Friday, 30 March 2012

Mastermind - Semi Final 2

It’s always with mixed feelings that I review a show with friends and readers playing. So before I do, let’s indulge in a little star spotting. In the audience tonight for this semi were not only Pat Gibson, but on the same row Barry , his fellow Egghead, and Diane Halligan, finalist in last year’s Mastermind. That’s some serious support.

Right then, onto the form guide. Our own Gareth Kingston would be first into the chair. Gareth was 22 on my unofficial ranking list, with 27 and no passes in the first round, and 13 on GK. LAM reader , teacher, and all round good egg Malcolm Sumner was ranked a little higher, 19 on my list, with 28 and 4 passes, and 12 on GK. Andrew Hunter was the form horse entering the contest tonight; he came in at number 3 on my list with a highly impressive 33 and 5 passes, with 16 on GK. John Snedden was also in my top 10 qualifiers, at number 10, with 30 points and 4 passes, and 13 on GK. Finally LAM reader Nick Reed, placed 13 on my list, with 29 points and 3 passes, and 14 on GK.

Gareth kicked off about as well as you can do, with a perfect round of 12 correct answers from 12 questions. I can even forgive him for his specialist subject – the Life and Career of Herbert Chapman, a man intimately associated with that other team from North London. Now, that is how you go about laying down the gauntlet to your opposition.

The Life and Career of Benjamin Disraeli offered me, as I thought, a chance for a few points. Very few as it turned out. Not so Malcolm. A perfect round he didn’t quite manage, but it was still pretty good. 11 points scored, and what’s more, he too managed to avoid making any passes either. A round which meant that he was still well in the match at the halfway stage.

Andrew Hunter’s round brought me more points than the previous one, and that surprised me a little. I knew who made the English electric deltics- my favourite diesel locomotive if it is possible to have such a thing. They all had nameplates, and were named after Derby winners, I think. St. Paddy and Crepello were two of them I remember, but I digress. I also knew who designed City of Truro, and another one which escapes me. Whichever one it was it didn’t escape Andrew. 12 and 0 was the score needed for a share of the lead at this stage was what was required, and it was duly supplied. What a good show this one was turning out to be.

John Snedden was answering questions on the father of immunization, English physician Edward Jenner. Yes, I had the one that the smallpox vaccine used cow pox, but that was just about it for me. Not so John. Everybody was getting into double figures in this semi final, and John was no exception. He. like Gareth managed 12 points and no passes. Three contenders, no passes yet . That’s good quizzing.

Last in the first round, then , was Nick Reed. You might remember that there was some discussion in LAM following Nick’s first round set on the Football Grounds of England. Well, I doubt that anyone will be saying that his round on The Blandings Stories of P.G.Wodehouse was too easy ! 13 is a good score in a 2 minute round. In a 90 second round it’s a very good round indeed. Alright, it meant that his lead at the halfway point was only one point, but in a tight match like this semi final was turning out to be, every point could be crucial.

So, no passes whatsoever in the first round. I wonder whether there has ever been a show in which none of the contenders have passed at all ? Answers on a postcard to the usual address please. Malcolm could have been forgiven for feeling a little disappointed that a good round of 11 would only be enough to put him in last place at half time. If he was, though, he didn’t let it upset him, and got right on with the task of answering the GK questions. A task he did pretty well, too, managing another dozen to put his score at 23. You didn’t necessarily think that it would be a winning score, but it was enough to put all the contenders yet to come into the corridor of uncertainty.

Gareth at the halfway stage was in joint second, but since he’d gone first in the SS round, he was next to go now. Looking on his face as he answered his questions you could tell he dropped a couple that he knew as soon as the answer was given.Well, maybe, but even so he still matched his first round GK score with 13. That’s an even better score in a semi when average GK scores tend to be a bit lower. He finished with 25 , and crucially, no passes. Nobody was going to beat that without a good GK round of their own.

Andrew Hunter had just such a good GK round in his heat. A repeat of that 16 would have put him in a very commanding position indeed. For the best part of the first minute this looked entirely possible. However the wrong answers crept in from about the minute mark, and Andrew fell some way short. His 10 put him on 22 – absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, but not a winning score this time out.

John Snedden always looked as if he was going to be there or there abouts on his GK round, and he was too. He had 25 and passes as the buzzer went, but his last answer was incorrect. This meant he was tied with Gareth, but – and this was a crucial but – he had picked up 3 passes. That’s an understandable gamble – it bought him the time for that one question which gave him a shot. Sometimes gambles pay off, and sometimes they don’t. This time it didn’t.

Gareth , then, only had to endure one more round to find out his fate. Nick had that point in hand at the halfway stage, which meant in effect that he didn’t need to beat Gareth’s round, just to match it. He looked a little way short as we approached the buzzer. He was short of Gareth’s GK round, but only to the tune of 1 point. He too finished with 25, and ah, he had no passes either. So what we had, for the second time this series, was a tie break.

Believe me, I felt for both Gareth and Nick. The last time there was a semi final tiebreak was in the 2007 SOBM, and I remember talking to lovely Sandra Piddock on the day of the final when she told me all about what going through a tie break was like. Not pleasant for either of the participants. 5 questions to be answered – the same five for each of you. Either you’re outside, waiting for your opponent to have his go, not having a clue how they’ve done, or you’re sat there, having to watch your opponent answer, knowing you can do nothing at all about it. Cutting to the chase, the questions suited Nick more than they suited Gareth, and he managed 3 to Gareth’s one. It could have worked out the other way, but it didn’t, and that’s just the luck of the draw. Well done Nick – Mastermind finalist ! But hard lines to Gareth too. Well played to Malcolm, Andrew and John- those were quality performances , and it made for an exciting and compelling show.

The Details

Gareth KingstonLife and Career of Herbert Chapman12 - 013 - 025 – 0 / 26 after tiebreak
Malcolm SumnerLife and Times of Benjamin Disraeli11 - 012 - 023 - 0
Andrew HunterThe Railways of Great Britain in the 20th Century12 - 010 - 322 - 3
John SneddenEdward Jenner12 - 013 - 325 - 3
Nick ReedThe Blandings Stories of P.G.Wodehouse13 – 0 12 - 025 – 0 / 28 after tiebreak


drgaryegrant said...

OK, I'm biased, but I think it' worth pointing out that, despite there being very little appreciable difference in their speed of answering, Gareth got 3 questions fewer than Nick over the course of the show. And when such tiny margins are involved that can make all the difference.

It has been raised in other discussions, but really the number of questions each contender is getting seems especially variable this year, and that's just not fair.

Londinius said...

Hi Gary

I know where you're coming from , and I also know that this is going to sound like a cop out, but it is a fact that the question of the number of questions asked of each contender is something that the production team do care about, and do take very seriously. I haven't ( and wouldn't ) sat there with a stopwatch, timing each question, so while I might have an impression of an imbalance I can't back it up with hard and fast evidence. Notwithstanding that, it was very hard lines on Gareth.

contentedofcheltenham said...

Hi David

Thanks again for your very generous and even-handed review. Having answered on Bing Crosby in the previous round, I was the Disraeli ‘expert’ (supposedly) in the second semi-final, and thought I would once again post my retrospective on the Mastermind experience.

Firstly, many congratulations to Nick Reed. He came across on the day as a genuinely decent and unassuming chap, and any fan of P.G. Wodehouse will definitely have my support in the final!
Talking of pleasant and unassuming, I met up with Pat Gibson in the Green Room at BBC Salford (Media City) where the semi was being filmed early last September. We had a long chat, he posed for a photo with my dad and unsurprisingly seemed as knowledgeable about Disraeli as he is on everything else. I had ‘spotted’ Barry Simmons and Diane Halligan half an hour before in the bar of the Holiday Inn next door, causing temporary alarm until I realised they were attending as audience members not rival contenders!

Two of my actual ‘rivals’, Andrew and Gareth, were clearly quiz circuit veterans and at least one (I believe) was a previous semi-finalist. One can only speculate how far that adds extra pressure still to go one stage better than your last performance.
The Number One rule, however, is ‘don’t mess up your specialist round’, in so far as this is the half of the quiz where preparation perhaps plays a greater part than luck and you have some element of ‘control’.
So therefore to Question 3: "Name the wealthy older widow whom Disraeli married in 1839."
I immediately gave her maiden name rather than her widowed name (or actually a mangled combination of the two), and was corrected by John Humphreys. Ironically, I was actually awarded that point in the post-edit phase (possibly generous). In the heat of the moment, however, half my brain was thinking ‘What did I just say?’ and the other half was thinking ‘You idiot”, therefore failing to register key words in the next question, and the next. Three wrong answers to very ‘gettable’ questions and it was ‘Goodnight Vienna’ given the obvious calibre of my opponents.

What (as Alexander Armstrong might ask on ‘Pointless’) can one learn from such blunders? One, to predict and prepare for obvious questions. Biographical rounds will invariably contain questions on the subject’s marital status so I should have rehearsed that potentially tricky answer. Secondly, although a physical wreck in every other respect that day, I was pretty happy with my Disraeli knowledge and not expecting to get a simple question wrong, so was instantly ‘thrown’! It seems obvious to say ‘Don’t dwell on previous questions, instantly clear your mind’ but I clearly fell short of that Zen-like ideal!

The sports journalist Matthew Syed often writes about the psychological aspects of penalty shoot-outs, golf play-offs etc and argues that the most successful players are those who react instinctively rather than over-thinking their shots. Is this true of the black chair? For my Bing Crosby round I went into autopilot mode and settled into a nice rhythm, but presumably there’s such a thing as being too relaxed? You also need the icy concentration and focus, the split second of ‘thought’ or processing of information that we’ve seen in previous series champions. I was going to add that it’s still ‘just a quiz’ but realise that may be seen as heresy in this particular forum!

contentedofcheltenham said...

To continue from previous post – (sorry for verbosity!)
The rest of the afternoon was something of a blur. Having to re-shoot certain parts of the programme (e.g. the walk to the black chair) for technical purposes added to the despondency! It was clearly anyone’s game and all four runners-up could have been left lamenting the points they’d dropped. Going back to sport, a golfer from the Sixties who missed his only chance of winning a Major by a single fluffed shot was asked if he still thought about it. Apparently he replied, ‘There are some days when I don’t think about it for whole minutes at a time.’ In my case it only took a couple of days before I was able to once again enjoy watching quiz programmes and acquiring knowledge!

The whole experience was very positive; as before, the BBC team could not have been more hospitable and enthusiastic (given that for them, meeting ‘real’ celebrities is all in a day’s work). Mike Snedden had the satisfaction of winning the ‘battle of Gloucestershire’ (Cheltenham versus the Forest of Dean), Andrew will be a hero to railway enthusiasts everywhere and Gareth will be remembered for his part in the classic ‘showdown’ (not quite Isner / Mahut, but still great TV!) Some of my students were kind enough to set up a ‘Mr Sumner to win Mastermind’ page on Facebook – possibly confusing it with ‘The X Factor’, but it’s the thought that counts! Having been offered membership of the Bing Crosby Fan Club last time round, I hope that I now don’t receive hate-mail from the Disraeli Society! Perhaps the only chance of that is applying for another series and taking ‘W.E. Gladstone’ as my next specialist subject.


contentedofcheltenham said...

Sorry, I meant to refer to John Snedden in my previous comment, not 'Mike'. I wouldn't want him to think that the 'battle of Gloucestershire' is being continued!

drgaryegrant said...

It's been great to read your comments, Malcolm. And it's very true that in the semis, with the reduced time available, one slight 'mental blip' such as you had with the maiden name issue can prove very costly because you just don't get the time to mount a comeback - especially in a very close semi like last night's. But that's the value of experience on MM and, having seen you twice, I'd definitely say that you have the knowledge to go further in the competition (maybe even win it!) and I'll hope you go on again in a couple of years. After all, Dave himself won at his second attempt!

Dave, I agree that the number of questions has always been something they have said they try to make roughly equal, but whatever system is in place blatantly doesn't work. (cf Jesse's imposible-to-get-near 23 on Flags)

Andrew B. said...

A quote from Magnus Magnusson's book on Mastermind:

"After we were satisfied that the questions were as nearly perfect as possible, I would bring out the stopwatch and read out the questions, and the optimum answers, lickety-split at programme speed. I added the obligatory 'Corrects' with the appropriate breath pauses. If the time was up before I reached Question 20, some trimming had to be done. In the end, the questions wer phrased and tuned and timed to such a pitch that if a contender were on form and answered correctly and without hesitation, he or she would receive the same number of questions as the others.

That was the theory, anyway. It didn't always work out that way, of course. An agonising pause for thought, followed by a despairing 'Pass'. could seem like an age and could cost the equivalent of two questions - or even more."

dxdtdemon said...

After having read Dr. Grant's posts about the episodes so far this season, I think I have a crazy idea that might make Mastermind more enjoyable. Instead of having each contestant have one specialist subject, how about having each contestant having to learn something about each of the "specialist subjects"? In this idea (which I admit is pretty much ripped off of Two-Minute Drill), once a player got six right in a particular subject, he/she could only answer questions on other subjects, obviously until he/she got six right in those, too. The reason why I switched it from the five on TMD to six was so that a score of 23 would still be possible. Anyway, the benefits of this would be that the question length issue should be more balanced and that since the contestants would have to study more subjects, many more of the questions would be able to be answered by the regular viewer.

dxdtdemon said...

That episode was a really fun one to watch. I hope that if Nick doesn't win this series, that all five of these competitors appear in future series. Is this the first time that tiebreakers have been used in episodes that have aired in back-to-back weeks?

Londinius said...

Hi Malcolm, and thanks for your comments again. I don't know whether you have given any thought to applying again in a future series, but if you were interested I think it could certainly be worth your while.

Andrew, yes I remember that quote from "I've Started So I'll Finish." Magnus does say in the book that they became a little more meticulous about the two minutes as the series went on - although each set of questions was scrupulously timed, he implied that sometimes the buzzer didn't go exactly on the two minute mark.

I tell you what, dxtdemon - I would watch that show - it sounds good. It wouldn't be Mastermind, though , it would be a new show. I don't know if it's the first time that tiebreaks have happened in back to back weeks - it could be. I might go back to ISSIF and see what Magnus has to say - if anything - on the subject. I don't think it's happened in the Humphrys era, because there really haven't been many of them at all.

contentedofcheltenham said...

David and Gary, thanks very much, and happy Easter. Never say never! My father is already 'talking up' the 2014 campaign although at present I feel more like a (less talented) Sir Steve Redgrave - 'If you ever see me near the black chair again, you have my permission to take aim and fire.' Also I suspect that (even) stronger candidates lie in wait in subsequent semis! Talking of which, Gary, I am very much looking forward to your next appearance and wish you good luck (on the principle that friends were wishing me luck all last week despite knowing that the episode has been 'in the can' for the past six months!)

Gruff said...

Thanks once again for another fair review. I perhaps ought to point out that when comparing 1st round and semi final GK scores, the reason the semi scores are lower is because you get 30 seconds less.

Congratulations to Nick who is a lovely chap, and thoroughly outplayed me in the tie breaker. I should’ve got John Adams but I was thrown a little by having been told by the Floor Manager that we had as long as we wanted (within reason) only to be told once in the chair that we had to answer immediately. Nick wasn’t phased by that though, and even with that point I would have lost the tie break so there are no complaints about the tie break at all. Good luck to Nick in the final.

The other contestants were also a pleasure to spend time with, and it’s a curious thing with Mastermind that (in my experience) an atmosphere of “we’re all in this together” or “it’s us against the black chair” seems to take hold over the natural desire to win.

I take on board the comment you made about the pains that the MM team take to ensure a fair balance with the questions. I don’t think that was the case in Round 1 as some scores were achieved that were impossible in other shows – thus rendering the repechage and statistical analyses such as your semi preview covered in question marks.

However, there is a wildcard variable, and that is Humphrys. As has been stated by Gary, I received fewer SS questions than anyone else in the show, and 2 fewer than Nick. The sets may have been balanced but the reading of them wasn’t. Without getting the stopwatch out there is a limit to my supporting evidence. But I felt then as I feel now that Humphrys sped up over the course of the round. Had I been 5th rather than 1st in line I feel sure that I would have been asked more than 12 questions. Add to the mix the question where I gave a long correct answer (Olympia Oil and Coke Works) and JH told me I was right before giving me an alternative answer, and I think that alone cost me the chance of another question. In a 90 second round I think that is really bad form. Contrary to my usual policy, I deliberately gave full names in my SS as I didn’t want to risk Humphrys saying “Yes, Clem Stephenson” etc. But despite this he still found away to waste precious time. Why does he do this sometimes and not others? Why elsewhere in the show, when given a wrong answer did JH say the correct answer was Poe rather than Edgar Allan Poe? These inconsistencies matter when a show is as tight as ours was. Get on the wrong end of a JH quirk and you are cursing, but get on the right end and you are rejoicing.

Like Malcolm, I can think to a couple of occasions where I could have got additional points (aluminium and goldfish were answers that came immediately to mind but which had been ditched by the time it came to give an answer). Ifs and buts don’t really matter in the final analysis. All that matters is that I didn’t give those answers when sat in the chair, and I have been kicking myself for 6 months as a result.

I bear no ill will to Nick. He’s a lovely guy, clearly a good quizzer (as were all in the show) and I hold nothing against him for beating me. As Magnus said "It's only a bloody game", albeit one that consumes your life. I came down on the right side of a lengthy adjudication over one of my answers, so it could be argued that I benefited from my own piece of luck. I feel however, that taking my particular show out of the reckoning and looking at this series as a whole, the MM team should do more to ensure that the playing field is level, and this involves taking the Humphrys variability out of the equation.
Now I can relax and enjoy watching everyone else undergo black chair torture. Roll on next week.

Horsey_Heroes11 said...

Firstly, well done to all on a cracking semi-final. I was rooting for Andrew (if only so that I could claim “I was beaten by the eventual winner”!!) and for a quizzer as good as him to come last clearly demonstrates the high standard of quizzing on show.

As for the variation in number of questions asked, being a relatively “casual” viewer until this series, I’d never noticed it before and just assumed that it was very accurately timed (and rehearsed) so that everyone got 18 SS questions if they answered promptly.

So, when I did get 18 questions myself (I answered immediately to all but one question, where I paused for a couple of seconds before passing) I thought nothing of it.

In fact, my assumption around the strict timing was actually reinforced by the extremely unnecessary length of one of my questions, which I assume was written that way in order to “stretch” the length of my question set to the required time.

Now, I realise that I was actually quite lucky to get my “full quota” of 18 questions.

When you look at the difference between Gareth Kingston, who got a total of 27 SS questions in 4 and a half minutes over his 2 appearances, despite appearing to answer quickly, and Julie Aris (to pick someone who is fresh in the memory – nothing against her personally) who got 33 SS questions in the same amount of time, you realise that something MUST be going wrong with either the timing or the delivery or both.

untruth said...

I always understood that they tried to make the number of questions asked the same number to each contender *within each show*.

However, from the number of comments on this matter over this particular series, there's a strong feeling that they've not managed it.

Gruff said...

Hi Jeff,

Andrew is a very strong quizzer and having played against him at Grand Prix events (as well as in the MM semi final) I know that you can hold your head up high having been beaten by him. In fact just to get into the chair is something of an achievement.

As for your main point. The comparison with Julie Aris is stark. Over the 3.5 mins she got on average one extra question fitted in every 35 seconds. Ouch! I have now been on the show on 2 different series. When you devote 3 months or more of your life to a subject you want a decent reward for your work. The first time I was on I got 16/16 and in the semi final 16/18. This time I got 15/16 and 12/12. I over-prepare my subjects so that I can answer quickly, but ignoring the 90 second semi format, only once have I received 18 questions. That wasn't a problem the first time I was on because without the repechage all that you asked of the MM team was to balance each show fairly. But Chris Wills who lost to me in this series' first round has good caused to be aggrieved that our show featured significantly fewer questions than other shows. In my view he unfairly missed out on a repechage place.

This isn't about 'poor old Gareth, he was robbed'. I wouldn't want it to become a disection of my semi, partly because I knew this was a possibility when I signed up, and partly because I think that my semi was just a symptom of a wider problem. It is about the integrity of the series. For people to continue to take Mastermind seriously it needs to be run in such a way as to stop these imbalances from happening. I love the show and I want it to be as good as it possibly could be. At the moment it is a little way off.

Londinius said...

Hi Gareth, Jeff and Neil

Once again, very hard lines Gareth. I think people who know me at all will accept that I do try to avoid criticising MM for obvious reasons. But . . . the fact is that even without sitting there with stopwatch in hand you could see that there was a clear imbalance between the number of questions asked in the two semis. I don't believe that it would have been possible for anyone in semi final 2 to have scored 15, as Julie Aris did in the first show.

Now, OK, we could say that it's immaterial if there are variations between two semis, since there's no highest loser spots in the final anyway. But there are repechage spots at stake in the first round, and there is a question mark over the balance between the number of questions in heats in this round.

As for the number of questions within the same show, I think it would certainly be worth the production team doing some research on this one, stopwatch in hand, even if just to prove that what they think is happening - the questions being fairly apportioned out - is happening. I think that there is a question to be answered.

Gareth, you're absolutely right inmwhat you say about the 'all of us against the chair' attitude amongst MM contenders. That's been my experience in every one of the shows I've taken part in. Kath Drury - who is the only person to beat me on a Mastermind show by a clear point ( Pat only beat me by passes in Champ of Champs - not that I like to boast, you understand ) has been a friend ever since, with whom I still exchange emails, and Neil - Untruth of this parish - who was on the same show was a member of the Radio Addicts on Only Connect with Gary and me. So don't worry - nobody should think you'd be guilty of sour grapes over this one. You're discussing an issue - and when people care about something - as we care about the show - then they have a right to at least put things out there for discussion.

Chris Jones said...

I think a part of the answer to the speed thing is that, in the event of a tie, where the number of passes is also equal (as happened in the second semi spoken of above) the player who has hitherto been asked "the fewer or fewest" questions should be declared the winner. The 5 question tie-break should only be needed if it is absolutely impossible to put as much as a piece of cigarette paper between the two performances. Moreover, having to keep 'stats on such matters (in the event of a tied-tie) perhaps the production team might then truly do all they can to ensure everyone gets an evenly timed set!

Londinius said...

Hi Chris,

I recall once someone suggesting that instead of going immediately to tie break when the number of correct answers and the number of passes are the same, they should count back the number of wrong answers , and the person with fewer incorrect answers should go through. I'm not necessarily advocating this, but it would certainly add another factor to the show, and it would be interesting to see the effect that this would have.