Transcript

326:

Quiz Show
Transcript

Originally aired 02.16.2007

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/326

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Bob Harris has won two cars and a lot of money playing Jeopardy on television. But he insists he's not that smart. What he is, he says, is somebody who decided when he was going to be on Jeopardy to take measures.

Bob Harris

I told my girlfriend at the time, hi. I'm rearranging the furniture now. And I need to make my house look like the Jeopardy studio. I set up low bookcases to be sort of like where the podiums were, about the same height. And I would stand there. I had a little homemade buzzer that I made out of a ballpoint pen and some masking tape.

Ira Glass

He got bright halogen lights. And he pumped up the air conditioning to make it feel like the inside of a TV studio. He placed a big picture of Jeopardy's host, Alex Trebek, in about the spot where the real Alex Trebek stands.

Bob Harris

I even tried to time my meals to when I would be eating at Jeopardy, so that my whole body clock would be exactly in harmony.

Ira Glass

So he played along with videotapes of the TV show. And he studied for months, memorizing all kinds of stuff, the guys who ran the United Nations in order, the presidents in order, rivers, the elements, British kings, the novels of E. M. Forster-- which include, by the way, Room With a View, Where Angels Fear to Tread, Howards End.

Bob Harris

The way to remember a lot of stuff is to build really big, goofy images. It takes an extra couple of seconds, maybe even a minute or two of thought, but then it stays better. So it's time well invested. I made this big picture in my head of a room with a view. OK, so you've got this nice, really big, like-- a friend of mine in Ohio grew up in this big mansion, so it's actually his living room in my head. So OK, it's a room with a beautiful view.

And Howards End was the next one on the list that I just happened to have in front of me. And so Howards End, and you've got A Room With a View. I mean, how can you not have, like, Howard-- I have a friend named Howard. And so I made a 30-foot buttocks and stuck it in the window. So you have a room with a view of Howard's end where angels fear to tread. So the angels are in this room, and there's this giant 30-foot buttocks in the window.

Ira Glass

That's why the angels fear to tread there.

Bob Harris

Who really wants to be there, really?

Ira Glass

All I can say is, you do not want to know how he got Passage to India in there. Bob says that a third of the answers that he gave on television-- a third-- came from cramming information into his head with these weird pictures that he would create for himself. And one of his biggest wins came when-- thanks to brute memorization-- he knew the name of an old book called The Compleat Angler, which to this day he has never read, has only the vaguest idea what it's about. And one of his biggest losses came when he could not remember the poem, "Jabberwocky."

Bob Harris

And I was particularly frustrated because this was my father's favorite poem. And he recited it to me pretty constantly. And yet, when they asked me about it under pressure, I just completely choked. And so Brillig became my nickname, for some people.

Ira Glass

I wonder if the reason why you didn't remember it was because it wasn't part of your Jeopardy knowledge, but because it was part of your real knowledge.

Bob Harris

I think that's exactly right. I think there are a lot of times in the game-- most of the big mistakes I ever made were like that, where it wasn't in my Jeopardy notebooks, my study materials, the almanacs.

Ira Glass

It's funny. It's sort of like it was in the wrong section of your brain.

Bob Harris

Yeah, exactly. It was in my real brain, the one I walk around with that doesn't have much in it.

Ira Glass

Talking to Bob about all this, you realize that a show like Jeopardy, a quiz show, any quiz show on the surface seems like it's about facts, retrieving facts to win prizes. But what's really going on for the players is totally different than just retrieving facts. There's a whole inner world happening, an inner world that is not on TV at all, an inner world that actually may be a lot more interesting than what's in the program that's on TV.

Well today, we dive in to look at that inner world, at the secret life of quiz shows. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Our program today in three rounds. Round One, Gamester of Ireland is Fine. The round is about somebody who goes on to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and the most amazing thing he comes up with is not any fact, not any answer, it is the sheer courage to appear at all.

Round Two, Dire Enigmas for Elite Fans, where we visit with some of the best quiz masters anywhere on an all-weekend, all-day, all-night quiz bender.

Round Three, Girls in Need of a Safer Time. By the way, if you are noticing anything special about these round names, five points for you as you play along at home. Anyway, round three is an attempt to use quiz shows-- yes, quiz shows-- to change teenage girls. Stay with us.

Round I. Gamester Of Ireland Is Fine.

Ira Glass

Act One, Gamester of Ireland is Fine. When Ronan Kelly went to talk to the guy in this next story, all he knew about him was that he had won a lot of money on a quiz show on RTE, which is the main television station in Ireland. And Ronan just figured that anybody who had won that kind of money must have some kind of story to tell. And anyway, the guy lived nearby. So Ronan got onto his bike with his recording gear, and he bicycled over to the guy's house.

When he got there, he figured that the first thing they would do is watch the video of the guy on the quiz show. But although this man had won hundreds of thousands of pounds, he actually did not have the technology to do that. What you're about to hear is the story that Ronan put together for Irish radio about this guy. The guy is named Roger Dowds.

Ronan Kelly

When I got to Roger's house to watch the tape of his appearance, he didn't have a VCR. We had to go back to the radio station to watch it.

Gay Byrne

Roger Dowds from Dublin.

Ronan Kelly

January 2001.

Ronan Kelly

Were you told to wave?

Roger Dowds

Oh, yes. They made a big issue about waving and smiling and looking as happy as possible.

Gay Byrne

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] from Dublin.

[GAME SHOW MUSIC]

And it's Fastest Finger first. Stand by your keypads, please.

Ronan Kelly

He was a contestant on the quiz show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. I should have put the word "unlikely" in there. Roger was an unlikely contestant, and you'll find out why as the program unfolds.

Gay Byrne

Silence in the studio, please. This is your question. Starting with the largest, arrange these Mediterranean islands in order of size, starting with the largest.

[GAME SHOW MUSIC]

Crete, Cyprus, Sicily, Malta.

Roger Dowds

Well, there was a phone number you could ring on RTE, obviously. And I rang many times, anyway, with no luck. And eventually, I got a call from someone to say I'd been short-listed. It was a couple of days before the show. You know, they said, oh, you're allowed to have five Phone-a-Friends.

I don't have many close friends, so I got two of my brothers. I got someone I play table tennis with. I got the husband of someone I play badminton with, a friend of my brother's, I think. They were the five.

Gay Byrne

And who got there quickest? Two right answers. But Roger Dowds beat it at 4.9 seconds. 4.9 seconds. Well done, Roger. There you go.

Roger Dowds

You know, I wasn't one of these so-called professional quiz people. I'm not an outgoing enough person to be like that, really. People were astounded that I would think of going on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

Gay Byrne

Now ladies and gentlemen, our next contestant is Roger Dowds. He works as a maintenance assistant in a nursing home. And he lives in Glasnevin in Dublin. And he specifically wants me to mention that his mother, Nora, is deceased, but would be very proud, indeed, to see him on this show.

Ronan Kelly

Why did you say that?

Roger Dowds

Well, I still was getting over my mother's death somewhat at the time. She was about three years' dead at the time. And she had been such a part of my life. She probably was quite concerned about my future when she died.

Gay Byrne

And if he won GBP 1 million, he says, he'd help the residents of the nursing home where he works to buy a place and run it however they please. And then he would love to have enough money--

Roger Dowds

You know, because you don't really believe you're going to be on, and you go through a lot of questions, what you might say in a circumstance, and I kind of said something very frivolous, expecting not to ever be saying anything.

Gay Byrne

All right, good luck to you. Let's play Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

[GAME SHOW MUSIC]

[APPLAUSE]

And for GBP 100, answer this one, Roger. In the 1968 cartoon, what was the color of the Beatles' submarine? Was it blue, yellow, green, or red?

Roger Dowds

Yellow. OK.

Gay Byrne

For GBP 100, yellow is right. You've got GBP 100, Roger.

Ronan Kelly

Financially, how were things at the time? Was that an interest for you?

Roger Dowds

Yes, it was a factor. I never had full-time employment ever in my life. I was at the time working in this home. But I was only working part-time. And I might have done the odd little odd job, but I was on an extremely low income. So I suppose the money aspect could be significant to me and my position.

Roger Dowds

It's not the other name. So Bill.

Gay Byrne

Bill?

Roger Dowds

That's my answer.

Gay Byrne

For GBP 500?

Roger Dowds

Yeah.

Gay Byrne

You've got it. It's the Bill. GBP 500.

Ronan Kelly

Did you practice first?

Roger Dowds

No, there wasn't time to practice. I didn't practice at all. I remember going in the day, and there were all the other contestants. And some of them were poring over quiz books. I just was trying to cope with being there. They made a tremendous day out of it. You were kind of treated like royalty. We were chauffeur-driven in. I think we got a very special lunch that no one else in RTE was getting.

And I remember thinking, oh, something different is happening today, because I saw some of the people that I recognize who were actors in Fair City. And, I don't know, one or two-- someone who's in Sport in RTE, in addition to all these people. And I don't know whether I'm starstruck or not.

Gay Byrne

No doubt about that one. You have GBP 1,000. [UNINTELLIGIBLE] is the right answer.

[APPLAUSE]

[GAME SHOW MUSIC]

Now, you can never sit in the chair where Roger is sitting if you don't take those telephone numbers. They're 1550-717171 [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Roger Dowds

I'll remember that phone number for the rest of my life.

Gay Byrne

Do you want to tell the audience what happened to you in Morocco, Roger?

Roger Dowds

Well, I--

Roger Dowds

Well, no I don't. You're going to make me, anyway.

Roger Dowds

I was there last month, in fact, in December--

Roger Dowds

I didn't really want to be distracted by anecdotes.

Roger Dowds

Moroccan dirham, as they call the currency there. So being a bit shy and retiring, I wanted to get rid of them. And all I could find was an Irish--

Ronan Kelly

Where does this sensitivity come from, this lack of confidence come from?

Roger Dowds

I'm still trying to work that one out. Well, I was uncommonly close my mother. And I was reluctant to go out into the world and do things as a result. I was almost reclusive in kind of a way, because I didn't go out. I did go to college for a while, and it didn't work out.

Ronan Kelly

This is in your early 20s?

Roger Dowds

Yeah, I was about 21 at the time.

Gay Byrne

GAA fan, are you?

Roger Dowds

Actually not particularly, but I had that answer before the counties came up. So I think I--

Gay Byrne

You're going with that?

Roger Dowds

--have to go with that.

Gay Byrne

Final answer, Kildare?

Roger Dowds

Final answer.

Gay Byrne

And it makes you worth GBP 8,000, Roger.

[APPLAUSE]

[GAME SHOW MUSIC]

Roger Dowds

My father, I suppose, was a little distant from us. It was hard to get any sense of what he expected from us. I sort of feel, in some ways, he was a bit childlike, so sometimes I felt I was fighting for my mother's affection with him. And we had this kind of slightly niggly, sort of relationship as a result. I suppose we were all a bit on our own little wavelength. I was so much younger than the rest, so I think that separated me a bit.

Roger Dowds

I feel as it's a historical question, now I have a brother who's-- he is a bit of a historian. He studied history. So I think maybe I should phone him. It's my brother, Robert.

Gay Byrne

Your brother Robert. OK. Robert.

[PHONE RINGING]

Robert Dowds

Hello.

Gay Byrne

Hello, Robert.

Robert Dowds

Yes, hello.

Gay Byrne

Good evening to you. This is Gay Byrne on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

Robert Dowds

Hello.

Gay Byrne

And your brother Roger has made it to the hot seat. And he needs your help in answering a question, all right?

Robert Dowds

Thanks very much.

Gay Byrne

There are four possible answers to this question. The next voice you hear will be his. And Roger, you have 30 seconds, starting now.

Roger Dowds

Robert, where did the Asgard land guns for the Irish Volunteers in July 1914? Was it Banna Strand, Scarriff, Howth, or Arklow?

Robert Dowds

Howth.

Roger Dowds

Thank you very much. You're sure about that?

Robert Dowds

About 95%.

Roger Dowds

I thought it might be that myself. So thank you.

Robert Dowds

OK. Bye.

Roger Dowds

Thank you very much. Bye. I'll go with that. Howth.

Gay Byrne

Howth, final answer?

Roger Dowds

Final answer.

Gay Byrne

Could Roger be right in saying Howth for the answer? We'll take a break here. Come back to us after this. Thank you.

[APPLAUSE]

[GAME SHOW MUSIC]

Ronan Kelly

Can you remember the day you decided that college wasn't for you or that college wasn't working out?

Roger Dowds

Oh, I didn't feel part of anything there. And I had all sorts of essays and assignments that I was supposed to have done. And I hadn't started on anything. And just one day, I didn't go in. I was so lacking in resources to deal with things then that I couldn't tell anyone. I actually pretended for a whole term to go to college. I spent most of the days like a homeless person, walking around town. Whatever I did. I brought in my sandwiches just as I normally had done. And my brother, in particular, was trying to get me to go back. But it just didn't seem possible. It was simple as that.

Gay Byrne

The question was, where did the Asgard land guns for the Irish Volunteers in July 1914? He had to check with his brother, Robert. Robert said Howth. He went with Howth. That was his final answer. And it means he's worth GBP 16,000.

[APPLAUSE]

[GAME SHOW MUSIC]

The next question is worth GBP 32,000, Roger. OK. Have a look at it. Who was the first person to run a mile in under four minutes?

Roger Dowds

I couldn't believe my luck with this question.

Gay Byrne

Sebastian Coe, Harold Abrahams--

Ronan Kelly

You're shaking your head.

Roger Dowds

Yeah, because I'm going to know it before I see any answers.

Roger Dowds

Well, I think you arranged this question for me, because it just happens it's my namesake, Roger Bannister. I've always had an interest in athletics. And I'm quite sure about this one. Roger Bannister. 1954, I believe it was.

[LAUGHTER]

Gay Byrne

Roger, don't confuse me with dates.

Roger Dowds

I'm sorry.

Roger Dowds

I felt I should be offering more information.

Gay Byrne

Whatever about the angels, Roger. I think mama's looking after you as well, is she? Because you've just won GBP 32,000.

[APPLAUSE]

[GAME SHOW MUSIC]

Roger Dowds

The crowd seemed to get particularly enthusiastic at that point.

Ronan Kelly

They must have all those checks written out, do they?

Roger Dowds

Oh, yes. Yeah, yeah. There's no writing involved.

Gay Byrne

GBP 32,000. And you get to keep that. Nobody can take that from you.

Roger Dowds

No matter what.

Gay Byrne

No matter what, that's yours, OK? And you're right. Bannister did run the mile in 1954, not that we asked you.

Ronan Kelly

Did your mother encourage you to go out into the world?

Roger Dowds

She did try to encourage me when I left college. She was always looking at courses that I might do. Because I used to do the garden at home or I did a bit of cooking at home, oh, will you do a cookery course? Will you do a gardening course? You know, just to see me doing something.

But then I gradually-- as my parents got older, they started becoming infirm. And I did become more of a benefit, because I just became their chauffeur and stuff like that.

Ronan Kelly

Was it a time you felt good about yourself?

Roger Dowds

I think I felt better that I had some little sense of duty in doing something. Because when I was first at home and my parents were still a bit active, I remember, literally, sometimes that people came in during the day and maybe they thought I should be out. And I'd actually literally hide under the bed-- a grown man in his 20s-- just to avoid having to explain myself.

Ronan Kelly

That must have made you so angry.

Roger Dowds

I couldn't express anger. I was such a-- I don't know-- such a-- well, withdrawn from anger. I was angry in some way. But I didn't recognize it as anger. Well, I was so full of self-hatred. I didn't have any sense of self-esteem. So I think because of that I couldn't do things at all.

[GAME SHOW MUSIC]

Roger Dowds

I think I have nothing to lose. I shall go for Venus as my final answer.

Gay Byrne

That's your final answer?

Roger Dowds

Final answer.

Gay Byrne

Venus, final answer. You had GBP 32,000, Roger. You now have GBP 64,000.

[APPLAUSE]

[GAME SHOW MUSIC]

Roger Dowds

The biscuits are from the [UNINTELLIGIBLE] cookery book.

Ronan Kelly

Tea and biscuits in Roger's house. The biscuits are on a plate bought by his family to support the Protestant side in the 1957 boycott, where Catholics boycotted Protestant businesses, and Protestants, like Rogers' family, bought things to keep those businesses alive.

Roger Dowds

She compiled a cookery book, which seemed to go all around Protestant communities around Ireland.

Ronan Kelly

Roger felt isolated as a child. And the fact that he was part of a minority community only made that feeling of isolation more intense. But being a Protestant also got him out of the house. He travels miles to play racket sports in clubs that used to be exclusive to his church, something that's no longer the case, and he's glad of that. He goes out to play the organ at church services. And through the church community, he found work in a retirement home set up originally for Protestant residents.

Roger Dowds

I mean, it has been a tremendous experience over the years. I met some very special people who have passed away because they were old. Well, my mother died at the end of 1997. And shortly after that a woman called Joyce [? Schultheis ?] came into the home. And she just was a tremendous-- excuse me crying-- but gift to me at the time.

From the generation she came from, she was a person of rare understanding. You could tell her anything, and she was unshockable. And because of the slightly narrow environment I'd been living in, I felt things had to be kept secret and kind of hidden. Suddenly, I got this different perspective.

[GAME SHOW MUSIC]

Roger Dowds

I feel very strongly that it's Patrick Kavanagh. I think Louis MacNeice died earlier than 1967. So I'll go for Patrick Kavanagh as my final answer.

Gay Byrne

Final answer?

Roger Dowds

Final answer, Gay.

Gay Byrne

No turning back.

Roger Dowds

No turning back.

Gay Byrne

We've gone to [? orange. ?] That was one of the most surprising pieces of thinking I've seen on this show so far. And it's won you GBP 100,000.

[APPLAUSE]

Roger Dowds

Around the time I was on Who Wants to Be a Millionare, I started going to a counselor, who I'm still going to. I think she's helped with sort of relieving me after the awful self-hatred.

Ronan Kelly

Why did you decide you needed her?

Roger Dowds

I got very friendly with quite an elderly man. And as I said, it was the summer just before I went to school. Oh, sorry, college. And I used to go and visit him. And unfortunately, he started abusing me. And although I was 18, I suppose I was 12. I hadn't had sex education of any kind.

I didn't really consent to anything, but I allowed this to happen for about a year, I don't know, because I suppose in some way I valued his attention. And finally-- because I'd never not confided in my mother-- so I did eventually confide in her about this. And it was a very difficult thing for her. She was used to kind of sweeping things aside, putting them under the carpet. I lost a little bit of something with my mother that day.

Ronan Kelly

I'm sorry. I missed that. You what?

Roger Dowds

I kind of lost a little bit of something with my mother. I idealized her so much. And she was so wonderful.

Ronan Kelly

And did you go back to the elderly man?

Roger Dowds

I went once. But I didn't-- I remember going once to the door and talking to him. And I made up some outlandish story and, well, lies. So as a result of that, he kind of didn't want to have anything more to do with me anyway. I suppose I pretended I'd gone off with someone else.

Ronan Kelly

Did he think there was something else in what you were doing?

Roger Dowds

How do you mean? Sorry.

Ronan Kelly

Well, did he see it in the same way as you did? Or did he see it as something else? Did he see it as abuse? Or did he see it as a relationship?

Roger Dowds

No, he probably saw it as a relationship or something. I don't think he would have had any sense of the abuse I was feeling. At that point, I think I could have let anyone do anything to me. I had so little self-esteem, I suppose I couldn't-- It's like as if I became mute, and I couldn't shout stop.

[GAME SHOW MUSIC]

Roger Dowds

I'm very sure I know this one, Gay.

[APPLAUSE]

Roger Dowds

I couldn't believe the audience's response. I thought they were going to collapse.

Ronan Kelly

They're really behind you.

Roger Dowds

Yeah, yeah, extraordinarily so.

Gay Byrne

I explained the situation earlier, Roger.

[LAUGHTER]

You have GBP 125,000. You walk now, there's the check. I have it. You could walk now with that. If you go for this and get it wrong, you lose GBP 93,000.

Roger Dowds

That's a bit drastic, all right.

[LAUGHTER]

Gay Byrne

Yes.

Roger Dowds

But I do know a bit about birds. And that is my final answer, Gay.

[CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]

Gay Byrne

Final answer.

Roger Dowds

Final answer.

Gay Byrne

You had GBP 125,000, Roger. You now have GBP 250,000.

[CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]

Roger Dowds

The whole audience had won it, themselves.

[CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]

Roger Dowds

Imagine having to take home a cartload of money.

[CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]

Roger Dowds

I want to shed a few tears now.

[LAUGHTER]

Roger Dowds

All that was going through my head was that Gay Byrne, himself, had lost a lot of money.

Gay Byrne

Don't start crying on me at this stage.

[LAUGHTER]

The next question is worth half a million pounds.

Roger Dowds

I don't feel I want to look at it, actually.

[LAUGHTER]

Gay Byrne

Look at it.

Ronan Kelly

Now, what did you think of that?

Gay Byrne

What does a vexillologist study?

Roger Dowds

I didn't think much.

Gay Byrne

A vexillologist study? Is it--

Roger Dowds

I think my brain had seized up. I couldn't come up with anything.

Gay Byrne

--flags, or skin diseases? Vexillologist. And if you look at me and say, funnily enough, Gay, I know the answer--

Roger Dowds

Funnily enough, I know the answer--

Ronan Kelly

You were fairly entertaining, weren't you?

Roger Dowds

Yeah, I was surprised how many people thought I was entertaining.

Roger Dowds

No, I'll have to be quite honest to you.

Ronan Kelly

Were you disappointed you hadn't got an easy one?

Roger Dowds

Well, I couldn't believe my luck up to that. I was carried on in the tide of wanting to keep going, just not even to do with the money, just I was enjoying being up there in some way. So I didn't want to stop.

GBP 18,000. ?]

Roger Dowds

What's the word? I shall retire now, or whatever I should say.

[APPLAUSE]

Roger Dowds

To get all this positive feedback from other people was extraordinary, to feel I was worth something and people could admire me.

Gay Byrne

It says, pay Roger Dowds GBP 250,000. Take it with our blessing and our thanks. You've been a lovely, lovely competitor and played extremely well. You deserve it.

Roger Dowds

Thank you very much.

Gay Byrne

Enjoy.

Roger Dowds

Thank you.

Gay Byrne

Enjoy your [INAUDIBLE].

Ronan Kelly

And did friends and family deal differently with you afterwards?

Roger Dowds

Not enormously. Well, I think they admired me for having done it. I'm the youngest of my family, and I think maybe I was always seen as very vulnerable or sensitive. And maybe they felt the less reason to be worried about my future.

Ronan Kelly

So what has that future been for Roger? What did he do with the hundreds of thousands? Well, he uses it as an income to supplement part-time work gardening and house minding. It also allows him time to visit elderly people and do messages for them.

Roger Dowds

I was persuaded that I absolutely had to get an alarm for the house. I went on a nice, organized cycling holiday in France, I remember. And I went skiing. I'd never been skiing.

Ronan Kelly

The main thing Roger got from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire wasn't the money. It was self-confidence.

Roger Dowds

Well, I think I'm a lot less shy than I was, perhaps. I have more sense of well being within myself. I don't have the awful self-hatred.

[ORGAN PLAYING]

Ronan Kelly

In his modest house with his very modest car outside, Roger has one luxury to show for his night on the tele with Gay, a piano organ.

Ira Glass

Ronan Kelly's story about Roger Dowds, from the Irish radio program, Flux on RTE Radio 1. It was a winner of the Third Coast International Audio Competition, which is where we heard of it. Since this show aired, Roger Dowds has picked up another award. He won a gold medal for Ireland in tennis at the Outgames, a competition of gay and lesbian athletes in Montreal.

Coming up, can quiz shows save the world? One woman believed yes. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

[MUSIC - "REFLEXOS" BY LUIZ ECA]

Round II. Dire Enigmas For Elite Fans.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week in our program we choose a theme, and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, The Secret Life of Quiz Shows. We've arrived at act two of our show. Act Two, Dire Enigmas For Elite Fans.

Every winter, there is this event at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where some of the country's very best puzzle solvers go up against the very best puzzle writers. It's called the MIT Mystery Hunt. And what it is is a series of puzzles-- word puzzles, number puzzles, scavenger hunts, picture puzzles, puzzles which don't even have a name.

And eventually what all this leads to-- this takes all weekend or longer-- what it leads to, the final answer, it leads you to a coin hidden somewhere on the MIT campus. This is a team competition. The teams are made up of MIT students, and also elite puzzle solvers who fly in from around the country for the event.

One of our producers, Lisa Pollak, joined them for last year's contest. She was following a team called Dr. Awkward. And for those of you who are playing along at home, Dr. Awkward is spelled, D-R period Awkward, A-W-K-W-A-R-D. Give yourself two points if you noticed that that is a palindrome, spelled the same forwards and backwards. Here's Lisa.

Lisa Pollak

When you hang out with a puzzle team, you hear a lot of stories like Dave Dickerson's. When Dave was just a kid, he got this book. He'll never forget the title.

Dave Dickerson

Puzzles, Puzzles, Puzzles, Puzzles, Puzzles.

Lisa Pollak

Actually, the title might have just been Puzzles, but that's what the cover said. Dave was obsessed with this book. The puzzles were harder than any he'd ever seen, but he couldn't put them down.

Dave Dickerson

And I even remember when I saw one of the clues-- not an elegant clue by modern standards-- but it said, damn, I'm trying to fix these socks. And the answer was darn. The darn socks. You know, needle and thread. And I thought, I get that. And I solved it. It was the first clue I had actually solved. And I thought, I can do this. I had never been challenged this much in my life. And I didn't realize I could do it.

Lisa Pollak

Not only could Dave do it, he found it impossible to stop doing it, which is how, almost 30 years later, he ended up here, standing in an MIT classroom with the rest of the Dr. Awkward team, warming up for the mystery hunt. And by warming up, I mean they were plugging in their laptops and setting up a snack table.

This was an experienced team with about 45 people on the roster. And as far as brainpower goes, they were an intimidating crew-- crossword champs, PhDs, a guy handing out DVDs of his recent appearance on Jeopardy, two guys whose T-shirts I needed help deciphering, and this man, whose nickname I'm still trying to figure out.

Kevin Wald

Ucaoimhu, spelled U-C-A-O-I-M-H-U. And it's from my real name, Kevin Wald. You split it up as KEV-IN W-ALD. Ald is an archaic form of the word "old," so you take an old-style "W", which is two "U's." You take "Kev" the way it's in the original Irish spelling, which is C-A-O-I-M-H. And you put it in the two "U's," so you get Ucaoimhu.

Dave Dickerson

We're definitely a dangerous team. There's no question about it.

Lisa Pollak

That's Dave again. He's the person who invited me to hang out here. And he warned me that the puzzles I'd see his team solve that weekend wouldn't be what most of us imagine when we think of puzzles. Mystery hunt puzzles are so elaborate, so complex, that lots of times they don't even have instructions, just a page of words or pictures or numbers arranged in some cryptic way, which means you've often got to solve a puzzle just to know what puzzle you're trying to solve.

Dave Dickerson

So for example, the first puzzle hunt-- or maybe one of the first-- the guy who did it did a puzzle in Linear A, which is an old language. I think it's older than Greek, a very, very primitive, ancient language. And he didn't tell anyone it was Linear A. And he took the only two books on Linear A out of the MIT library. People solved it anyway.

Man 1

Hey, everybody!

[CHEERS]

How you doing today?

[CHEERS]

That's right.

Lisa Pollak

The mystery hunt started with an opening ceremony put on by last year's winning team. They're called The Evil Midnight Bombers What Bomb At Midnight. That's the way the hunt works. The group that won last year's hunt designs and runs this year's contest. Dozens of teams pack the lobby of an MIT building. And though they were competing, from what I could tell the mood seemed pretty friendly. The Evil Midnight Bombers kicked things off with a skit. Then all the teams headed off to various locations around campus, and the solving began.

[CHALK ON A CHALKBOARD]

Jeremy

So what do you do with FNTLLLLLLSNN?

Those ?] just might be an index to something else. It might not even be an index to something in this round.

Lisa Pollak

That's Jeremy and [? Tripp, ?] two Dr. Awkward teammates, standing at a blackboard a few hours into the hunt. Now I'll be honest, as a spectator sport, competitive puzzle solving has some problems. Most of the time there wasn't much to see, just people huddled in small groups around laptops and conferring over printouts, batting around one idea after another until they hit on an answer.

Woman 1

The third one is Gilligan's Island. Who's writing this down?

Lisa Pollak

Things seemed to be going pretty well. The blackboard was filling up with answers and new puzzles kept coming. But there were some stumpers, too.

Man 2

And that doesn't look promising. So look at last letters.

Man 3

SAX?

Lisa Pollak

The name of this puzzle was Continental Divide. It was one of those no-instruction puzzles. There was a sheet of paper with a bunch of pictures of DVD movie covers on it. And the covers were arranged in a grid, six boxes across and five down. The bottom right-hand box was empty. All the titles on the covers were blacked out. Finding those was the easy part. It turns out all the films had a city, state, or country in the name. Raising Arizona, Road to Singapore, The Tailor of Panama. And so on.

The answer, everyone agreed, had something to do with those place names, but what? Were they trying to put a title in the missing box? Spell a sentence from a combination of letters? I watched for more than an hour as at least a dozen different people tried together to figure it out.

Man 4

Annapolis, Dallas, Essex, Cancun. All of these in this column do not end in vowels.

Lisa Pollak

They plotted the names on a map. They typed them into a spreadsheet. They put them in a grid and they color coded them by continent. No pattern was too absurd to consider.

Eric

Arizona Iced Tea, Singapore sling, Panama hat. I still think we might be able to get drinks out of them.

Man 5

India pale ale.

Eric

India pale ale and-- OK, yeah. These are drinks across.

Man 5

Oh, my God.

Lisa Pollak

They could not have been more wrong.

Eric

I like the idea from half an hour ago where we were mapping these things to letters.

Lisa Pollak

The answer ended up having something to do with DVD country codes. But they didn't know that yet. For now, despite all the work, they weren't getting anywhere. At times I couldn't believe they were actually doing this for fun. But for puzzle people, the struggle is part of the fun. It's not in vain, because they know that somewhere out there there's an answer.

Eric

I mean, somebody can say something in the next 15 seconds that will just break this whole thing wide open.

Lisa Pollak

That's Eric, a veteran of the team. And what he's talking about there, that flash of insight, that aha moment when something suddenly becomes clear, that's the payoff.

Eric

An observation that nobody else saw, seeing through the problem. And that's difficult to do. And I'm not going to do it on every puzzle. I'm not one of the geniuses around here. But I am able to contribute something, and I'm just waiting for that to happen.

Lisa Pollak

You don't have to solve a puzzle to have an aha moment. The puzzles, if you're a puzzle person, are a pretty reliable way to get them, as opposed to real life, where, as a team member named John pointed out to me, most problems don't come with their own answers.

John

You know, it's very different trying to figure out, why does my daughter hate me? And how can I help her? Because there's no solution to that. Versus, OK, what are those numbers in the background of the evil video? Are they trying to say some message there? This you get the joy of, OK. At least you got the answer, and you know that you got the answer.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Kevin Wald

It is right now 1:23 in the morning. And we're in the sixth round. We've got tons and tons of puzzles in these rounds.

Lisa Pollak

When I caught up with Ucaoimhu, the Dr. Awkward team had been solving puzzles for 13 and 1/2 straight hours. The desks were covered with empty food containers. And the classroom was starting to smell like a dorm room whose residents hadn't showered in a while. Some team members had gone home to sleep. And a night crew with fresher brains had shown up to relieve them. But Ucaoimhu, like a lot of the 20 or so people here, had been there since the start.

Lisa Pollak

How are you feeling right now?

Kevin Wald

Right now, I'm feeling tired. And I'll probably leave within the next hour or so. Fortunately, what I'm working on now is a nice, gentle kind of puzzle.

Lisa Pollak

And by a nice, gentle kind of puzzle, what Ucaoimhu meant was a grid that looked kind of like a crossword puzzle, only with no blacked-in squares, no numbers, and no clues. I repeat, no clues at all, just empty boxes. Oh, and in the background, a red cross, like on an English flag. And yes, they solved it.

I stuck around that night watching until 6:00 in the morning. And what struck me about the whole scene was how matter of fact everyone was, like there was nothing out of the ordinary here, as if this was the most normal thing in the world, men and women, some college students, but plenty with spouses and kids at home, staying up all night in a college classroom solving puzzles.

But the next day, as the hunt stretched into its 30th hour, I caught up with Dave, the guy who invited me here. And he told me that, as a puzzle person, he was constantly being reminded that the rest of the world doesn't work this way. Just the other day, he'd gone into a bar. And when the female bartender came over, he told her about this cool new anagram he'd heard, how if you take the phrase, a dream within a dream, and rearrange the letters, you get, what am I? A mind reader.

This didn't go over so well. The bartender-- apparently finding this fact neither interesting nor charming-- just looked at Dave like he was weird. Dave told me that years ago, while he was working as a greeting card writer for Hallmark in Kansas City, he actually got in trouble for doing this kind of thing.

Dave Dickerson

My mentor came to me and said, Dave, we have to talk. And he said, Dave, you're using too many literary allusions in your casual speech and people are complaining.

Lisa Pollak

Wait, wait. In your speech, not in your greeting cards?

Dave Dickerson

Right, right, just in my everyday speech. I knew better than to use obscure allusions in greeting cards, goodness gracious. I asked my supervisor, what the hell does that even mean? And he said, I was just told to tell it to you.

Lisa Pollak

Dave started obsessing about this. He wasn't even sure what the problem was, so he began keeping track. One week, every time he had the urge to say something at work, he wrote it in a notebook instead.

Dave Dickerson

By the end of that week, my notebook was full of the most random crap. None of it was a literary allusion.

Lisa Pollak

Maybe, Dave thought, the problem wasn't him. He'd recently been transferred from the humor department to the serious writing staff. And he was surrounded by all these new people who probably just didn't understand him.

Dave Dickerson

I was still doing lunch with the guys from humor. That was what I felt was my real home, and I could be myself there. And so I was at lunch with them maybe two or three weeks later, and one of the guys, as we were going to lunch, said, you know-- and it was a cluster of us, five or six of us, all heading toward the lunch room. And one of the guys said, you know, we do a lot of monkey cards. And yet--

Lisa Pollak

You mean cards with pictures of monkeys?

Dave Dickerson

Yes, yes, more or less, because what he actually said was, and yet, they're all illustrated with chimpanzees. And chimpanzees aren't monkeys, are they? And I said-- because I had done a report on this in fourth grade, and because it was something of an obsession of mine, monkeys, apes, and so on-- was I said, actually, chimpanzees are apes, along with orangutans, gorillas, and gibbons. And in fact, one of the weird things about Planet of the Apes is they don't have any gibbons in them. The orangutans that they claim are orangutans look like gibbons. And the way you distinguish apes from monkeys is apes have no tails and they're not exclusively arboreal.

And there was this pause. And I said, actually, there's a whole subset of other animals that are like monkeys called prosimians. And they include the lemur, and the tarsier, and the kinkajou, and the galago-- also called the bush baby-- and they're really goofy looking. And boy, if they had a Planet of the Prosimians, I would totally watch that movie.

And there was a further pause. And one of my friends said, oh, Dave, hey, speaking of animals, would you like to see the rat's ass that I give? And I thought, oh, that's my problem. I inform people against their will.

Lisa Pollak

So what you're saying is that the thing that can be very annoying in the real world is the same thing that makes you really good at solving puzzles?

Dave Dickerson

Yes, yes. Although I also feel obliged to point out that perhaps the more important point-- as far as I'm concerned-- is the thing that makes me annoying in the regular world is not annoying here. This environment is one of the only places where I can say something like that and not worry that I might be irritating someone by saying it, that even if it's not relevant, people at least understand the impulse.

Lisa Pollak

On a puzzle team, Dave can be himself only better. And I think this is true for a lot of people whose talents require the right context in which to shine. Think about it. A boxer without a boxing ring is just a guy punching people. In a puzzle competition, a guy with a mind for obscure facts can be a star.

Dave Dickerson

Yes.

[CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]

Man 6

Good job, guys.

Man 7

Good work.

Ira Glass

Lisa Pollak. The 2007 MIT Mystery Hunt was won in 38 hours and 14 minutes by none other than the Dr. Awkward team, whose members immediately began planning for this year's hunt, which was won two weeks ago by the team, Evil Midnight Bombers What Bomb at Midnight. If you'd like to try some of these mystery hunt puzzles yourself, you can find them all by Googling MIT Mystery Hunt. And God have mercy on your soul.

[MUSIC - "SMARTER THAN YOU" BY THE UNDERTONES]

Round III. Girls In Need Of A Safer Time.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Girls in Need of a Safer Time.

Robin Epstein remembers the ad. There was a hospital nursery full of babies. And one baby girl tosses off her pink knit cap. It lands on the floor. This inspires other little baby girls to do the same. Pink hats come flying off of heads. Finally, the first little baby girl raises her little baby fist into the air, as Helen Reddy sings, "I Am Woman."

[MUSIC - "I AM WOMAN" BY HELEN REDDY]

Please, don't stand up in your cars. This was an ad for the Oxygen Network, all-women's network, just about to go on the air, February 2, 2000, which Robin found completely thrilling.

Robin Epstein

It was this really wonderful moment of, here we go. It sort of heralded our arrival, and the birth of the network, and the excitement behind it. And it felt like it was something really to cheer for.

Ira Glass

Robin had just gotten a job on a brand-new show on this brand-new network. It was a quiz show for teenage girls called Clued In. Robin was going to write all the questions in the quiz. And she did this with a real sense of mission.

Robin Epstein

It just seemed like a fantastic idea for a show to me, which was to get teenage girls on a quiz show and to show the world, really, how smart they were.

Ira Glass

Show the world and show other teenage girls?

Robin Epstein

Absolutely. And I wanted to show that these were the girls that you should be looking up to, that there were, in fact, role models that you weren't seeing.

Ira Glass

Right, and they walk among us. They're everyday girls.

Robin Epstein

That's right.

Ira Glass

Yeah. Did you know about these studies at the time that-- I think the researcher was named Gilligan.

Robin Epstein

Yeah, Carol Gilligan. Absolutely. Yes. I think it was basically until the age of 11 or so, girls in class, they are constantly raising their hands. It's important that they look smart. They want to impress their teachers. And so they're constantly all about giving the right answer, and reading, and researching, and whatnot. And then there's something that happens to these girls at age 12 or 13 where it inverts. And suddenly, appearing smart is not important at all for the majority of them.

Ira Glass

And when you began this show, did you know about that research? And did you believe it?

Robin Epstein

I absolutely knew about the research. I didn't buy it. I thought, no way. I mean, sort of based on my own experiences in school, I was in a public school, but a lot of my friends were really smart girls. And we were all sort of very pleased with being high achievers and doing all this stuff. And I just thought, that research is a crock. You know, where is this woman going? What schools? How many girls did she actually interview?

[CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]

Ian Kesler

Welcome back. Welcome back. I'm Ian Kesler, and it's time to get Clued In.

Ira Glass

And just describe what the early shows were like, what kinds of questions there were, how people would respond.

Robin Epstein

Right. So in the early shows, we would ask a range of questions. And I thought that there was a baseline of things that clued-in people should be aware of and should know.

Ian Kesler

All right, here's the question. When stocks rise, it's a bull market. What animal symbolizes a market decline?

[BUZZER]

Allison.

Allison

Chicken?

Ian Kesler

No. Good guess, but that wasn't it. Janine.

Janine

A bird?

Ian Kesler

No, that's incorrect. Do you want to give it a shot, Jacqueline?

Jacqueline

No.

Ian Kesler

No, you don't? You don't want to embarrass yourself? All right, so actually it's a bear. It's a bear market. OK, don't worry about it.

Ira Glass

So is that pretty typical?

Robin Epstein

Yes. There started to be a creeping sensation that the questions were way, way too hard when she came out with chicken. That's where I thought, oh, OK, we have a problem.

Ian Kesler

Here we go. 500-point follow-up, same category. What losing presidential candidate lost the use of his hand in World War II? Three seconds. Emily.

Emily

Teddy Roosevelt?

Ian Kesler

No. Anybody else want to give it a shot? Come on. Bob Dole. Bob Dole. Yeah, World War II.

Ira Glass

With the girls out there not able to get answers, not able to get these answers, did you ever feel a little guilty? You know what I mean? Like you're doing them a disservice, you're making them look bad.

Robin Epstein

Oh, absolutely, every day. It was one of these things where, when they had the blank stares and they were not ringing in on their buzzers, I would sort of sit there and I just had my hand on my forehead, sort of looking down, and just feeling like, what have I done? Like I have put them in this position. It is my fault that they can not answer, that in fact, not only am I not showing that girls are smart, I have put on the air that girls are stupid.

Ian Kesler

That's really good. And actually, Lauren, that's wrong, too. So you don't get any points. I'm sorry. All right. Jasmine, are you ready? Here's your first question.

Ira Glass

Now, this is a show on a network for women--

Robin Epstein

Yes.

Ira Glass

--and it's aimed at girls.

Robin Epstein

Yes.

Ira Glass

Why is the host a guy?

Robin Epstein

Yeah, that is a great question. We actually auditioned scores of women to be hosts of the show. There was one girl who was possibly a good fit for the show.

Ira Glass

And?

Robin Epstein

And she was not really pretty enough to be on TV.

Ira Glass

Are you serious?

Robin Epstein

Mmm-hmm.

Ira Glass

She was good, but she wasn't just pretty enough?

Robin Epstein

Yes.

Ira Glass

Even on this sort of pro-woman network?

Robin Epstein

Even on the we-love-you-for-what's-on-the-inside network. Yes.

Ira Glass

And what did you think when you saw that go down? Did you just feel like, OK, well, whatever, it's television?

Robin Epstein

Yeah. I mean, we were TV people, and so there-- and the assumption also was that if we wanted teen girls to be interested, maybe we give them a little eye candy. And the host that we chose sort of had a passing resemblance to Matt Damon. He was like a Matt Damon type.

Ian Kesler

And here's the question. What amendment gave women the right to vote?

[BUZZER]

[? Kocey. ?]

Woman 2

There you go, [? Kocey. ?] It's all you.

Woman 3

Eighth? Ninth? 14th? 15th? Eighth?

Ian Kesler

Three seconds.

Woman 3

Ninth? Eighth? Ninth? Say Ninth.

Woman 4

The Ninth. No, wait.

Woman 3

No, no, she didn't say it.

Ian Kesler

She said Ninth.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Woman 5

I'm going to guess 14th.

Ian Kesler

That's incorrect. Actually, it's the 19th Amendment. 19th Amendment.

6

None of us deserve the right to vote, because we don't know that.

Ian Kesler

That's true, exactly. So nobody gets the final question.

Ira Glass

None of us deserves the right to vote. Yes, exactly.

[LAUGHTER]

So the girls can't answer most of the questions that you designed for the show. What do you do?

Robin Epstein

You dumb down questions. You give them things that anyone of any age, of any mental capacity could possibly answer.

Ian Kesler

Jesus is known as the son of whom?

[BUZZER]

[? Fane. ?]

Woman 6

God.

Ian Kesler

God, that's right. So you're up to 4,000 points. Abby, you've got 3,250. Which one do you want to go with?

Abby

All right, I'll take This Spells Disaster.

Ian Kesler

This Spells Disaster. Here's the question. Without fumbling, who can spell her first name backwards?

[BUZZER]

Katie.

Katie

E-I-T-A-K.

Ian Kesler

There you go. She's on the board.

Robin Epstein

Yeah, that wasn't one of my prouder moments as a question writer.

Ian Kesler

Which one would you like to go with?

Woman 7

I'll take Sign Me Up, please.

Ian Kesler

Sign Me Up, all right. This is actually a physical challenge. We want to see who can get an autograph on their arm from the cutest boy in the audience.

[BUZZER]

All right, Rachel, here you go. Here's a pen. You've got 15 seconds. Go right now. 15 seconds. Come on, cheer for her. 15 seconds.

[CHEERING]

Ira Glass

So in this one, they're running through the audience with pens. And isn't this pretty much exactly the kind of boy crazy culture that you were trying to not encourage?

Robin Epstein

Yes. This was pretty much exactly the opposite of what we were trying to show with the show. And that did kind of made me sad that here are these-- they're the ones who are on air and who should be the role models. And it was pretty disappointing to realize that, even though we were trying to find them and to show this, we were failing at it.

Ian Kesler

What would be your dream car?

Woman 8

Um, I guess my dream car would be a Mustang.

Ian Kesler

A Mustang. Like a new one or an old one?

Woman 8

Whatever. Like, I probably--

Ira Glass

And so, when you got into this, your whole idea was, like, OK, let's show how smart girls are. And at the end of this experience, how did you feel?

Robin Epstein

I felt girls are dumb.

Ira Glass

Girls are dumb.

Robin Epstein

Girls are dumb.

Ira Glass

Just listen to yourself.

Robin Epstein

I know. This experience remains one of these things that I'm not entirely sure how to explain. I do think women are smart. But the lesson of what I saw versus what I want to believe is very different.

Ira Glass

But is it possible the girls were smart but just not smart in a way that could be made apparent in a trivia quiz?

Robin Epstein

Yes. I just think that, for a lot of it, the girls seemed much more interested in just sort of showing this really superficial side to themselves, that it was all about sort of what they looked like, and it was all about how they were presenting themselves, as opposed to what was more on the inside, or what seemed like good things to achieve.

Ira Glass

I wonder if just in the end your mistake was you just thought more people were like you than really are. And that's the mistake that runs the world, basically.

Robin Epstein

Yeah. I mean, I think that's probably the case. Probably not many other girls were spending their weekends playing Trivial Pursuit with their friends. But I no longer feel like it is mine to try and improve the quality of girls. That was maybe an idealistic something that I had in my 20s.

Ira Glass

Because you don't think they need it or because you think it's hopeless?

Robin Epstein

Because I don't-- I'm not sure it's possible.

Ira Glass

Yeah?

Robin Epstein

Yeah. I'd like not use the word, "hopeless," but hard, certainly. And I don't know what can. I think there's just-- I mean, I think that there can be a role model, per se, that maybe could have this influence. But it's not a game show. Certainly coming up with a quick fix, or a quick answer, or ringing in for something at the buzzer doesn't seem like the long-term solution.

Ira Glass

Robin Epstein in New York.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Alex Blumberg and myself. Bob Harris, the Jeopardy champ that we heard from at the beginning of our program, has written a memoir about how he won and then lost on Jeopardy called Prisoner of Trebekistan.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, where you can find our free weekly podcast, absolutely free, www.thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

And the show that we originally had been planning for this week, with the theme, Tough Room, which includes a visit to the very tough room that is the editorial offices of The Onion, will be here next week. WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who has this announcement, that I believe will come as a great relief to mothers everywhere.

Robin Epstein

I no longer feel like it is mine to try and improve the quality of girls.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.