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Mike's Phone A Friend Report

You have thirty seconds to listen to a question and four (sometimes two) possible answers and - assuming you do not know the correct answer cold - decide on the best approach to get the best answer, execute your strategy, offer up your answer, and communicate how sure of yourself you really are.  Piece of cake, right?



The ordeal began on November 5 at 4:09 Eastern time, when the call came that  "Amanda will be the next one in the hot seat."  The anticipation began that morning at 10:12, when the “setup” call had gone out.  But the story began three weeks earlier, when Mandy e-mailed me to tell me that I would be part of her phone-a-friend team.

I had been on several teams prior to this, and the preparation regimen varied for each contestant.  I have to honestly say, though, that I spent more time on the phone preparing with Mandy than I had for the others combined.  Much of the conversation time was spent establishing a comfort level (which did not take long at all!) and just getting completely used to talking with each other on the phone.  An awful lot of time was spent on timed questions - working on getting the timing right, practicing Google on the fly, and getting a feel for each other's style.  And a lot of time was spent repeating things that were just said, thanks to Mandy's location in Cell Hell .  When all was said and done, we had become quite comfortable with each other.  Of course, each of the PAFs had their own specific areas of expertise for Mandy to call on. As I understood it, I would probably be filling a couple of niches - astronomy, geography, maybe some Presidential stuff…and hockey, of course (I have three kids who play).  One of the PAFs had a general knowledge/Google team lined up and ready to deal with any off-the-wall type questions that might come up. Mandy and I understood, though, that there may also be a wild-card question where she may decide to go with one of the other PAFs should she instinctively feel one of us may be the appropriate choice.  With that, we wished each other luck...and she was soon on her way.

On to November 5. The morning of a contestant’s tape date, his/her PAFs are contacted via a telephone conference call. Once everybody is on the line, an associate producer from the show comes on and goes over a checklist. We are all asked whether we give permission to have our voices used on the broadcast. We are asked whether any of us have been called as a PAF in the past (a person may be called on-air a maximum of twice in a given season). The telephone numbers to be used for the afternoon call are verified; we are reminded that we cannot use cell phones. And then he fills us in on what to expect. We are told to be available from 1:45 to 7 PM Eastern time that afternoon. A representative from the show will call each of us when Mandy will be next in the hot seat. Then, assuming she uses the phone-a-friend, one of us will receive a second call. We are to pick the phone up on the third ring. Meredith will be on the line, and will advise us as to Mandy’s status. We are instructed not to make small talk. Meredith will then cue Mandy; the connection to the hot seat will be automatically cut off thirty seconds later. The PAF is instructed to stay on the line afterward; a show staffer will inform him/her as to how the question plays out. And whoever is called is asked to contact the others on the list to let them know they are off the hook. “Any questions? No? Then good luck, everybody, and we will talk to you later today.”

Forward again to that afternoon.  Along with several of the other PAFs, I am logged on to the Millionaire message board. Not only does it serve as a way to keep the lines open with the others on the team; it also helps to relieve the tension that goes hand-in-hand with the anticipation. Because, beginning at 1:45 PM, your job is to wait. And wait. As the afternoon crawls along and the hours go by, some begin to wonder whether Mandy will even tape that day; nobody really wants to have to go through the whole ordeal again tomorrow (although we all would gladly do so!) But then, shortly after 4 PM, the word comes down that she is next. As happens so often when the heads-up call goes out saying that one of our friends is next up, the chatter on the board winds down to a virtual standstill. It has now been over a half hour, and most of the sporadic posting has been nothing more than a count-up of the time that has passed since the heads-up call.  And then, at 4:49:


A quick glance at my window to the message board, refreshed a few seconds before, is showing no stand-down post.  Uh-oh.


I close my board window, a chat window, and a Solitaire game, maximize my Google window, and...


I pick up the phone on the third ring, as instructed earlier in the day.

Before I go any further, there are a few things you should know .  First, I was not Mandy's designated Googler, and for good reason.  Those who have dealt with my "real-time" typing at all - either via IM or chat - know that, at what may be considered "normal" speeds, my typing is sometimes on par with that of a chimpanzee.  However, when I slow my typing down just a bit (using a modified "hunt-and-peck") I can generally avoid typos, and I can use Google as a backup to bail myself out of a potential dead end.

Secondly, I will take full responsibility for the lack of entertaining banter between Meredith and myself.  I had told Mandy a few days earlier that I had no intention of cracking wise with Meredith should I be called.  In my BAM book, there are few things more frustrating than watching a wiseass PAF who can't deliver the goods.  Were Mandy to call me, it would be for help with a question...not comic relief.  The chance for banter would come were there any time remaining after we had the question nailed down.  Beyond that, of course, we were told during the setup call not to make small talk. So, when Meredith did not offer an opening for any witty repartee, it became a matter of just getting down to business.

Finally, there is the matter of the thought processes that took place while the question was in play.  You have all no doubt heard of "fight-or-flight" - where the body, through whatever biological process, ramps up its physical performance when it is really needed.  A similar phenomenon took hold during the call - only it was mental rather than physical.  An analysis that would normally take several seconds - and arrive at its conclusion way too late - takes a fraction of a second, and is perhaps not so much verbal as instinctive...but comes through with the best option as clearly as it would had I had time to ponder what was taking place.  Approximations of these “flash” thoughts are illustrated in the next post by the use of light italics, while thoughts that were processed at "normal" speeds are written in light normal font. Spoken conversation is written in boldface - italics from Meredith and Mandy, and regular boldface from yours truly.  Now that we have all of that straight, let us continue...

(MG) Hello?

(MV) Hello, Mike…it’s Meredith from Millionaire…how you doing?

Doin’ good…how about you?

I’m doing great. I’m here with Amanda, and she’s doing well. She has sixteen thousand…

 Sixteen thousand? That means…uh-oh…..No matter, though…you play it the same no matter what level…

And doesn’t she usually say something like “going for thirty-two” or “she needs your help”? Not this time…she’s waiting for your reaction…say something…


Oh, man…that was witty!!

Yeah - going for thirty-two thousand,
(NOW she says it!!) and she needs your help, Mike.

Alright – we’ll do what we can!

Terrific! Amanda…you have thirty seconds, and your time starts now.

(:30) (AF) In the U.S., ski slopes for intermediate skiers are marked by what symbol?

Skiing?  You know a little bit - but don't take a chance.  Google time.  Okay..."Ski", "symbol" (no -"symbols", plural!  This has a better chance of showing up as part of a group...) - okay, "symbols", and "intermediate"...wait, here come the answers...

(:25) Blue square, white triangle, red circle, green diamond.

”Blue squares” sounds familiar. "White triangle"?  Never heard of it. The others just don’t sound right - but you don’t know enough to completely rule them out. Color and shape are two different concepts.  Don't fight both at once, that will kill you. You know the colors better than the shapes.  Work with the colors.  Blue is between green and black - you know that.  That helps just a little…but it doesn’t lock it up.  And remember taking the family to Valleyfair (an amusement park near the Twin Cities -ed.) last year?  They marked their rides the same way, colors and shapes - but blue was second of five in dfficulty.  “Intermediate” should be third. They had another color for level 3, though…yellow, wasn’t it? Dammit... 

(:18) Intermediate skiers…what symbol? Blue square, white triangle, red circle, green diamond.

Blue is really ringing a bell, though - but you don't have it nailed down 100% yet.  Everything spelled right in the Google box...good..."Enter"!  Give her something to start with now - and better to undersell a likely correct answer than to oversell a wrong one... you are not going to be able to deduce it any further mentally - this one is going to need Google to confirm…

(:12) My guess is “blue squares”… (Let her know you are in Google. You can talk and read at the same time…) let’s take a look; we’ll see if we can come up with something a little better here… Check each hit.  Not too fast - you don't want to zip right by the answer.  And not too slow - the clock is working against you...

(:06) Six seconds…

It is a guess…it’s just a guess…

(:05) Cool - here is one..."Red: Intermediate" - what the hell?? "Scandinavia"…okay, not it.  Don't panic...keep moving...scroll down...

(:03) "Blue square - intermediate"…

(:02) Uhh… it’s there with the others...YES!!  No time to explain - the clock is almost to zero - just bark it out so you sound confident...

(:01) "Blue!-


-Blue!! Blue!!!"

Somewhere between the first "bl-" and the last "-ue", the connection to Mandy was cut off.  I do not honestly recall hearing the buzzer you hear while watching the show on TV; the line, however, was unmistakably dead by the time I had finished.  A second or two later, Matt came on the line, and asked if I was still there.

"Yeah...did I get my confirmation out in time?"

"Yes, you did.  I think you were right; I think it's 'blue squares' too."

By this time I noticed that I was shaking like a leaf.  The tight focus I had maintained thus far throughout the call had been released like a broken spring when I was cut off from Mandy.  I didn't have time to be scared while the question was in play; I was so locked in on finding the answer that there was room for nothing else whatsoever in my mind.  I was as cool and calm as I have ever been in my life while I was talking to her.  Now, though, the clinical attitude had given way to something else.  My gut feeling from the get-go was “blue square”; the last-second Google discovery confirmed it, and Matt thought I had it right as well.  But Google had given us a dead-wrong answer once during our practice sessions in the weeks prior to the taping.  As others have also noted in the past, it is not foolproof - but it's the best we have.  You cannot lose faith in the system over the one rare exception.  I knew that the odds were overwhelmingly in her favor.  But what if this was one of those extremely rare cases?

Too late now, though..."She's going with your answer."  I would tell you that the shaking had built to a crescendo, but the truth is that I had been in Maximum Tremor Mode from about one second after I had realized that the phone had gone dead.  The next few seconds seemed to last more like an hour - and then I heard the crowd cheering as Matt told me "and she got it right!"  "For $32,000?" I asked, just to make sure - and, when he confirmed the number, I could only say "thank God".  I confirmed that I would contact the other PAFs; he thanked me - and that was that.  Except that the shaking did not stop for some time afterward.

In the end, though, the roller-coaster ride was pretty much exactly what I had expected...some anticipation building up to the call, complete focus throughout the call, followed by a complete and utter release of the tension afterward. There are very few feelings in the world like it.  And I would do it again in a second. Or thirty, as needed.

Amanda finished the game with $64,000.

Report conducted February 11, 2004.

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