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Best of John Grochowski

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How I Won $125,000 on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire!

4 October 2000

It was the evening of July 10, and my wife Marcy and I found ourselves strolling down the sidewalks of New York with a big secret to keep. Well, I say secret, but there were about 180 other people who knew, as was driven home when a woman approached as we were walking back to our hotel after dinner.

"Congratulations!" she said enthusiastically. "I was in the studio audience. You were great! Were you nervous? You rocked!"

She was one of the few who had been at the ABC studios on West 67th Street that afternoon, and she knew the secret I had to keep for the next 15 days. I had just won $125,000 on ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Until the show aired July 10, I agreed to be a man of mystery. I told dozens, if not hundreds, of people, "I can't say. I'm sworn to secrecy. You'll just have to watch and find out."

Bob Mutter, a colleague at the Chicago Sun-Times, where my column on casino gambling appears twice a week and where I've worked for 18 years, told me I looked as though I were enjoying it all.

"You have something rare for people in our business," he told me. "You're the one giving the 'no comments' instead of being on the receiving end for a change."

Then he added, "You've said 'no' more in the last couple of weeks than all my dates in high school combined."

When the show finally aired, it was Mount St. Helens time in the Grochowski household. There were dozens of phone calls and e-mails from friends and family near and far, and many from people I'd lost contact with years ago: two high school classmates, an old friend of my dad's who had moved to Colorado more than a decade ago, a woman I met on a Beatle fans' tour of England in 1983. I was interviewed on two Chicago radio stations and invited to appear on a TV show that I had to turn down because of a scheduling conflict.

Mind you, the result didn't satisfy everyone. I walked away with $125,000, declining to take a guess at a $250,000 question. On one video poker bulletin board online, a few contributors argued that my expectation was positive and the mathematically correct play for me would have been to take a shot. My average expected outcome of continuing with a 50-50 chance would have been $141,000, not including the chances to advance to $500,000 or one million.

Of course, there are problems that argument doesn't take into account. First, Millionaire is not a long-run situation; it's a one-shot deal. Once you're in the hot seat, you can never go back unless invited to a special event. There's no long run for the probabilities to balance out. You either are correct for $250,000, or wrong and drop back to $32,000. It's a $93,000 risk -- and I can use that $93,000, or whatever's left after the taxman comes.

Second, the same people urging me to push my edge would never counsel a video poker player with a $100 session bankroll to play a dollar machine, or a blackjack player with $100 to spread bets from $5 to $50. Should you risk $93,000 of a $125,000 bankroll on one hand? How fast can you say "gambler's ruin"?

Anyway, it was all hectic, but fun, and it started with a phone call to "Millionaire's" toll-free number, (800) 433-8321.

As Millionaire aired the evening of June 22, I noted that the show's toll-free number was open -- it's open only when a taping is coming up. Call (800) 433-8321 and a recording gives players up to three questions of the show's "fastest finger" variety. The player must arrange four answers in the correct order, such as: "Using the numbers on your telephone key pad, arrange the following four composers according to the date of their birth, starting with the earliest: 1. Elton John; 2. George Gershwin; 3. Peter Tchaikovsky; 4. Ludwig van Beethoven."

When I got all three answers right, I was asked to enter a phone number where I'd be available the next day if my name was randomly selected by computer from among all who passed the quiz.

I told Marcy, "We have to be home between noon and three tomorrow afternoon. Regis is calling."

She laughed. I've been a first-round qualifier several times before, but we've never gotten the call. But this time was different. I was given another number to call the following Tuesday to play a five-question second round.

The second-round format was the same as the first, with five fastest-finger questions. Some were a little tricky. "List these four television theme songs in order of first broadcast, starting with the earliest" involved matching song to show, along with knowing which came first, and "List these four literary characters in order of first appearance, starting from the earliest" sounded like a question meant to weed out the pretenders. (Frodo Baggins? Just how old is J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy?) I surprised myself a bit by getting all five correct, and I was asked to punch in a phone number where I could be reached from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. that same day. At 4:05, the call came. A representative of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire took about 10 minutes asking the same eligibility questions I had already answered previously: "Are you or anyone in your immediate family or anyone living in your household employed by The Walt Disney Company, AT&T, West Teleservices, Valley Crest Productions or anyone involved in the judging of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

Finally, he said, "Congratulations! You're going to be on the show." The next two weeks were Millionaire obsessed. I played the computer version of the game in just about every available moment, and when I wasn't doing that, I went about gathering phone-a-friend lifelines. You can name up to five, and I wanted a well-balanced crew. I would up with a couple of Sun-Times features staffers for current pop culture, as well as manufacturers and trade names. (After seeing on the air a question about scents manufactured by Calvin Klein, it dawned on me that I really needed a shopper in my group.)

I corralled a Sun-Times copy editor for geography and world events, and a suburban librarian to back me up in sports along with a few specialty fields. Then there was George Vass, a former sportswriter who recently had published in England a historical novel based on the life of Tiberius Caesar. George was my man on classical music, history and literature, and it turned out to be George I used on the show.

Come Sunday, July 9, Marcy and I were off to New York.

A limo driver met us at LaGuardia Airport, and by about 1 p.m. we found ourselves at the Empire Hotel, in a great location near Lincoln Center, just a few blocks from Central Park. We were free for the day until an orientation meeting at 6:30, so we set off hiking up Columbus, a street full of shops and restaurants, running parallel to Central Park.

Marcy had never been to New York and it had been ages since my last trip, so we were game for a walk to take in the atmosphere.

Two things were really striking. The area is much, much cleaner than I remember from years back. And we encountered none of the infamous New York attitude. Several times, as we stopped to discuss where we were headed next, people stopped to ask if they could help us find anything. We likened the entire experience to a stroll up Lincoln Park in Chicago, the area where we lived when we were first married. It's a similar area with a large park -- not as huge as Central Park, but large -- flanked by shops, restaurants and museums and a melting-pot population.

We stopped for lunch at a nice Asian restaurant, then had about a mile walk to the American Museum of Natural History. I've had an interest in ancient life ever since childhood, and the American Museum has one of the world's great dinosaur collections. We gawked for hours. ("Look, Marcy, that's the protoceratops skull that Roy Chapman Andrews wrote about in All About Dinosaurs, the book that turned me on to fossils when I was in second grade.")

Back at the Empire, it was time to meet with Susan Vescera, the show's representative who lives in the hotel. She explained the procedure for the next day's taping: We were to meet in the lobby at 9:45 a.m., and vans would take us to the ABC studio four blocks away. We were to bring no cameras, cell phones, pagers, computers, games, address books, magazines, newspapers, encyclopedias, dictionaries, novels, writing tablets -- nothing that would give any appearance that a companion could conceivably signal an answer to a contestant.

They took that very seriously, as the 10 fastest-finger contestants and our nine companions headed for ABC the next morning. Our first stop was security, and we passed through metal detectors. After dropping off our on-the-air clothes in a dressing room and handing over IDs and paperwork, we were led into a large, comfy room for a continental breakfast. Two senior producers, J.P. and Lauren, and several associate producers tried to make everyone feel comfortable ("Can I get you something to drink? Would you like something to eat? You stay here. I can get it for you."), while explaining a few rules. We were not to speak with anyone but other contestants, companions or people wearing badges indicating they're associated with Millionaire. Anyone needing a bathroom break or a cigarette break would be escorted by a producer. No one could leave the building and return.

While we ate, associate producers pulled up chairs and interviewed contestants, looking for tidbits that might be interesting for Regis to ask about on the air. While waiting for Jennifer to interview me, Marcy and I chatted with the couples nearest us.

Kathy from Las Vegas is there with husband Gary. He's worked in casino sports books, most recently at the Showboat, and we had a fine old chat about the casino industry.

Kathy, it turned out, had qualified for the show on her very first try. "Gary called once and handed me the phone," she said. "I didn't know what was happening or what I was supposed to do. I hung up. Then I called, and got in the first time."

To our right sat Todd Flanders, the youngster of the group, with wife Andrea. Most of us were forty-something, but Todd was barely 30, if that. Just as I do, Andrea has newspaper connections. She works in marketing for the Knoxville News-Sentinel in Tennessee.

Once Jennifer was finished with us ("Tell me more about the fossils. What's the oldest one you have?"), it was time to move on, into rehearsal. We practiced on seven fastest finger questions -- not with Regis, we wouldn't see him until the taping -- and everyone took a turn in the hot seat.

Either Todd or John Groezinger was first in on all seven fastest-finger trials. I finished second in one, in 5.49 seconds. Todd was in in 3.98. Was I there for window dressing? Would anyone beat John or Todd when we were playing for real? Eight of us shared the same doubts.

We took two questions apiece to practice in the hot seat. The nine companions served as the audience, and when some of the contestants wanted to use the "ask the audience" lifeline, our companions voted. I skewed the results of one. The question was, "Where did King John sign Magna Carta?" and a producer told us, "In case you can't tell, the practice questions come from the British version of the show." I looked back at Marcy, and she mouthed an answer. I mouthed back "C," Runnymede. Other companions took up the cue, and the producer was taken aback when the poll came up with 88 percent for Runnymede.

Finally, executive producer Michael Davies arrived for a pep talk. Much of it was on the theme, "Regis doesn't know." "Don't worry if he seems to be trying to influence you toward an answer, or questioning your decision," Davies told us. "Regis' screen doesn't light up with the correct answer until the contestant says 'Final answer.' Until then, Regis doesn't know."

After about two hours, we left the set -- and it was about time. My teeth were chattering. The studio is very cold and, had I known, I'd have brought a long-sleeved shirt or a jacket instead of the short-sleeved shirt I'd chosen for the show.

Next up was a buffet lunch, then our companions went back to the studio as the audience filed in and a comedian entertained. The contestants went back to the dressing room to change clothes, then to hair and makeup. Back to the set, we lined up backstage to shake hands with Regis and introduce ourselves. He has been given pronunciations of our names, but he always wants to hear the contestants say it once.

As we were introduced and sent to our fastest finger sets, J.P. told me, "Wave to the audience." I waved first to one side, then turned and waved to the other. We all reached our seats, and tried to calm the butterflies. It was time to go.

The day's biggest shock came on the first fastest-finger question of the show, immediately after the previous contestant left the stage. I'd hoped for a geography or history question, as entertainment is not my strong point. Nevertheless, asked to list the films Antz, Bugsy, Papillion, and Beetlejuice in order of their first release, starting with the most recent, I was one of only three contestants with the correct answer -- and my time of 5.09 seconds was easily the fastest!

After not being fastest on any of the seven practice questions, I was first in my group to get a shot at the money.

My turn opposite Regis turned on four pivotal questions, the three on which I used lifelines, and the one on which I decided to step down. Asked which actress undressed onstage in a London production of The Graduate, I leaned toward Kathleen Turner, but it stuck in the back of my mind that Nicole Kidman also had appeared nude on stage recently. (She had, but it was in The Blue Room.) I decided to ask the audience -- to my way of thinking, the audience is best used on pop culture questions. A large majority said it was Turner, and I had my answer.

The next key question came when I was going for $32,000. If I got this one right, I'd walk away with no less than $32,000, but if I was wrong, I'd drop from $16,000 to $1,000. I wanted to be absolutely certain. As soon as Regis asked which nation was once called Hibernia, Ireland flashed in my mind, a memory from high school Latin class.

When Spain emerged as one of the choices, I had second thoughts. Much later, I figured the reason for my doubt was that Spain is on the similar-sounding Iberian peninusula. Under the pressure of the moment, I couldn't rid myself of the doubt, so I chose to phone a friend. I knew George Vass wouldn't steer me wrong, and he didn't.

Ireland it was!

At the break, Regis chatted a bit. He wasn't sure I should have used the lifeline. "Both times, your first impression was right," he told me. "First impressions usually are. But as you said, this was a very important level." Going for $125,000, I was asked which agency is charged with tracking down counterfeit money. I knew that the Secret Service is part of the Treasury Department, but I debated whether the investigations might be up to the FBI. I used the 50-50 lifeline to eliminate two answers, and it left the two I was mulling. I chose the Secret Service -- and I had $125,000.

The next question, for $250,000, asked which scientist offered proof that the universe is expanding. Edmund Hubbell, the oldest scientist on the list, seemed the likely choice. But if I was wrong, I'd lose $93,000 and drop to $32,000.

I was thrilled to walk away with my money -- $125,000. Afterward, I was led back onstage for one last bit of interplay with Regis. The producers wanted him to reread three questions to change a pronunciation. He read the first, I gave my answer, and he shouted, "WRONG!" The second time, he shouted, "WRONG! I hope you do better on this last one."

After my third answer, he said, "I don't know why they even had you on this show." Then he told the audience, "He should have been a millionaire!" I smiled.

Do I regret not going for the big one? No way. I'm THRILLED with my $125,000. If there's a regret, it's simply that I can't do it all again.


Read John Grochowski in each issue of The New Chance and Circumstance!

Recent Articles
Best of John Grochowski
John Grochowski

John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

> More Books By John Grochowski

John Grochowski
John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

The Craps Answer Book

> More Books By John Grochowski