I recently appeared on a rather nerdy TV game show called Letters and Numbers, the Australian version of the popular UK show Countdown. Contestants compete to solve anagrams and maths problems. There are no cash or prizes to be won — but contestants do receive a copy of the Macquarie Dictionary. Like I said, pretty nerdy!
The video at the top of this post is an edited version — 30 minutes condensed down to 7). If you’re particularly keen, you can watch the full episode online at the SBS website.
My wife and I watch the show every night, and play along on the couch. Making the leap from “watching at home” to “competing in the studio” was her idea — she suggested that it might be a good opportunity to give my children’s book a plug. The book is about a mathematician, so you’d think the audience would be a good fit.
I don’t remember being particularly nervous before filming started, but I was certainly excited. After a fairly even start, I managed to break away from my opponent, Debra the accountant, with the seven-letter BROILED. When I was able to conjure an ironically apt DETHRONE for 8 letters, I felt giddy with excitement. Or maybe that was the nerves finally kicking in. Either way, I remember thinking “You beauty! All I have to do is match Debra point-for-point, and I’ll be crowned the carryover champion! I’ve got this!”
If you’ve ever participated in the filming of a TV show, you’ll know that the final, edited version of the show is much smoother than the final product that viewers see. There are mishaps. Filming my episode of Letters and Numbers was no exception. Debra asked for “three vowels” to begin (a no-no: the format has to follow one letter at a time), so we reshot that. Richard, David and Lily are all pros, but fumbled over their words at one point or another and had to repeat their conversations, making it look as natural as possible. I left my water bottle on the seat next to me, and it was visible to the cameras, so I had to move it. With all of these stops and starts, I was becoming very conscious of my dual role, as an actor as well as a contestant there to solve anagrams and mathematical problems.
Then it was my turn to stumble. I failed to reach the target in one of the maths problems, but didn’t explicitly mention that I was outside the scoring zone, and had to repeat myself. It turns out the solution was bleeding obvious, but I’d been so conscious of writing down my answer (proof is required) that I couldn’t concentrate on exactly what it was that I was writing.
After that, another stumble. I was so used to watching the board at home, that I chose to keep my eyes on the board when choosing my final set of letters. Lily was standing between me and the letters, so obscured a couple of the letters, but I heard her call out an M, and wrote that down. Turns out the letter was an N, not an M, so the word I made in that round was invalid. Why I didn’t look at the screen on the desk right in front of me, which offered a completely unimpeded view of the letters, I don’t know.
Then in the final numbers round, the music that normally marks the tick-tock of the 30 seconds available to solve the problem didn’t play. This totally threw me. Of course, this is no excuse, because my opponent was in the same boat, but the result was that I botched another easy maths problem. Never mind that I spent 5 years at university solving some fairly advanced calculus and network algorithms. At this point, with the bright lights, the collection of stops, starts and retakes, and probably a minor case of being star-struck while in the presence of Lily, David and Richard, my brain had stopped working.
In a somewhat poetic parallel to the central character in my book, I rose high, and then came crashing down.
And that is how I clutched defeat from the jaws of victory. Full credit to Debra, whose maths skills were solid. But I do feel like I handed her the game on a platter.
Now, it might sound like I’m bitter about not winning a silly, nerdy TV game show. I’m not. I’ll admit that I was a bit hard on myself for a couple of days — I was disappointed at myself for what in sporting terms could only be referred to as a massive choke. I knew that instead I should be proud of myself for even making it on the show in the first place, that at the end of the day it didn’t really matter, and hey how about that 8-letter word that David got everyone to give me another round of applause for? But in the aftermath, emotion dominated logic, and I was a bit down about the whole thing for a day or two.
And then … I got over it, got some perspective, and smiled at the fact that my primary objective — to give my children’s book a plug on national TV — had been well and truly achieved. Not only did I use my introductory spiel to mention the book by title, but Lily Serna, arguably the mathematician with the highest profile in Australia (and certainly the highest heels) read a page of my book out on air. I couldn’t believe it. I had absolutely no idea that it was coming, and couldn’t have asked for a better endorsement.