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Twenty-Onereturns

For most people, Twenty One was that rigged show from the 1950s, the one they made the movie Quiz Show about. But in the wake of the success of Who Wants to be a Millonaire in the late 1990s, the other networks rushed new shows into production, and NBC even revived Twenty One, this time with Maury Povitch as the host.

And for a brief time, the show produced the biggest game show winner of all time. Naval submarine lieutenant David Legler won $1,765,000 in six games over three episodes in February 2000, holding the record until Kevin Olmstead won $2.1 million 14 months later on WWTAM.

“Just as I was going on, their statistician changed the rules,” recalls Legler. “He told them that nobody would ever win as many games as I ended up winning. And I was one of the first contestants on after the change.”

The 2000 version was somewhat different than the original, in which you wagered points and tried to be the first with 21 points in all. Instead of losing points for wrong answers, the new version had penalized you with strikes. Three strikes eliminated you and, this time, all questions were multiple choice. Moreover, players got a "lifeline," a friend in the audience they could call on once per match as a "Second Chance."

Legler's Second Chance was his father, also named David Legler, and he became almost as much of a star as his son. He picked him, not completely for reasons of strategy, but mostly because "we have fun together and he knows some of the 'older' things I don't know."

The choice worked and the elder Legler proved invaluable, until the pair stumbled over a question involving Bosnia and another involving hemoglobin, which turned out to be poorly written.

“By that time, though, it didn’t matter because the writing was on the wall and the show was clearly going off the air.” Legler began getting calls about participating gimmick episodes, always a sign of trouble, and NBC ping-ponged the show all over the schedule until it vanished entirely.

Legler used the money to take his family on a European vacation and to retire his debts, investing the rest. This normally would have been sound, except the dot-com boom was already busting and the investments fizzled. "It was bad timing and bad advice," shrugs Legler.

Even so, he says it gave him "experiences and memories very few people get to have."

June 2005