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I Wanted To Be A Millionaire

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  • dlevere
    started a topic I Wanted To Be A Millionaire

    I Wanted To Be A Millionaire

    Justin Peters is a damned fool. dlevere.

    How failing colossally on a game show changed my life for the better.

    By Justin Peters


    Justin Peters on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Photo by Heidi Gutman/Disney-ABC Home Entertainment and TV Distribution

    It took about a second for me to realize I had made the biggest mistake of my life.

    There was a perceptible shift in the energy of the room, a subtle change in Terry Crews’ affect and expression. Like an arthritic sensing impending rain, I simply knew. I’d gambled a small fortune on a hunch. The hunch had been a bad one.

    “Justin,” Crews said, “I am so sorry…”

    And then for a moment—less than a moment—I thought it might be a fake-out. That Crews might say something like, “I am so sorry that you’re going to be paying a lot of taxes this year, because you just won $500,000!”

    But it wasn’t a feint. I had given the wrong answer. I had lost $225,000 in about 10 seconds. My time on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? had come to an end.

    What had I done?


    Justin Peters Courtesy of ABC Home Entertainment

    With every new addition to my bank, my excitement grew. At $100,000 I started laughing uncontrollably. At $250,000, I fell to the floor. In 15 minutes, after answering a couple of questions, I had become rich. And now I was only two questions away from $1 million.

    Justin. Listen to me. If you are wrong, you lose $225,000.
    Terry Crews
    In the history of the syndicated version of Millionaire, according to the fan site wwtbam.biz, 38 other people have seen a terminal $500,000 question. All but four of them have either answered the question correctly or chosen to walk away. The last person to answer the question incorrectly was a 22 year old California man named Chris Ngoon, in October 2013. Before Ngoon, there hadn’t been a $500,000 question loser since 2004. Most reasonable people, if they get to that point and don't know the answer, choose to take their money and walk away. It’s very hard to justify gambling $225,000 on a hunch.

    I was always going to gamble.

    The $500,000 question was this: “Drinking alcohol in the British House of Commons is strictly forbidden at all times, with the single exception of a lawmaker doing what?” The potential answers:

    A: Declaring war.
    B: Crowning a royal.
    C. Taking the oath of office.
    D: Passing a budget.

    If I answered the question right, I’d have $500,000 and the chance to be the program’s first million-dollar winner in years.

    I didn’t know the answer. And the question wasn’t worded in such a way that I could try to figure it out through etymology or context clues. And I’d used all three of my lifelines.


    Courtesy of ABC Home Entertainment

    But I was confident I could eliminate two of the four choices—A and C—which left me with a 50 percent chance of getting it right. Was that enough to risk $225,000? I felt the nervous energy of the audience. I sensed the “don’t-be-an-idiot-take-the-money-you-fool” vibes coming off Crews.

    “It’s B. It’s got to be B,” I said. It seemed reasonable. The coronation of a new monarch was a celebratory occasion, and reason enough to drink. Plus, there was a brand of liquor called Crown Royal. It made sense to me at the time.

    Justin,” he said. “Listen to me. If you are wrong, you lose $225,000.” This was good advice. I would have done well to heed it.

    “Can you do me a favor, Terry,” I asked, unreasonably cocky, “and remind me of what happens when I’m right?”

    “But if you are right, Justin,” he said. I cupped my hand to my ear theatrically. Crews motioned me over to his podium and put his hand on my shoulder. “If you’re right, you get $500,000 … and one question away from $1 million.”

    The audience erupted into spontaneous applause. It was probably the worst thing that could have happened.

    “Yeah. Why not?” I said.

    He looked at me with Are-you-sure? eyes.

    I thought about it for a second. I didn’t think too hard.

    “It’s B. Crowning a royal. Let’s make this a game, Terry,” I said.

    It was D.

    I heard the roar of the vacuum. I felt the needle through my skull.

    What the fuck had I done?



    On my way back to New York, I held the steering wheel of my car like the lever on an armed grenade, my grip the only thing stopping an explosion. My sister and friends replayed the show from the passenger seats. “You were so good,” my sister said. “Justin, seriously. Everyone was so impressed.”

    Big fucking deal.

    “You played the game. Everyone else stops. But you played the game.”

    Two-hundred-fifty thousand dollars. Life-changing money.

    “I know how this feels,” Kelly said. I cut her off.

    The fact that I went for it. That’s what has to change my life. Not the money, but the fact that I made that decision.

    “No,” I said. “You do not know how this feels.” The rest of the ride passed mostly in silence. I realized now that I had played poorly on the last question. I hadn’t taken the time to talk it through. If I had, I might have realized that obviously the House of Commons has nothing to do with the royal coronation. Once I realized that, what would I have done? I played too fast at exactly the wrong moment.

    I got back to Brooklyn. I went up to my cramped apartment, where the cold water didn’t work, the front door had no knob, and the landlord hated me. I buried my head in a sofa cushion and cried.

    I couldn’t be in New York that night. I decided to drive to Boston, where I have family. I called my sister and begged her to come with me. “I can’t be alone right now,” I said, nearly sobbing. “I just … I just can’t.”

    The next day, I stalked the streets of Boston with no destination in mind. My book deadline was impending. But I couldn’t do anything but think about what had happened. I had a great time on television and won $25,000. That’s hardly a tragedy. So why was this hitting me so hard?

    And then I remembered something my sister told me.

    My sister had sat in the studio audience for two days waiting for me to take my turn. There’s a lot of downtime during television tapings, and apparently, during one of those moments, Crews had told the audience a story about how once, on his high school basketball team, he had had a chance to make a game-winning shot, and he missed it. His team lost. He was crushed. “But you know what I realized eventually?” she remembered him saying. “I took the shot. Someone else might have passed the ball. But I took the shot.”

    At the time, when I heard that story, I rolled my eyes. Well, of course Crews wants contestants to take the shot. It’s a game show. That’s what makes for interesting television. They’d never have any big winners if nobody ever wanted to play.

    But now, for some reason, Crews’ story seemed a lot more meaningful. When was the last time I had actually taken the shot? Had I ever been willing to risk almost everything, and court existential pain and public humiliation, for a chance at some greater reward? I had spent my adult life taking interim steps, half measures. All the things I’d pushed to nights and weekends because I thought I couldn’t afford to work on them full-time. All the times I’d played things safe because I was afraid I would fail.

    But I went on national television, and I took the shot.

    I called Kelly, my in-studio lifeline. I was semi-hysterical. “The fact that I went for it. That’s what has to change my life. Not the money, but the fact that I made that decision,” I told her. “I need to make this have meaning. I need to derive more meaning from the loss than I would from the win.”

    I was screaming on Commonwealth Avenue. I collapsed on the steps of a townhouse.

    I had found meaning in my failure. I had removed the needle.



    In the months since I taped the show, friends and colleagues have routinely asked me for details. “It was an existentially transformative experience,” has been my standard answer. When I say this, people generally assume that I won a lot of money. And I guess I did. Twenty-five thousand dollars is a lot of money.

    But that’s not what I’ve meant.

    I watched my episodes at Walter’s Bar on 29th Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan this week, alongside some friends and a handful of extremely enthusiastic day-drinkers. It brought back all the old feelings: excitement, regret, self-loathing. “You’ve got a set on you, boy,” one of the day-drinkers hollered when I went for the $500,000. I still think that my answer to the $500,000 question was a reasonable guess under the circumstances. I still wish it had actually been correct.

    But what I mostly felt was: I can do this. I owned that show. I commanded the stage. It was my energy that drove these episodes, not Crews’. I don’t think I’m being delusional when I tell myself I could thrive on television. The proof is right there! “You didn’t even want the money. You just wanted to stay on TV,” my wife said after watching the episode. And she was right. I think I could get acting work off of this tape. I think I’m going to try.

    We often say that we’d do great things if we only had the money, but that’s just an excuse. It’s not the money we’re waiting for; it’s the courage to try something without knowing whether we’ll succeed. It’s the tolerance for risk of failure, not financial failure but actual failure—the realization that you can’t actually do that thing you dream of doing.

    I have the confidence to do just about anything on stage. So why hasn't that translated into the courage to pursue the thing I love? Maybe it’s because the college graduate in me has always seen the value of hedging, of having contingency plans, of never putting all your money on the line for any single proposition.


    Justin Peters on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Photo by Heidi Gutman/Disney-ABC Home Entertainment and TV Distribution

    Now I know I’ve had that courage all along. I haven’t tapped it, but it’s been there. I’ve had it in me to continue where others have turned away.

    In less than 30 days, I’m supposed to get a check for $25,000. I’m not going to use it to buy a car, or take a trip. I don’t need those things. Instead, I’m going to try and wring as much value out of this money as possible. I’m going to use it to underwrite a journey of risk and discovery, one in which the answer is always “Yes.” I’m going to spend the entire sum taking the shot.

    What does this mean, practically? I’m still figuring that out. I’ve booked a West Coast tour for my improv duo, for starters. We’re going next week. We’re playing San Diego, Phoenix, Orange County, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. I’m going to ask Crews to come to the L.A. show.

    This is exciting and sort of daunting for a lot of reasons. There is no established touring circuit for improv comedy. We’re completely unknown, and the audiences for our work don’t exist yet. I’ll probably lose a lot of money.

    That doesn’t scare me anymore.

    Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at [email protected]
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