In his comments about my preview of the Mastermind Grand Final – to be shown later tonight – Neil Wright asked " I wonder whether anyone has been brave enough or confident enough to leave their best subject for the final?"
This is a fascinating question. For me, it is making an assumption that contenders do actually have a ‘best’ subject. Speaking from my own experience, maybe this is going to sound arrogant, but I never anticipated doing worse on any of my specialist subjects than I would do on the others. To that extent I never had a 'best' subject. My personal feeling was that if I picked subjects according to the criteria which I'd chosen to apply - about which I have written in the past - then I ought to be able to do equally well in all 3 subjects if I put in the time and effort to learn them. That's pretty much how it worked out for me - on my four specialist subjects in regular Mastermind in 2006 and 2007 I scored 14,14,15 and 15. Each of these were two minute rounds. In the context of the show at the time, none of these were Hall of Fame scores, but all of them were good enough to give me a shout on General Knowledge, and none of them were produced without a significant amount of preparation and work on my part.
All told I actually learned 6 subjects for Mastermind Specialist rounds - the 4 that I’ve already mentioned for the regular shows, and then 2 more for Champ of Champs - I was stand-in for the Grand Final so had to prepare for it, even though the odds were against me needing it. You could definitely say I was lucky that I found all 6 of my subjects equally interesting. I'd like to think that it came down to my own foresight in choosing the right subjects, although that's just my opinion, and as always . . .Still, I can certainly see that out of three subjects you might well have one which you are far more interested in than the other two. You prepare equally well for each one, and you believe - possibly correctly - that you can do equally well on each subject, but there's one you are looking forward to over the others. Do you save it, in the hope of getting to do it in the Grand Final, or do you use it in your first round to make sure that you get to do it?
My choices for 2007 worked out like this. I chose to do the Life and Career of Henry Ford because I had a brilliant biography of the man and his company, by Robert Lacey. I knew that becoming deeply acquainted with the relevant sections of the book again would be no hardship. The fact was also that I had nominated this as my semi-final subject for 2006. In 2006 I lost in the first round, although I was one of three highest scoring runners up. There were no repechage places in the semis at that stage in the show’s history, but I was invited to the semis as a stand-in. I wasn’t needed, so the way I looked on it was that I knew that the production team of the time liked Henry Ford as a subject, and they’d have had to have procured a set of questions on him in case they were needed for the semis. So when I reapplied in 2007, I thought it might make me more appealing if they still had the question set, it would mean one less for them to produce. Did this have any influence on my selection? Probably not, but I did get on. My choice of the life of the Prince Regent for my semi-final subject was an easy one to make, since it had been my nominated final subject for the previous series. So once again, I knew that it was a subject that the team were happy with. As for me, again I found the subject very interesting and had a number of good books to work from. With regards to London Bridge for the final, well, again I had books, and I found it very interesting. There was no reason why it had to be my final subject, other than the other two had to come before for the reasons I’ve already stated.
Having said all that, I do clearly remember talking to Stewart (Cross) before our final, and he said that he wished he had opted for his semi-final subject for the final instead. It was easier to make observations about comparative specialist performances in first round, semi and final in my day, since each round was 2 minutes long. The picture today is muddied a little by having 90 second specialist rounds for the semis now. Still, I did decide to have a look at the winners’ specialist scores to see if, by and large, they tend to have their best specialist performances in the final rounds. Here is the table: -
Now, I should explain that the table only includes the Humphrys era winners (not including tonight’s, of course. Honestly, I have no insider knowledge as to the outcome of tonight’s final.) mainly because I don’t have detailed stats of Magnusson era performances. Since 2010 the semi final specialist rounds have only been 90 seconds long. I applied the mathematical formula of dividing these semi scores by 3, and then multiplying by 4 - this is why there is an Adjusted column in the table. It at least gives us an idea of how good these 90 second rounds were when compared with each champ’s other performances.
Looking at the table you can see that of the 10 champions, half of them had their best specialist round, or equaled their best specialist round in the final. Four champs either had their best round in the semi – or equaled their best round in the semi. Three champs had their best round in the first round – one of which equaled it in the semis. With regards to consistency, three champions scored the same in more than one of their specialist rounds, although nobody posted the same score in all three. As it happens I was the closest to being Mr. Consistency on this score, since there was only 1 point difference between my best specialist score in my series, and my worst. This isn’t boasting, since every Humphrys champ apart from Aidan McQuade has a higher highest specialist than mine. (As it happens, I did manage 17 in champ of champs, but that’s another story). The gaps between the champs’ highest and lowest specialist rounds range from 1 to 7, and average out at almost 4.
We’re only working with a small number of contenders here, and if you had the time to do this for every Grand Final contender of the Humphrys era it’s quite possible that identifiable trends would emerge. With a larger survey like this the results would certainly be a lot more statistically significant, and you could do it. The figures are all available on Weavers Week, for example, although whether the time and inclination are also available is another question entirely. You can’t say that the champs all saved their ‘best’ subjects (if they had one) for the final, but you can’t say that none of them did either. What is significant though, is that none of them had a weak specialist subject. Of the 30 scores, 21 of them are 15 or over, and in fact only 4 of them are less than 14.