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Secret Stuff: Trivia on Trivia

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Turning quiz show losing into published winning

When David Fialkoff was 8 or 9 years old, he was already a game show fanatic. "I bought all the home editions, but nobody would play them with me, so I started trying to create single-player versions."

That experience came in handy. Fialkoff is the author of Quiz Show, a book that puts you in the game show hot seat, but without all the muss and fuss of auditions and tapings.

The book is divided into two halves: the first half emulates what an aspiring quiz show contestant would go through to get on the show, while the second half puts you through your paces in a variety of game show formats. Some of the games are quite clever. One, for example, involves fixing "faulty flash cards."

Even the straight-up trivia quizzes are livened up by pitting your trivia knowledge against that of such imaginary contestants as Arlene Actress and Burt Bigwig, each of whom have their own strengths and weaknesses.

“You never know on a game show what will come up,” says Fialkoff. “You might be good at entertainment, but the questions could be opera, which is exactly what happened to me on Jeopardy. There was one entertainment question in the whole game, which was the first question. It was all downhill from there!"

David goes on Jeopardy

Fialkoff's 1995 Jeopardy experience proved especially unpleasant. California was experiencing one of its plagues-of-God periods, his phone card was stolen and, worst of all, back home his two-year-old son had locked himself in a basement.

On top of everything else, during the game itself, Fialkoff blew a lead and finished third when he couldn't come up with a Final Jeopardy answer involving a president whose sister took over as First Lady after his wife died. (Andrew Jackson, as it happens.)

“It was years ago, but it still hurts to lose,” says Fialkoff. “But I heard from people who have won who felt the same way. I tried to start a support group online for game show losers, and one of the ‘losers’ was a guy who had won $125,000 on Millionaire, but was kicking himself that he didn’t win $250,000.”

Fialkoff got his audition back in the days of postcards, and had sent in several batches of 1000 postcards each to get on. His DIY spirit prevailed here, too. Just as he created single-player versions of game show home editions, he had created a local cable-access quiz show in Washington DC. "A lot of the players were Jeopardy losers too, so we would commiserate."

The show was called Local Quizine. "It was the lowest budget quiz show in history! We did the first episode in my basement, before we eventually earned the right to use the studio. We had no buzzer and no set. Just folding chairs. And we gave away prizes I bought at the dollar store."

David breaks in Millionaire

Fialkoff had much better luck with Millionaire, and in fact was on the very first show. He was channel surfing and happened to see a brief ad recruiting game show contestants. Back then, Millionaire was still working out the kinks. The only people who passed the final test were those who realized they'd been given the wrong toll-free number and figured out the correct one.

As a result, despite getting only two of the five fastest-finger questions right, Fialkoff was called for the show. Back then it was only a half hour, and with only two chances to get in the hot seat, he remained in the so-called ring of fire.

“They treated you much better than Jeopardy," he recalls. "There was a chauffeur at the airport waiting for me, which is the first, last and only time that's happened to me. They put us up in a hotel in the theatre district, covered our meals and gave us a phone card to call home."

Making lemonade from quiz show lemons

By this time, he had begun writing trivia puzzles for Games magazine, many of which had quiz show themes. "I started thinking, 'What can I do with these things that would be more lucrative?' I contacted Random House and that was the one time in my life when I was at the right place at the right time."

Random House was launching a new line of books under the Stanley Newman marquee, and Fialkoff's was one of the first two. In all, Random House asked for 18 puzzles, 3 each of 6 kinds. This makes for a rather slender volume, even for a book that sells for $US8.95, although you will spend considerable time working through the puzzles, most of which are written to challenge the ardent trivia fan.

“My family always comes back with the same feedback,” says Fialkoff. “It’s too hard! But it isn’t really written with that audience in mind.”

Up next for Fialkoff is a sequel, in which he focuses on entertainment.

February 2005