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Dan Avila: the world's gutsiest quiz show contestant

In its 44-episode run, nobody won the $2-million prize on Greed. But Dan Avila came the closest, going where lesser mortals fear to tread.

The game show veteran appeared on the fourth and fifth episodes, back in 1999, and led his team to the $1-million threshold. They opted to take their shares of the pot and flee. Avila decided to take a chance on the $2-million question (which was actually worth $2.2 million, a figure that would have stood as a game show record until Ken Jennings’ Jeopardy run).

“I had about an hour to decide whether to keep the $200,000 I’d already won or try for the $2.2 million,” recalls Avila. “I’m single, no kids, never married, and no responsibilities. I decided to take it because, even though the odds were against me, if I could answer one more question, I’d go from $200,000 to eleven times that amount. Why not go for it? That’s a life-changing amount of money. That’s retirement. Even if you invest it in 5-percent bonds, after the government takes about half the money there’s a million left and with good investments one could probably take home $50,000 a year minimum. And if I didn’t go for it, I’d spend the rest of my life wondering if I could have answered it.”

So Avila rolled the dice. He knew the category would be odours. The question asked him to select four of nine choices, identifying the most recognizable smells according to a then-recent study at Yale. The options were baby powder, coffee, tuna, cinnamon, dried cat food, moth balls, chocolates, peanut butter, and Vicks.

“You only have 30 seconds to decide. I had eliminated baby powder in my head. I eliminated moth balls because of the age factor, and I decided that men wouldn’t recognize something as being cinnamon instead of, say, nutmeg. Cat food doesn’t have any smell at all, really.  picked tuna first. I knew it would be coffee and peanut butter. Then I picked Vicks.”

Host Chuck Woolery then revealed the answers, one by one. Is coffee correct? Yes, it was. Is peanut butter correct? Yes, it was. Is Vicks correct? Yes, it was.

“As soon as he went with Vicks third, I knew I had lost, because that was my throwaway,” says Avila. “It was the one I wasn’t sure about and everybody watching knew it.”

And sure enough, the fourth correct answer wasn't tuna, but chocolate. "I was fully prepared to miss it," says Avila. "I wasn't bitter. I knew what the risks were."

Avila was brought back for a sweeps stunt, called the Million Dollar Moment, in which he got a second chance at winning $1,000,000 by answering an eight-choice question. Again, he came one answer short, making him the only person in game show history brave enough (and lucky enough and smart enough) to twice try for a seven-figure prize, only to miss out on both.

A game show vet

Part of Avila's gutsy style comes from being a keen student of game shows. The Los Angeles photographer had been on Joker's Wild in 1974 (winning $1300), as well as Break the Bank in 1979 (winning $2300, as well as a Laz-E-Boy and an electric stove).

“In those days, you could decline your prize for tax reasons, but you couldn’t get cash instead, so I took the electric stove. It ended up in my parents’ garage until I sold it, so somebody ended up getting a brand-new stove second hand.”

Even stranger was his experience on Sale of the Century in 1984. He won $600 in women's Cherokee shoes. "I asked if I could get different sizes, but it had to all be the same size. I ended up with a huge box of size 7½ shoes, which I gave away to friends."

In 1991, he was a one-day champion on Jeopardy, winning $5300 in the pre-doubled-amounts era. And that seemed like it would be pretty much the end of his game show career. "I'm not a Price is Right kind of guy and Wheel of Fortune is very hard to get on. With Jeopardy, only 10 percent pass the test and minorities are at a premium, but with Wheel, 90 percent pass and lots of them are minorities, so I would lose any advantage." (Avila is Mexican American.)

However, as a game show vet living is LA, with a flexible schedule, Avila found himself on producers' speed dial as a game show "product tester" of sorts, appearing in demo versions of shows, such as a revival of Name That Tune. "They spent three years working on making Monopoly a game show, and when I did it they were testing out Wink Martindale as the host."

Going for the million

In August 1999, though, Who Wants to be a Millionaire first aired in the US and became an overnight hit. "Dick Clark told me that, within 17 days, they had a working model for Greed. But you can't just copy a show. You have to have your own twist. And, being the Fox Network, they were … I want to pick my words carefully here … more cutting edge."

By 2001, Avila's legendary appearance on Greed was far enough behind him that he now qualified for Millionaire. He auditioned several times in Chicago and New York, combining the trips out east with business and vacations. Finally, after an audition in Las Vegas, he got picked to go on, for a show that was taped in November 2004, but which aired in April 2005.

Avila had something of a leg up. In addition to being a trivia wiz, he is a member of a message board that dissects player strategy on Millionaire, particularly the use of lifelines. One of Avila's questions asked for an animal that spends half an hour catching its breath after catching its prey. "Cheetah was one of the answers and it made the most sense logically, so I trusted my instincts, but a lot of players burn a lifeline asking the audience, just to be sure."

There is often a question, usually a second-tier question, called the MAWG stopper, meaning that it knocks out "middle-aged white guys." But tactical use of lifelines came in handy when he was asked to identify an occult object called a besom. He called game show legend Leszek Pawlowicz, who is six for six as a Phone-a-Friend. Pawlowicz ended up googling the word. Aggressive lifeline strategy came in handy again at $100,000, when a question asked for the inventor who had created a device to find the bullet that had lodged in James Garfield's body.

“I knew it wasn’t Tesla, and Westinghouse was more of an engineer. I thought it might be Alexander Graham Bell, because his mother was deaf. That’s why he invented telephone. So he seemed more involved with body. But I was worried about Edison, so I did the 50:50, which left Westinghouse and Bell.”

Unusually for somebody so high in the stack, Avila still had his Ask-the-Audience lifeline, so he decided to use it. "On the boards, they say that past $25,000, asking the audience is useless, and when they came back heavily for Westinghouse, in a perverse way, that confirmed Bell for me."

The next question, though, asked for the final score in the poem "Casey at the Bat," and here, Avila walked. "In a way, I'm glad that I didn't have the Ask-the-Audience left, because I don't know if I would have trusted it and lost the money."

Avila's bold style of play is unusual on Millionaire, where most players are risk-averse, don't tend to trust their instincts, and thus leave with less money. "It's a matter of understanding the game and how to play it. I had an advantage in Los Angeles, because there was a simulation of Millionaire at Disneyland. I'd go every month, so I was used to being in the Hot Seat with the lights and somebody asking me questions while lots of people watched."

Avila's run on Millionaire was also notable in that fewer and fewer players are reaching $100,000. Avila believes that much of the contestant pool is made up of local people with flexible schedules, such as actors and waiters, and that the questions are also harder. As a result, a weaker talent pool is more likely to take the money than take the risk.

Taking the risk, of course, has never been a problem for Avila, who finally has won the big money to show for it.

April 2005