March 11: Van Doren On Twenty One

Twenty-OneIt was on this day in 1957 that Charles Van Doren ended a legendary streak on the television quiz show Twenty One. During an impressive run of two months on the program, Van Doren accumulated $129,000 (over a million dollars in modern money). However, the story of Van Doren and Twenty One was only just beginning and would end in scandal.

First, let’s take a look at how Van Doren’s run started. The game play of Twenty One was fairly simple: Two players, the defending champion and a challenger, sat in so-called isolation booths and wore headphones so that they could not hear the other player. The show’s host, Jack Barry,  would announce a category and then ask the challenger to pick a point value of between 1 and 11 points with the questions getting harder in proportion to the point value. After the challenger answered the question, the champion would select a point value from the same category. If you got the question right, the point value of that question would be added to your score; if you got it wrong, that point value would be deducted from your score. This process was repeated with a new category for between one and four more rounds. Meanwhile, the isolation booths and headphones kept players from being aware of what their opponent had scored.

The goal of the game was to be the first player to reach twenty one points, or failing that be the closest. Competition would end in one of three ways: If the champion reached 21 first, the game ended with the champ standing victorious. If the challenger got there first, the champion would be given an opportunity to tie by answering one more question of a point value of their choosing, although they would not know at the time that they were playing to tie. Alternately, after two rounds of questions had been completed, either player could elect to stop the game at any time. This was a risky move, as neither player was aware of what the other had scored up until that point.

Anyway, Van Doren’s streak began in a rather exciting fashion. When he first appeared on Twenty One, he went up against the show’s long reigning champion, the bookish and mild mannered Herb Stempel. The first time Van Doren went up against Stempel, they tied at 21 and the same result occurred in their next three matches. Unsurprisingly, the ratings went increasingly skyward the more these two faced off. Finally, on the fifth episode, Van Doren defeated Stempel which began his two month long reign as Twenty One‘s champion. There was just one small problem with Twenty One

The game show Twenty One wasn’t rigged. The word “rigged” implies that it was an otherwise fair contest in which some element or elements had been manipulated; Twenty One was entirely scripted with every element of the program, including the categories, the point values selected by contestants, the contestant’s answers (both right and wrong), the contestant’s wardrobe and even when the players should wipe their brows were all pre-planned and then carefully staged like a play.It turns out that when the first episode of Twenty One aired, it was played honestly and was absolutely horrible. Neither player hit 21, and Geritol, the show’s main sponsor was not happy. It was at that point that the producers decided to fix the game. The ratings started to sink during the less than charismatic Stempel’s time as champion, so they drafted the charming “All-American boy” and Columbia University professor Van Doren. Stempel was told to take a dive in the fifth game, and Van Doren went on to become the show’s new star; and after his run as champion ended, he was hired as a special correspondent for the Today Show.

However, Stempel decided to reveal the truth about Twenty One. Van Doren initially dismissed Stempel’s claim, saying “It’s silly and distressing to think that people don’t have more faith in quiz shows.” However, as the fixing allegations got louder, Congress organized a subcommittee and soon enough, Van Doren was sitting in front of the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight admitting that he had in fact been involved in the fixed show. Twenty One was swiftly canceled and Van Doren was fired from his Today Show post and forced to resign from Columbia. There was one good thing to come out of the quiz show scandal: One day, Merv Griffin and his wife Julann were discussing the Twenty One scandal when she proposed that since Twenty One had given the answers to its contestants, “Why not do a switch, and give the answers to the contestant and let them come up with the question?” And thus the original idea for Jeopardy! was born.

In tribue to the quiz show scandal, let’s drink a Royal Scandal. This potent potable is a distant cousin of the Long Island Iced Tea that mixes whiskey, Southern Comfort and Amaretto together.

Royal Scandal

  • 1 ounce Whiskey
  • 1 ounce Southern Comfort
  • 1 ounce Amaretto
  • 1 splash sweet and sour
  • 1 splash pineapple juice

Tomorrow: Two cartoon menaces.


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