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Interview: Kevin Olmstead, mega-Millionaire

Not many people have a chance to aid and abet whippersnappers out to break their records, but in 2004, Kevin Olmstead became one of the "wise men" on Super Millionaire. Olmstead, who won $2.18 million in April 2001, could very well have helped produce a $10 million winner.

"If the record falls on Super Millionaire, I will be a little wistful, but also very happy for the new record holder, and especially happy that the record didn't fall via a 'reality show' such as Survivor," says Olmstead, whom this writer met at Game Show Congress 2003. "If I can help that by being a 'Wise Man,' that would be fun as well."

As it happens, Olmstead and two other "wise men" did get to help, but got a murderously hard geology question. It's not unusual, though, to get hit with a stinker at that point of the game, which in this case was the first question after the second milestone (which is the $64,000 question in the earlier and syndicated games).

Question controversy

"That one is basically a free guess," says Olmstead. "So they figure, if they're going to stick it to you anywhere, that's the place, because if they do it later, you'll be out of there before they're finished reading the question."

The relative difficulty of Millionaire questions at different levels is an ongoing source of debate among fans. A particular issue is the use of "plot point" questions: if you haven't seen the movie in question, you're out of luck.

By contrast, some of the higher level questions seem rather easy. John Carpenter, the first million-dollar winner, took home the money after being asked for the president who was on Laugh In. (Nixon, a reasonable guess given the show's air dates.) The consensus among fans is that he had an unusually easy "deck" (the set of questions asked). The only lifeline Carpenter used was to call his father and announce that he'd won the money.

Olmstead's $2.18-million question asked for the inventor of the mass-produced helicopter, this being Igor Sikorsky. "The show assumes that science is hard," says Olmstead. "But when you have an engineer in the hot seat, that assumption flies out the window." (Olmstead is a senior project engineer with Tetra Tech, a global consulting firm based in Pasadena, California.)

How would you have done on Olmstead's deck?

What it's like to win the big, big money

"I was trying for a dramatic pause, but it came out looking like I was hyperventilating," said Olmstead afterward. "It helped that the correct answer was in slot A, so that I wasn't distracted. I was playing the question, and not thinking about the money, just the answer and getting it out cleanly. If I had started thinking, 'Oh dear, I'm risking $468,000 by pulling the trigger to go up to $2,000,000,' that would have lead to freezing, which makes for second-guessing."

As someone who writes questions as well, Olmstead has some sympathy for the show's writers. Given the stakes involved, contestants will challenge bad questions. One of them, Ed Toutant, is second only to Olmstead in Millionaire winnings; on his second go-around after a bad question, he went on to win $1.8 million.

"They find a great fact and write a question around it, but they don't always do the research to make sure that the other answers intended to be wrong are, in fact, wrong," suggests Olmstead.

On Olmstead's appearance, the woman in the hot seat before him became flustered over a poorly worded question about spiders. When she guessed wrong, Olmstead can be seen in the background, whispering to another contestant, "We're back in business."

Once the show aired, Olmstead spent time "running around New York in a limo, doing interviews on shows, many of which I don't watch, so that was an experience in and of itself."

The limo was his first taste of the fortune ahead of him. However, Olmstead is still working for Tetra Tech. American game show contestants lose roughly half of their winnings to taxation, and the trend increasingly is toward annuities, rather than lump sum payments, dimming even further the hope of an early and blissful retirement.

"After taxes, it's still a lot of money, but not enough to retire on, especially after you've done your mad-money spending." To that end, Olmstead bought a condo, which he renovated and redecorated, and also bought a minivan, which he now uses to help transport fellow quizzers to remote events. He also donated generously to several foundations.

In addition, Olmstead had the unusual experience of pulling $50 from an ATM, and seeing a $2 million balance remaining. "It looked like an account number rather than a dollar figure."

Sudden celebrity for a Michigan engineer

The show itself aired three weeks after it was taped. That gave Olmstead time to get his phone number changed and to talk to his lawyer and banker about what he would need to do. Olmstead shared the secret with his employers who, as Olmstead says, "needed to know that all hell was going to break loose," as well as with the Michigan Quiz Bowl members and with the members of an academic trivia-writing collective to which he belonged, all of whom had been his phone-a-friends.

In October 2003, Olmstead also got to be a phone-a-friend, through a Quiz Bowl contact he'd made. Asked a question about the number of prongs on a jack, he scoured Google as quickly as he could in the available 30 seconds, scooting past references to three-pronged electric devices to one that revealed the correct answer: six.

To this day, Olmstead is recognized for his moment of fame, and his appearance as a "wise man" has put him back in the public eye. His strangest story, though, was of being recognized by the man standing behind him in a line-up. "His daughter was one-and-a-half, and the only way he could get her to settle down to eat was with Millionaire tapes, so he'd seen my appearance &ldots; over and over and over."

Even stranger was a peculiar, and unsuccessful, effort by a tabloid called the Star to find Olmstead a mate. A woman in a Florida prison wrote to Olmstead to advertise her availability since, as Olmstead recalls, "the state supreme court had commuted her death sentence for getting her boyfriend to kill her husband."

Millionaire vs. Jeopardy

This was actually Olmstead's second foray into the quiz show big leagues. In 1994, he won two games on Jeopardy, coming away with nearly $30,000 in cash and prizes. Olmstead found the Jeopardy experience considerably harder. Whereas the Regis version of Millionaire films one show a day, for example, Jeopardy films five.

"For Jeopardy, you have to be up all the time," he says. "It's constant competition. On Millionaire, it's just you against the house. Jeopardy is all about reflexes and getting the timing down. On Millionaire, you can think deep thoughts as long as you like. When you're in the hot seat, you can just focus on the question."

Olmstead added that the music and lights didn't bother him. "The person in the hot seat really can't see the lights going up and down. Those are trained more on the audience and the rest of the set than on the player and Regis or Meredith. I successfully blocked the music out, along with other noises, such as cameras moving everywhere around the players"

Either way, there is little one can do to prepare for either show. "You have to play it as it lies. You go in with a whole lifetime of knowledge and experiences, so there's no way you can cram for something like that."

As for Olmstead, asked if he'd do Millionaire again, he replies, "Darn straight!" For now, though, he makes due with Quiz Bowl and NTN, which he plays every Tuesday at Gallagher's in Ann Arbor, Michigan. If you play Showdown, keep an eye out. You may be playing with the richest quiz show winner in game show history.

Kevin Olmstead's deck

How would you do if you'd been in his shoes?

The "fastest fingers" question:

Put these authors in order by birth, starting with the earliest:

  • A. Stephen Crane
  • B. Joyce Carol Oates
  • C. Louis L'Amour
  • D. Terry McMillan

ANSWER: A-C-B-D

Here were his 15 questions

  • $100: Signs in video stores say "Please Be Kind", and do what? REWIND
  • $200: What do you do to hail a cab? RAISE AN ARM
  • $300: Dams are used to contain which of the following? WATER
  • $500: Which of these words is pronounced with a hard 'g'? GO
  • $1,000: An igloo is traditionally built in what shape? DOME
  • $2,000: By definition, the study of sound is called what? ACOUSTICS
  • $4,000: In the TV sitcom "Alice," where does the title character work? DINER
  • $8,000: Who settled and became the first governor of the Utah Territory? BRIGHAM YOUNG (Olmstead asked the audience here.)
  • $16,000: Halifax is the capital of what Canadian province? NOVA SCOTIA
  • $32,000: What comic strip character has the same first name as its creator? CATHY
  • $64,000: Which of the following trees is not considered a conifer? BEECH (Olmstead used his 50/50 for this one.)
  • $125,000: In the 1950s and 1960s, Quincy Jones directed orchestras for which of these crooners? SINATRA
  • $250,000: What writer collaborated with photographer Walker Evans on the 1941 book "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men"? JAMES AGEE (Olmstead called his phone-a-friend to get the answer.)
  • $500,000: The Earth's circumference at the equator is approximately how many miles? 24,900
  • $2,180,000: Who is credited with inventing the first mass-produced helicopter? IGOR SIKORSKY

First posted: April 2004