I always liked The Million-Second, despite its (many, many) faults. But this piece isn't (entirely) about those faults: it's about Andrew Kravis, the then-25-yr-old recent Columbia Law graduate who won the event, plus $2.6 million and set a game show record in the process.
"It wasn't a test of who is the world's smartest person because I would not have won that,"� says Kravis. "It was a game, a spectacle."�
He adds: "I'd given up when I didn't hear anything after the audition and it took 20 tries in the audition process before I was called into the contestant holding area, so I was just happy to be there. I never fully believed I was going to win the whole thing."
He wasn't even aware of the intense criticism of the show until a couple of days after it was over, since he had limited access to the outside world while he was there. Much of that criticism he understands.
"We were living in the show so it was surprising to us that it would be confusing,"� he says. "But I can understand where a home audience would not be able to follow it well."�
The show combined several game elements with a Big Brother styled reality element, and was meant to integrate social media to create a rating blockbuster that would launch the NBC season. Instead, audiences were baffled, the technology faltered and the ratings fell, by and large, as the show went on.
Kravis didn't take any of the criticism personally though. "I didn't feel responsible for the show. I never felt pressure to be a personality. I was just there to play the game. Nobody was there to start an acting career."�
One of the elements that didn't quite congeal for viewers was the reality show element, but to explain why, we first have to explain the show. This will take some doing, not to mention a little over-simplification. This was a complicated bit of business.
At any moment, the four highest scorers were living 24/7 on Winner's Row, a pod located next to a stage where two players fought trivia duels. The people on Winner's Row usually played along, vying for the right to send one of them to a Winner's Defense, which could lead to them being ejected from the show.
However, there was another way you could lose your position on Winner's Row. Somebody on stage "in the chair"� could amass a higher score than one of the four on Winner's Row.
NBC likely hoped that Winner's Row would be a cut-throat environment in which contestants, wearied by the three-hours-on, three-hours-off schedule of trivia and sleep deprivation, would struggle to throw each other to the wolves of Winner's Defense. Instead, the opposite happened.
"The mechanics of the game make it advantageous to connive or strategize but we decided early on that the four of us in Winner's Row liked each other enough that we wanted to be the four at the end,"� says Kravis. "The way we decided to send each other to the Winner's Defense is not the way we would have done it if we were purely self-interested."�
Instead of trying to get rid of each other, they were protecting each other. "We wanted to ice out people who were doing big runs on the chair and to do that we had to bring up the money of the person on the bottom of Winner's Row. So for the first five or six days we were either sending ourselves or the person on the bottom to Winner's Defense. If we'd been strategizing we'd have sent out stronger players, hoping they have a bad game and lose."�
And there were players they were worried about. "The big one was Ed Toutant. There had been rumblings that he would show up and when he did he ended up doing extremely well. We all believed that Ed could hit that number and get on Winner's Row. But we also saw Steve Perry get in the chair and get knocked out after two bouts. "
Parenthetically, Million-Second Quiz was widely condemned for putting star players like Toutant, Perry and Bob Harris on, literally in the middle of the night, when they could only be seen in the live Internet feed. Ken Jennings was invited, then un-invited. Combined with controversy over the casting process, this generated plenty of speculation.
Winner's Row players sent to Winner's Defense could easily add a large pot of money to their totals, which challenging players could only surmount with an increasingly improbably long string of wins in the chair. This strategy also allowed players to forfeit being the "Power Player"� to get some sleep.
But it had its risks. The questions in the bouts were mostly easy, so bad luck on a single question could knock you out, especially since the tie-breakers tended to be the trivia equivalent of coin tosses. Eventually, for example, Toutant's luck ran out.
But a stroke of bad luck also forced beer sommelier Hayley Jensen, one of the "Winner's Row Four,"� out of the show, when she was flummoxed by a question on live TV about the number of tablespoons in six cups.
"Hayley wanted to secure her position on Winner's Row and one more boost would put her safely in the finals,"� says Kravis. "I won Power Player that day and sent her, then she lost. I felt horribly because we'd become good friends."�
The incident itself attracted some controversy, because Jensen kept muttering, "I hit C"� after the clock ran out on her, although a later review revealed she had not.
This also put somebody new on Winner's Row. Eric Novison replaced Jensen, providing the first real crack in the harmony that had held the Winner's Row Four together. His reception was quite frosty.
"I didn't get to know Eric very well and I admit that I was upset that Hayley lost. But it was nothing personal with Eric. I would've felt antipathy to anybody who took her out. We were all cordial to Eric but we were peeved that he'd won. I imagine he felt that from us."�
Although Jensen was gone, Kravis still had his closest friend there: a student named Brandon Saunders, the pair having both been on Winner's Row almost from the beginning.
Saunders' appearance was somewhat controversial, since he had been "eliminated"� but got invited to come back and try again. In fact, many contestants tried again.
The pair had realized early on that they might well face each other in the final bout, and each felt the other was the stronger player.
Given the general easiness of the questions, they knew the bout would likely be decided by a single question. And, in effect, it was. "I sneaked ahead because I doubled him on how high a badminton net is."
The slight lead mushroomed into an increasingly large lead, as Saunders had to keep doubling Kravis and hope for a mistake. "When he doubled me on a question about the Dred Scott decision, I knew he was conceding because he knew that as a law student I knew all about it."�
Viewers knew, too. Even before time ran out, Saunders was excitedly telling Kravis that he was a millionaire.
Afterward, Saunders and Kravis went to Jensen's bar. The next day was taken up with media interviews and sleep. And then things settled down to normal. There was a small bump in traffic in his crossword puzzle site, but he has only been recognized by strangers twice.
He had considered retiring from trivia altogether, in part because he was just sick of answering trivia questions, and partly because he didn't think there was anything left to prove. "I truly thought I would quit all trivia after that and never go to a bar trivia or online trivia or anything like that. But that turned out to be false."�
As for the money, Kravis plans to pay off his student debt and eventually travel. But for now, he is still living in the same tiny Brooklyn apartment with the same roommates. It is a life-changing amount of money, but it hasn't been life changing yet.