I've always liked gambling. And personal experience in Las Vegas has taught me some important lessons: 1) Never show fear at the poker table. 2) Just because the cocktails are free doesn't mean you won't pay a price.
Now I can add one more to the list: Playing Who Wants To Be A Millionaire is much easier sitting on my couch than it is standing under the lights in the Millionaire studio, just off the Vegas strip.
As a career sports television producer, I should know what to expect when taping a TV show, but I admit that the dramatic music, multiple cameras, harsh lighting and the show's host, Chris Harrison, prompting me for answers rattled me. But nothing was as unnerving as the studio audience. Sitting ... staring ... silently ... waiting ... for answers ... from me ... for a TV game show. (The first TV game show in the U.S. was Spelling Bee, 1938. I looked it up, along with countless other inane facts.)
From start to finish, the process of taping the show was a grind. I felt a little stressed waiting in the green room, without being told when or in what order we would appear. We also had limited entertainment options since contestants are required to surrender all phones and laptops. It's a rule that ensures nobody can receive information about, say, how other contestants are performing in the studio or what questions they're being asked. On my first day, the schedule ran long and I was bumped to the next day. It's common -- but it added to my nerves.
Luckily, I had friends make the trip with me, and they helped with the process. By that I mean they sat in my hotel room and fired random internet questions at me. (I was full of trivia. To wit: 10-year old Tatum O'Neal was the youngest-ever Academy Award winner.)
On mid-afternoon of my second day, the producer, at last, called my name. After quick stops in the hair and makeup trailer, a meeting with the audio man to have a microphone attached and a last-minute briefing by the producer, it was finally my turn.
Walking on stage, I put the odds at 50/50 that I'd throw up on the host. Let's hear it for small victories.
Speaking of the host, Harrison is a Dallas native who has an insanely busy schedule. In addition to Millionaire, he hosts The Bachelor, The Bachelorette and the Miss America Pageant. He went to Lake Highlands High School and, like me, is a Dallas Cowboys fan. He's a complete pro and as friendly in person as he seems on TV.
In the days leading up to my appearance, I studied as much as I could, but preparing for Millionaire is difficult since the questions are notoriously all over the map, sometimes literally. (Baku, Azerbaijan is the lowest world capital, at 92 feet below sea level.) Whether it's the actual show or just the audition, you're as likely to be asked about Queen Latifah as Queen Elizabeth. In the end, I won a nothing-to-sneeze-at $5,000 but I didn't feel great about my performance. Dirk Nowitzki in the 2011 NBA Finals? That's performing under pressure. Me? Not so much.
If you happened to see my appearance, which aired Thursday night, you know I struggled with almost every question. Even the easiest ones at the beginning made me pause. I was hoping to get one or two sports questions, but the closest I came was question No. 3:
"Fittingly, a red, white and blue dog named Franklin is what NBA's team mascot?" (The answer is the Philadelphia 76ers.) But seriously, Philly? You named the dog after Benjamin Franklin? Shaking my head.
By the time I reached my eighth question, I was out of lifelines and out of luck. I'd met my Waterloo (that's Napoleon's losing battle of 1815 in what is today Belgium, didn't you know) and it stumped me. "Measuring from sunrise to sunset, here in Las Vegas, just how long was the sun in the sky this past June 21st, the longest day of the year?"
The four answers all seemed plausible:
A) 12 hours, 17 minutes
B) 13 hours, 27 minutes
C) 14 hours, 37 minutes
D) 15 hours, 47 minutes
The question was worth $20,000, and I could've chosen not to answer it and walk away with $10,000. Or, I could take a guess, knowing that a wrong answer would mean a consolation prize of $5,000. I mentioned I'm a bit of a gambler, yes? You know how this ends.
I guessed B. The answer was C. Maybe I'll use some of my five grand to take a class in risk management.
I'd actually tried out for Millionaire once before, in New York City in 2013. I passed the written test but that's as far as I got in the three-stage process. I suspect my demeanor was too low-key. They wanted Tigger. I gave them Eeyore.
This time around, trying to re-qualify, I was determined to relax, be conversational and smile more.
I chose to audition in Arizona. In June. After the much-closer Texas audition date didn't work for my schedule.
I studied for the audition by reading almanacs, Wikipedia and staring at world maps. But cramming didn't help as much as it did in high school. Without any idea if I was studying useful information, I memorized all 45 U.S. presidents, 50 state governors and as many phobias as I could. Apiphobia? (Fear of bees.) Dendrophobia? (Trees.) Then I force-fed myself every member of President Donald Trump's Cabinet plus the 10 largest bodies of water in the world.
As it turned out, my new knowledge helped me not one iota. (Iota: the ninth letter of the Greek alphabet.)
The audition was held at a Dave & Buster's just outside of Phoenix, in Tempe. It was a brisk 92 degrees at 6:45 a.m. and after arriving at the site, we stood outside and sweated, we few, we happy few, we band of brothers (Shakespeare, Henry V, Saint Crispin's Day speech. Act IV, scene III). The line wrapped around the building, and just after 7 a.m. we were ushered in. The room was banquet-hall big yet when seated, more than 100 of us were elbow to elbow.
For the written test, we got 10 minutes to answer 30 multiple-choice questions. Quick math told me I had 20 seconds per question; any more than that and I wouldn't finish. Ten minutes passed in a blink.
"Pencils down," said Liz Harris, who not only administers auditions but is one of the co-executive producers of Millionaire. My audition number was 127. Easy to remember. (December 7th, Pearl Harbor Day.)
As I flashed back to middle school basketball tryouts, Harris began calling numbers in no real order. I didn't have a great feel for how I'd done on the test, so when she said "127," it felt like I'd hit a number at the roulette table, more like winning something than earning it.
Our new, pared-down group, roughly 20 of us, was taken to a second, smaller room where we waited for phase two, the interview. Questions were pretty predictable: "What would you do with a million dollars if you won ... Tell me something about yourself that would surprise me..." It was a personality search.
I told the interviewer stories about my successful skydiving adventures when I was younger and my unsuccessful snow skiing disaster more recently. Think agony of defeat on Wide World of Sports (Vinko Bogataj. Yugoslav ski jumper. YouTube it, kids). The moral, I concluded, was that jumping out of an airplane was safer than skiing down a mountain. The producer laughed, cringed and then asked me to sign some forms giving permission to put me on TV. I'd made it to the final round. Up next, cue dramatic music, the on-camera test.
For non-disclosure reasons, I can't reveal the questions I was asked, but I got them correct and handled myself well enough to earn a spot on the show. But it took awhile. The waiting is the hardest part, Tom Petty (1981, from the album Hard Promises).
The phone call
My phone rang a full six weeks after the audition. Could I be in Las Vegas in 10 days? Yes. Could I supply my own travel and accommodations? Yes. Could I find someone to be my "plus-1 lifeline?" Hope so. Can that person come to Vegas, too? Uhhh, that's really soon.
It was a lot to process. The email I was sent was even more overwhelming. It had six attached documents requiring signatures and initials. And there were rules. Lots of rules. Rules about how the game is played: 14 correct answers to win a million dollars. About how prizes are paid out: not until 30 days after your show airs -- but if you win $1,000,000, you get $250,000 up front with the remainder paid out over 20 years. About wardrobe requirements: pictures of three possible outfits must be emailed to the producer for prior approval. And rules about non-disclosure, something they take very seriously.
Let's face it, for a chance to win money, I'll sign almost anything. It's the American way.
For months after I was back from Vegas, I couldn't say much. Friends asked me how I did. "Not allowed to say," I'd dutifully answer. "Not until after the show airs. Non-disclosure agreements, rules, lawyers. You understand."
Friends have also congratulated me for doing such a fun thing. "Sort of," I say. I can scratch it off my bucket list, which is great, but it was a tough process, both time-consuming and stressful. But hey, it's a TV game show and games are fun. And being on TV is fun. Unless you have scopophobia.
It's a thing. Look it up. I did.
Joel Grunberger is a sports television producer and freelance writer from Irving. Follow him on Twitter at @JoelGrunberger.