Game Show Fail

Tonight my episode of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” finally aired. I can now legally talk about the experience. That, in itself, is a huge relief. I thought I would collect my thoughts on the journey here, since this is our family blog, and this had a lot to do with the family.

A Brief Recap
For those who have no idea what I am talking about, last summer I auditioned in Seattle for the game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” I passed the test and interviews and received notice that I had made the contestant pool. In August I was selected to be on the show. Stacey and I flew to New York at our own expense and taped my episode in September. The episode aired last night.

If you leave out the actual game, it was a great experience. My game play, however, was a complete,  unqualified disaster. The new version of Millionaire shuffles the difficulty levels and dollar values ($100-$25,000) for the first ten questions. This means you could get the hardest question and it may only be worth $100 . If you walk away before question 10, you keep half of the money you have won answering questions up to that point. Lifelines are ‘Jump the Question’ (2 of these) and ‘Ask the Audience’. If you jump a question, you don’t have to answer, but you lose whatever dollar value the question is worth. Oh – and you don’t know the values until you answer. I jumped two questions early on. The first was worth $25,000, the next worth $15,000. That was pretty much the end. I ran up against an iPad question (more on that later) and asked the audience. They were more or less evenly divided on all four answers. I took a guess, betting against the audience and risking my paltry $12,600 bank. I was wrong. 35% of the audience was right. Instead of $6,300 (half the bank), I got the consolation prize of $1,000. Subtract travel expenses for three days in Manhattan and I came out of the thing in the hole. Game show fail!

Why I Tried Out
Short version: I made a promise.

We have been blessed with four girls. They are a daily reminder of God’s grace, provision, and power, since we weren’t supposed to be able to have any children at all. We spent tens of thousands of dollars on doctors to have the first three. Then we were done. But God has a sense of humor, and He decided we were not. Against all odds, Stacey turned up pregnant again. Sitting in the ultrasound room, looking at the first images of Arnold baby #4, I heard the words “it’s a girl!” AGAIN. When the doctor left the room, the weight of it all settled in. Four girls. Endless dresses and shoes. Four weddings. Four college educations. I blurted out, “How are we going to be able to afford to take care of four girls?”. “Well,” Stacey shot back, “you’ll just have to try out for ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire!'” I made a promise. “If they ever have tryouts in Seattle, I’ll go.” Our hope was to make up some of the money we spent on doctors that ordinarily would have gone into savings (it’s averaged almost as much every month as my mortgage payment for the last five years).

A few months later (and just weeks after Ella was born), Millionaire did indeed hold auditions in downtown Seattle, not far from where I work. I figured there would be long lines, so I showed up at 3am to make sure I got a spot of the 7 am auditions. I was third in line. Seems I may have overestimated the early risers :-). By the audition time, however, there was a decent line-up of folk. The audition process was fun and interesting, and I met a lot of fascinating fellow contestant hopefuls in line and at the testing. After passing a Scantron test, I was invited back for an interview. After that interview, I was invited back for an on-camera interview, then another on-camera interview. And the rest you know.

We decided before I even tried out that anything we won would go immediately into long-term investment accounts for each of the girls. I’ve always believed in working hard, saving, providing as best I can for my family and trusting God for the rest. I don’t play the Lotto every week or spend the rent money at the casino to try to make a quick buck. I have a great job and a good income, but this was a unique opportunity to get a head start on the hundreds of thousands we need to put aside to give the girls a good start in life.  So I went for it!

The Trip
‘Millionaire’ tapes in New York City, a block from Central Park. Thanks to some good friends, we were able to leave all four girls in safe surroundings and pretend we were newlyweds on a vacation to Manhattan for a few days in September. The weather was perfect – 65 and sunny every day. We stayed downtown within walking distance of Central Park, Times Square, and tons more. We bought passes for the Gray Line open top bus tours. With those, we could go pretty much anywhere in the city a tourist would want to on buses that left every ten minutes or so. We went to Brooklyn, Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village, Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Ground Zero (New Yorkers get mad when you call it that – it’s now “the World Trade Center site”) and had the best hot dogs of our lifetimes at Gray’s Papaya. It was a truly wonderful experience. Stacey had never been to NYC, and I had only been once before on a brief business trip, so it was really a dream come true for us.

The Taping
Taping a game show is a crazy experience. The team at ‘Millionaire’ was great, explaining everything very well and taking good care of us throughout. My fellow contestants were great folk, and I am pulling for them all to win a lot of cash. They were all truly deserving! It was also the most stressful thing I have ever done. Most of the actual taping felt like an out of body experience. I was dizzy, light-headed, and freaked out. I didn’t remember a lot of what I had said until I saw it again on TV. To answer a few questions I keep getting asked in rapid succession: Yes, Meredith is super-nice. She even sent a hand-written thank you note after the show – a class act all the way. No, they do not pay for travel. Yes, it costs a lot to go to New York and I lost money on the deal. Yes, they do tape an entire week of shows in a day. And it’s fast – the commercial breaks are pretty much real time.

My Game
It was basically over four questions in, though I hung around for a couple more. I have to say I don’t think nerves or stress contributed to my demise. I just hit three questions I did not know the answer to. I think the first was the hardest question before the randomization. It was a Roman numeral question about a certain numeral with a line over it. I know very little about Roman numerals. So little, in fact, that I didn’t even know you could HAVE a Roman numeral with a line over it. I doubted the audience would give me convincing help on that one. So I jumped it. It was worth $25,000. Ugh.

Then I hit a question about the Irish slang phrase “Witch’s knickers.” I had read a trivia book before the show that had an extensive section on slang terms. From that, I know that “German tea” is beer. I know that a “Turkish medal” means your fly is down. And I know that “blowing the grampus” describes the tradition of throwing a bucket of cold water on a sailor that fell asleep while on watch. But I had never even heard the phrase “witch’s knickers”, and none of the answers seemed to have anything to do with pants. So I jumped. And lost $15,000. Double ugh.

At this point, a little math is in order. In the new version of ‘Millionaire’, if you answered all 10 of the first questions correctly, your bank would be $68,600. If you walk at any point, you get to keep half. Having lost $40,000 on two questions, my best-case scenario was to bank $28,600 (and walk away with $14,300), unless I got into the second round. Before the game, I had decided in my head that, once out of lifelines, I would walk away on any question I was not absolutely sure of as long as I would walk away with at least $10,000. That was my “walk away threshold.” For those who are thinking “hey – $6,300 (the highest amount I could have walked with at this point) is a lot of money”, I agree. It is considerably more than I would plop down for a single pull of a slot machine.  It is a year-altering payday. It is a fun vacation or a car down-payment. But it’s not life-altering cash. I can plan a way to save up six grand, even if it takes a few years. But $100,000 is an entirely different matter. And you have to keep taxes in mind – a big payout can stick you in a whole new tax bracket. The rule of thumb is that you’ll be giving at least a third, up to 1/2 back to Uncle Sam. I had these facts squarely in focus. When I lost the $15,000, I knew I was pretty much going to have to keep guessing and risk it all to try to get into round two.

The iPad Question
Which leads us to the last question (paraphrased): “A digital version of what children’s book was included with the iPad?”

This question is dripping with irony. For one, it is well-known I am a techie and electronics junkie. I work on websites and mobile device applications for a living. But it gets even better. I hadn’t mentioned it to Stacey yet, but a few weeks before going to Millionaire, I had decided to get an iPad. We were working on a number of iOS projects at my company, and I decided it was time to have one to play with. But that week, I got the $3,000 bill for Ella’s c-section and decided to shelve that idea for awhile. Maybe for Christmas, I thought. Or if I do really well on Millionaire. Even crazier than that, I had an iPad in my hands 10 hours before flying out to New York. We had a big iOS project to estimate, and my taping date had been moved up three days, which meant I would be out of town and unable to help with the estimate. I offered to work on it over the weekend. My boss met me in Bellevue and loaned me the company iPad. I spent four hours on Sunday afternoon mapping an application and building the estimate. When I was finished, I thought: “I should check out the e-reader on this thing and see how it is.” I am NOT exaggerating or making this up – believe me, it is too embarrassing. I was curious how it compared to my wife’s Kindle. Had I opened it, I would have seen the only book in the library on the device – Winnie the Pooh. But (and again, no exaggeration) I said to myself “no, you don’t have time to play. You are flying out early tomorrow and have to get everything ready.” So I closed the iPad and drove to meet a co-worker and drop it off. If only…

But again, by this point in the game my odds of making the next round were pretty low. I was out of lifelines and separated from the second round by a few more potentially tough questions. I didn’t know the answer. So I asked the audience. 35% said Winnie the Pooh. The other three answers were evenly divided. If you’ve ever watched ‘Millionaire’, you know this is no help at all.I should also point out a little known fact: in the studio, the audience is close. I could hear a hundred tiny conversations all throughout the game. And I heard a LOT of wrong answers, even on questions I got right. Winnie the Pooh sounded wrong to me. The Velveteen Rabbit sounded right, maybe because it is one of my all-time favorites. Before I saw the four answers, I was thinking “Where the Wild Things Are”, so I truly had no clue. In hindsight, I should have listened to the audience, but hey – I took a leap and went down in a blaze of glory!

The Aftermath
I’ve had a lot of time to think about all this, so I’m pretty philosophical about it all now. I know I am going to get a lot of well-deserved grief for losing on a techie question,  so I’ve prepared my pithy responses – do your worst ! 🙂  But I have to say that the initial aftermath was pretty heinous. I was overcome with the sense that I had let everybody down – my girls, my wife, my family and all my friends who were excited I was going to be on the show. I was horrified at the thought of everyone watching me crash and burn on national TV. Most of all, I was depressed that I wouldn’t be able to tell the girls “hey – your wedding and college is covered.”  I after a long plane ride, jetlag, very little sleep, an early call time (7am) and a long day of meetings, waivers, and lawyers leading up to the taping, I was pretty raw and defenseless, and I collapsed into a puddle.

Lucky for me, I happened to be in New York with the greatest wife on the planet. Right before they took away our mobile phones, she sent this punctuation-free text: “Love you believe in you your a smart guy gonna do great don’t be stressed…this is all just bonus.” And after I failed miserably, her attitude was the same. “Hey – we got to go to New York and the taping got done in one day, so we get an extra day of sightseeing.” She put up with my whining and occasional flashbacks over the next two days with grace and humor, pulling me out of my funk. I am the luckiest man alive.

The day after the taping we visited the World Trade Center site. We all watched the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on TV, but it’s impossible to overstate the gravity and power of standing at the actual site. I can’t express it adequately in words, so I won’t try, except to tell this story: There is an ancient church nearby – St. Paul’s Chapel. In the hours and days after the attacks, the people of the church sprang into action, converting their building into a sanctuary for rescue workers to rest, pray, even break down in tears. Many would work until the point of exhaustion, then stumble into the church for a few hours sleep, then head back into the rubble. The church is now a memorial, filled with photos of those days and the gripping human drama that unfolded there. I was overwhelmed by the sight and the story. Many years before, a branch of Jesus’ church had sprung up and endured, a barely two-story building, remaining static through the modernization of the city; an old-world structure in the shadow of the massive towers of the Space Age. Surviving because it was not just a building but a people, united in mission and purpose, planted on their corner, waiting patiently for their hour of grace. Who could have predicted that moment? Who could have known that little church was in the perfect spot to be a haven of rest in the midst of horror, terror and death?

I lit a candle there in honor of the fallen and the brave men and women who rushed into the burning towers. And I lit a candle to remind me of the powerful message of this place – the Church being exactly what Jesus had prayed for – one in spirit and purpose, a light in the darkest of nights. It occurred to me at that moment that I was profoundly blessed. Unlike so many that day, I was heading home the next day to hug my four miracle girls. My wife was by my side. And I would continue to have the opportunity to serve the same Body this congregation belonged to, to teach and share the same message of hope and grace. That candle seemed to burn away my disappointment. And I stopped feeling sorry for myself.

Here is the shaky, poor quality video I took there:


The End of the Matter
So no iPad for me, and I’m going to have to keep saving up for college and weddings a little at a time like everyone else. I’m setting up Washington State 529 plans for each of them this week. I can send you a coupon book if you’d like to donate :-). I am not writing this so anyone will feel sympathy for me – no one should. I had a shot and I took it. I could say it seemed like everything conspired against me (the order of the questions, the actual questions, the iPad thing), but that would be sour grapes and entirely silly – how can you be upset about such a random series of events? Plus I don’t believe in fate or luck. Everything has a purpose, even game show failures.  In the end, I am grateful. Out of thousands of people I was picked to be on the show. After 6 years of doctor visits, procedures, and babies, Stacey and I had a chance to spend three days together alone in the big city – it was like a second honeymoon. We didn’t realize until then just how precious that kind of time can be. And in the grand scheme of life, I’ve lost nothing. Everything that matters is safe and secure and in God’s hands, not stored up on Earth but in Eternity.

A thousand thanks to everyone who helped watching the kids, helped us get to New York, the Millionaire team for the opportunity, and everyone who has shown interest in this journey. I hope at least it’s a fun story, and that maybe it encourages you to remember the things that are truly valuable. Love God, hug your kids, kiss your spouse, and if you get the chance to go play in New York for a few days under the guise of being on a game show, take it!

Anybody know how to get on Wheel of Fortune?


  1. Truly a great story Jon. You made us feel your joy, your pain, your sorrow and your almost rebirth like we had been there with you. We related to almost every part of your tale. I wish things had gone differently for you during the game, but those 4 girls are more treasure than virtually anyone on earth has ever had. Enjoy them Jon, my baby is 24 years old and my 2 boys are older. Shelleys baby is 20 and her other daughter is 26. Only yesterday they were taking their first steps, saying their first words and going off to that first day of school. Love em hard, hug em often and everything else will take care of itself.

  2. Wise words, Roger – I’m with you!

  3. What a great experience…and a great story. Too bad the result wasn’t what you wished, but sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime event.

    Nancy and I have three girls now, celebrating the eldest’s 15th birthday today. She was born where? That’s your trivia for the day.

  4. Jon, I loved this blog!! And although you may have had a rough time on the show,I thought you did great!! It was the first time I had seen the new version of Millionaire. It is definatly different,and not fair that some of the hardest questions are the least amount of money!! Anyway, God bless you guys!! You looked great on TV. If I ever win the Lotto, I will contribute to your kids funds 🙂 Tyson says he thinks his best bet for a game show is wipeout 🙂


  5. @Andy – gotta be Great Falls, I would think. Whereas I was born much closer to where you are now – in Adana, Turkey.

  6. Jon, great story, thanks for sharing. You share with grace and aplomb!

  7. Hey Jon, wanted you to know that i still love you and believe in you. You have an incredible family and they know you do your best to provide for them. Don’t ever doubt how smart you are because to a lot of people you are the smartest person they know. Also those questions don’t mean that you are smart or not it just means you have a photographic memory. You are the man. talk to you soon

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