had won $100,000.

I was ecstatic. This was my benchmark for "life-changing". Even if I get rolled by taxes - and I did! - this would be enough for me to explore new projects, and take time to learn technologies.

Of course, the fact that I was liberal with my lifelines came back to bite me on the very next question: "The name of Barack Obama's Senior Advisor, David Axelrod, is also the name of the love interest in what 1980s film?"

A. Some Kind Of Wonderful
B. Say Anything
C. Endless Love
D. An Officer And A Gentleman

I knew immediately it wasn't A or B. A was a character named Keith, played by Eric Stoltz. B was Lloyd, played by John Cusack. I had never seen C or D, as both were out before I was born. Without lifelines, I simply couldn't guess but I took awhile to come to that conclusion. This is where I was really, really kicking myself for wasting my lifelines!

I sat in the chair, and did a quick expected value calculation. I was at $100,000; getting this answer correct would get me to $250,000. If I was 50/50 on it, my outcomes were either down to $25,000 or up to $250,000 - and thus the expected value was $137,500 and therefore it was statistically sound for me to guess. However, my entire goal was to walk away with enough money to do something life-changing, and that overrode any scientific calculation I could do.

I walked away. It really wasn't a difficult decision at all.

About two months later, I received a check in the mail from ABC for the full $100,000. They didn't take any taxes out on it, which left me to pay a little over $45,000 in taxes a few months later. Poor me, right?

I used the remaining money to quit my job, spend the summer coding, and later that year, I launched my company, numberFire. Since then, numberFire has received $750,000 in seed funding - beyond the Regis-driven angel money - and we've done a lot of great work with our partners at ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and elsewhere. None of it would have been possible without me randomly reading the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, getting amazingly lucky multiple times, and knowing the right time to walk away. I am incredibly blessed to have that experience, and there isn't a day that goes by that I'm not cognizant of how lucky I was to have made it as far as I did.

If you are curious further, just look up "Nik Bonaddio" on YouTube. My episode is there.

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