James Plaskett almost became a millionaire

2/10/2006 – A couple of weeks ago we reported on the first part of British grandmaster James Plaskett's efforts to win real money on the popular TV show "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" He won a guaranteed £8,000 on the first leg and went for the million a week later. Here's Jim's harrowing story.

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The TV show "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" is the most popular quiz show in history, with up to 19 million viewers in the UK. In the first half of a recent edition chess grandmaster James Plaskett made it all the way to £8,000. A week later (TV show time) he went for the million.

The path to the quarter-million

By James Plaskett

I first tried to get on to this show Who Want To Be A Millionaire (WWTBAM) in 1999. My first hit got me on, but I got the first two Fastest Finger First trials wrong, and the third FFF, which was "Starting at the fingertips, put these parts of the arm in the sequence", saw me, indeed, get Knuckle, Wrist, Elbow and Shoulder in sequence... but

  1. a policeman did it faster, and
  2. there was a fault with several of the consoles, including mine, and so my effort did not even register as one of the accurate ones.

Long after this I am still receiving helpful comments about not being able to tell another body part from my elbow.

My appearance tied in with one of the cutest coincidences I ever experienced. The show had then been going for 13 months, and in the USA, which I believe was the first country beyond the UK to run its own version for less than ten weeks.

I was notified by phone of my qualification only the night before, and so had to contact an Internet pupil, 'Aletheaa' to explain why the following evening's lesson would have to be postponed. She responded that that was a bummer, for her only other online chess teacher was also appearing on the newly-launched US version of the show. I said that I was being serious. She replied that so was she. Although by then probably less than a thousand competitors globally had ever made it to the studio stage, it transpired that when I appeared in London on a show recorded on Nov 12th 1999, so did her only other teacher, in New York. He also won no money.

I made another tranche of calls in late 2000... and made it through the qualifying procedure to the last 100... and then to the ten contestants who would play in the studio. (My ex-England teammate, Nigel Short, once told me that his Greek wife reached the last 100 in Athens, but no further.) However, again I failed the two FFF heats.

Then saw a gap of four years, for the failures had left me dispirited... and less well off.


Major Charles Ingram on Millionaire in 2003

I veered back towards the show in late 2003, when Major Charles Ingram was accused of getting to the Million Pound top prize through being signalled by placed coughs from the audience. I was unconvinced, and sent letters of support to his solicitors and Bob Woffinden, a journalist interested in miscarriages of British Justice. A Google search re Ingram led me to a website on quizzing, where I chipped in my views. Eventually somebody there asked why I myself did not try to get into the hot seat.

So I did.

Another attempt in November 2004 got me on to the show. For almost a year already I had had an essay criticising the show's makers, Celador, visible at a web site devoted to miscarriages of justice and so was not certain how I would be greeted when marching into the enemy camp. But they treated me no differently from anybody else. I failed the only FFF heat.

I live in Spain, but entries may only be made from within the UK. So on my next visit, in January 2005, I made some more internet entries. To my dismay, after just 65, I was unable to use my credit cards further as the issuers had put a stop on them all due to frequent and unusual usage. I shrugged, and was preparing to leave the country when my mobile went off and it was the show calling to tell me that their computer had again placed me through to the last 50!

I had ten seconds to answer this question: "According to the Census of 2001, how many residents of the London Borough of Harringey were born in Northern Ireland?"

"1192?", I ventured.

Within the hour they rang back to tell me that that guess made me one of the ten closest, and so I rearranged my flight and appeared on the show.

On September 16th 2005 Celador rang a contact number I had left to say that I was through to the last 50 for a show to be recorded on September 19th and that they would call me again the next day. I took that call, but my guessed answer was bad, and I only qualified as second reserve.

I tried again whilst at a 4NCL meet in November 2005, and as I was queuing to pay my bill at the Paragon Hotel on the morning of November 20th, my mobile went off. My guess was better, and several hours later they rang back to say that I had qualified.

On all previous appearances throughout my day at the studio I had frantically studied quiz books. But this time I thought I'd just try to relax. So I asked Guildford ADC teammate, GM Stuart Conquest, to accompany me as my guest. His principle role was to supply set, board and a clock and, most importantly, a convivial opponent with whom I could blitz in my dressing room!


Fastest Fingers First, with James Plasket on the right

I won the second FFF trial of the night and so, over six years after first entering the competition, qualified to play. (Guildford ADC teammate, GM Antoinetta Stefanova, told me that in her native Bulgaria her sister had qualified to play, having made just three calls. She went with her to the studio as her guest, and felt the awful tension as she failed all the FFF heats.)


James Plaskett with WWTBAM host Chris Tarrant

A momentary lull occurred as host Chris Tarrant and I stood offstage prior to walking to our seats. He extended his hand. "James." I strode over and shook the hand of the man whom I had so long and so openly criticised for helping to propagate the validity of the conviction of three innocent people. His eyes held a mixture of curiosity, professional detachment... and apprehension.

I got the £4,000 question right... after 24 minutes deliberation. I half-remembered having glimpsed in a Spanish magazine a snippet about Julia Roberts having had twins in 2004, but I was very anxious not to use any lifeline unless I felt it essential.

The £8,000 question was: "The standing stones of Avebury are in which county?" Bob Woffinden had pointed these out to me on as we drove back from visiting Charles and Diana Ingram at their home in the Wiltshire village of Easterton in September 2005. I told Tarrant, that this was how I was able to give the correct answer. We only went past the stones through a misdirection on my part. The recording ended, and I was to return the following day to face the £16,000 question.

When play resumed I found study I had done some months earlier payed off, for it enabled me to tell him that a female ferret is called a "gill". The £32,000 question was: "The 2004 biopic De-Lovely was based on the life of which American composer?" I knew the answer was Cole Porter.

The title Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? is from a Cole Porter song. But, ironically, the lyric continues, "I don't, 'cos all I want is you." It's about a man singing that he does not wish for that status. Later in the game, Tarrant asked me on what I would spend a million, and I deferred, saying only "Well, I am giving 10% of what I win to charity."

The £64,000 Question was: "To whom did Agatha Christie dedicate her novel The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side?" I had seen the film of this book in 1981. My wife had acted as an extra in it. On November 9th 2005, Fiona had read out her poem The Mirror Crack'd to a meeting of the Torrievieja writer's circle, when she had also mentioned her appearing in the film.

I got it right (Margaret Rutherford), and then also the one for £125,000 (Henrietta Maria). In each case I eliminated options until I felt it possible to make a rational selection from the remainder. As a consequence, I reached the £250,000 question with all three lifelines still intact.

I now sensed a growing respect from Tarrant. I had worked at home with DVDs which simulate the show format and even use his voice, and these had served as excellent training tools. It was clear he appreciated that the only explanation there could be for a man witholding all lifelines until that point, despite his being unsure on some questions, was that he was aiming at the million.

The £250,000 question was "Crispin is the patron saint of which craftsmen?". It is testimony to my lack of homework that I was clueless. I had contemplated the ultimate "coup de theatre" in using Ingram as my Phone-a-Friend! But I declined, as a) I thought my wife was the best one to call on that type of question and b) Celador retain the right to exclude a Phone-a-Friend if he/she is not to their liking.

I phoned my wife, who gave the correct answer but said she was not certain and so recommended using another lifeline. I took 50/50 and that left the options of Shoemakers or Clockmakers. As I had ridiculed Clockmakers as a possibility, Conquest now laughed out loud. He was hastily escorted out of the studio. It is obviously wrong to play for these sums in front of an audience. Any noises off may be signals, and one is placed in a state of jeopardy if the guest has had baked beans in the canteen.

Hereabouts my nerve failed me. I started giggling and, for no good reason, spunked the third lifeline. The correct policy, of course, was just to have played. The audience voted 62% for Shoemakers, so I went for it. Tarrant announced a break, which lasted a full eight minutes, and then revealed that I had guessed correctly.


The tension is unbearable: Stuart Conquest in the studio

The £500,000 question was: "Which of these astronauts hasnever set foon on the moon?" The options were a) James Lovell b) Ed Mitchell c) James Irwin d) Charles Duke. I declined to answer. The correct answer was the commander of the abortive Apollo 13 mission; Jim Lovell.

About six weeks before the show I had decided to watch a video, and selected one I had never watched before: Apollo 13. But I could not get it to play properly, and despite fast forwarding and rewinding and trying to adjust the tracking, I could not overcome my technophobia. The previous year my son and I had taken to hiding the video control, and neither of us had consequently been able to locate it for ages. I was alone, and without my wife's expertise I just gave up and watched something else. Had the video played then there is simply no way that I could have failed to identify Lovell as the correct answer.

Also, in 1996, Fiona had, quite uncharacteristically, purchased a paperback book, James Lovell's account of his own troubled mission: Apollo 13. She had recommended it to me, saying that she was moved to buy it through a quote of an astronaut who said how poetic and moving it was to see the earth from space. She emphasised how impressed she was by the sheer flying skills which the book revealed had been necessary to bring the stricken spacecraft home. I had leafed through a few pages, but then decided it was not for me. Such is life.

Thanks to Dr John Nunn for recording the show on DVD and shipping it to us.
The pictures were taken off our living-room TV set.


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