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Major Fraud, or just Playing The Game?

1/6/2004 – In September 2001 Major Charles Ingram won the £1,000,000 prize in Britain's TV quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Subsequently he and two accomplices were convicted of fraud – using coughs to signal the answers. Chess grandmaster James Plaskett, who has been on the show twice himself, is not convinced of their guilt.
 

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is a television game offering very high cash prizes for the ability to answer general knowlege questions. The programme originated in the United Kingdom, where it is hosted by Chris Tarrant. At the beginning of each show the host introduces a set of ten potential contestants, who have to undergo a preliminary round, called "Fastest Finger First", where they are all asked to put four answers in a particular order. The winner goes on to take part in £1,000,000 contest.

The contestant is asked increasingly difficult general knowledge questions by the host. To each question, they can choose from four multiple choice answers. Answering the first question correctly wins the contestant a small monetary prize, and the subsequent questions are played for increasingly large sums. If the contestant answers incorrectly they lose all the money they have won. However, the £1,000 and £32,000 prizes are guaranteed: if a player gets a question wrong above these levels then they drop down only to the previous guaranteed prize. The sequence of prizes is as follows: £100, £200, £300, £500, £1,000, £2,000, £4,000, £8,000, £16,000, £32,000, £64,000, £125,000, £250,000, £500,000, £1,000,000.


A candidate in Austria failing to identify Deep Fritz as the name of the "electronic chess program that played against world champion Vladimir Kramnik" in November 2002. Soon after this an almost identical situation occurred in the German show.

The Ingram affair

On September 10, 2001 (recording date) Major Charles Ingram won the £1,000,000 prize. During the recording it was noticed that a suspicious pattern of coughing could be heard. The Major's unusual behaviour in the "hot seat" also drew attention. When subsequently analysed it became apparent that another contestant, Tecwen Whittock, seated in "contestant row", was offering Major Ingram prompts in the form of coughs, indicating the correct answers. On many of the questions Major Ingram read aloud all of the four answers, until a cough was heard, before choosing his answer. In some cases he even dismissed an answer, read aloud the answers again, and picked an answer he had earlier dismissed.


Major Charles Ingram during the final question (Photo Ananova)

Following a trial at Southwark Crown Court lasting a month, Major Ingram, his wife Diana and Tecwen Whittock were convicted of "procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception". The Ingrams given a suspended 18-month prison sentence and fined £15,000, while Whittock received a 12-month suspended sentence and was fined £10,000. Together with legal costs, it is estimated that the Ingrams will have to pay £500,000 in total. Despite the conviction, the Ingrams and Tecwen Whittock continue to deny that they colluded or acted dishonestly.

  • Full details and links are available in this Wikipedia article.

  • Summary details of the critical show and the questions are given in this BBC News report: Millionaire's route to the top prize.

  • Article on ABC Primetime: How to Steal a Million, a two-hour version of the news magazine with Diane Sawyer retelling the British quiz-show scandal, which includes the British documentary Millionaire: A Major Fraud.

A Major Fraud, or just Playing The Game?

The trial and conviction of Major Charles Ingram, his wife Diana, and Tecwen Whittock, generated a media frenzy, with the story even displacing the war in Iraq from some newspaper front pages and 3,000 journalists clamouring for interviews. The story has no direct chess connection, except that English GM James Plaskett appeared twice on the United Kingdom version of the show. New Yorker GM Maurice Ashley also made it on once in the USA, but all three GM appearances resulted in no winnings! The Hungarian wife of GM Peter Wells relates that GM Josef Pinter once famously offered his services as a Phone-a-Friend to a contestant on the Hungarian version, but was unable to supply the answer when called. So the player asked if he could speak to Pinter´s six year old son, and he provided it.

After the trial, the company which makes the show, Celador, rushed out a documentary on the failed heist entitled "Major Fraud" and sold it worldwide. Now they have plans for a film about it. James Plaskett has written an extensive article defending the convicted trio and attacking Celador for these actions. The article appeared in The Portia Campaign, a web site devoted to fighting injustice in Britain.

In sentencing, Judge Geoffrey Rivlin, QC said "I am not at all sure that it was sheer greed that motivated this offence." He called the case "unique". Half an hour later WWTBAM? host, Chris Tarrant said "This was a very cynical plan, motivated by sheer greed." and "... hugely insulting to the hundreds of other contestants who have come on the show". In September 2003 Tarrant said "There could have been a reality where the three of them were found not guilty because there was not enough concrete evidence. It was all very circumstantial. The whole story of it is so extreme and it's in the hands of a jury so it could have gone either way."

James Plaskett is unconvinced. In the Portia article he notes the total absence of concrete evidence against the trio, points out incorrect testimony from key prosecution witnesses (Celador staff) and wonders whether the whole trial was not more about business than justice.

There was also the matter of a TV advertisement which was deliberately placed during a subsequent edition of WWTBAM within a month of Ingram's appearance and the announcement that the Police had been called in. The commercial featured a man in a pub quiz sneaking off to secretly access the answer to a question by mobile phone. This was "Googol", which by then the British public knew to be the answer to Ingram´s 1,000,000 pounds question, too.

But, despite such lynch law actions, when it came to the trial, 17 months later, the prosecution had dropped the idea of secret use of a mobile phone having been used.

In particular, Plaskett draws attention to the "childish naïveté" of the scheme that they were convicted of using. The scenario was that the player, Ingram, would repeatedly recite through the four possible answers. His accomplice, Whittock, would then cough as he mentioned the correct one. Not the most subtle of plans, was it?

Why not arrange a code, Plaskett asks, where a cough would be used on a different answer? So if 'A' were right, he coughs on 'C' ´? And then even vary it from question to question?

Why recite the answers at all? On Question 11, if the player touches his right ear, a cough in response means 'A' is right. If, Ingram coughs, a cough in response means 'B'. Ingram exchanged many words with Tarrant, as players often do with the amiable UK host. If he says "Bosnia", the accomplice's cough means 'C' is correct. His glance at the ceiling is to be met with a cough if 'D' is right. Naturally, they deploy different signals for each question.

Plaskett: "The crime as presented to the jury seems too simple."

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